Toddlers are the chubby-fingered champions of curiosity and discovery. Which is why you’re always looking for ways to harness that enthusiasm for exploration. Sensory play can offer toddlers just what they crave: hands-on fun that stimulates a multitude of senses.
It’s not just about keeping them entertained. Sensory play for kids 12 months and even younger boosts fine motor skills and aids cognitive development. And many sensory activities, like sensory bottles, can have a calming effect on kids. One of the best things about sensory play is that it is largely DIY in a way that doesn’t require fancy skills or expensive ingredients. So if throwing a bunch of ingredients together is your style, you’re already at expert level.
Related: The best STEM toys for toddlers and kids that encourage curiosity & exploration
Here are 34 easy, at-home sensory play ideas for toddlers to get you started
1. Good ol’ fashioned finger painting
Get those squishy fingers going with tempera paints and some butcher-block paper, and let them enjoy the feeling of painting with all ten fingers instead of unruly paintbrushes. It’s an entirely different experience (and the art they produce is quite different too).
2. Play with homemade play-dough
Among the many rainy day activities in your arsenal, homemade play-doh is one of those inexpensive sensory joys that can keep toddlers busy for hours. There are dozens of recipes out there to try, most of which involve very simple ingredients like flour, salt, and water.
3. Noodling with noodles
Make a batch of spaghetti, let it cool completely, and then dump it in a bowl for your children to play with. The slimy, squiggly fun cannot be beat, and it’s pretty darn cheap, too.
4. Water play
If you can do this one outside on a warm day, it’s a pleasant activity but can also be done inside on the kitchen floor with towels. Fill a few pots and bowls up with a couple of inches of water and prop your toddler up and let them splash around in the water.
5. Sensory water bottles
Upcycle some clear plastic water bottles into sensory delights for your toddler by filling them about three-quarters full with water, adding in food coloring, glitter, and a few tiny items such as charms or beads. Seal the lid on tight with some fancy duct tape and voila! You’ve got a bottle of enchantments.
6. Make a sensory bin
Essentially, what you need is a sturdy bin to fill with a base material and lots of little items and scoops to move the material around. A plastic storage bin works great, with a base like rice, and a variety of fun items. Little Bins for Little Hands is the queen of sensory bin ideas and has a ton of DIY ideas to spark your imagination.
7. Get busy with busy boards
Whether you order one from Etsy or you attempt a humble version of your own, these sensory delights do double duty: not only do they stimulate a toddler’s senses—inviting them to explore a variety of textures and play with things like buttons, keys, locks, and more—they have the added bonus of keeping active toddlers occupied.
8. Scent jars
Use a variety of fresh food like orange peels, mashed banana, and vanilla extract; or use pungent flora such as fir leaves or freshly cut grass in a series of mason jars. Put a lid on each jar to ensure the smells don’t cross-contaminate one another. Then, one at a time, unscrew each lid, let your toddler have a whiff, and describe what it smells like. This one can get cute and funny!
9. Frozen fun
A great activity for a hot summer day is to freeze a few toys like rubber duckies or toy cars in a large bowl or ice mold, then pop it out and let the kiddos delight in trying to figure out how to get them out as the ice gradually melts.
10. Beginning beading
Graduate your kids from cheerios to actual beading with some large plastic beads and pipe cleaners and let them experience the art of jewelry making. Even though the beads are chunky, this one should be done under supervision to make sure curious tots don’t try to taste the beads.
11. What is it?
Try a sensory guessing game with your little one by taking an object that makes noise and moving it out of their line of sight. Have them guess what it is. This can be a well-known toy, the sound of pouring milk, etc.
12. Slime time
Welcome to the world of slime, parents. It’s sticky, it’s gooey, and it’s oh-so-fun. You can make toddler-safe slime yourself with safe ingredients, too.
13. Blow-up ball pit
If you have a small kiddie pool, you can fill it with soft items and squishy balls and let your little one explore the “ball pit” in your living room.
14. Bang on those pots and pans
Don’t just think of textures when it comes to sensory play. Sound is one of the senses, too and there’s nothing as simple as turning a few metal pots and mixing bowls over and handing your toddler a spoon (and yourself a pair of earplugs).
15. Sand play
Use a bin to make a mini indoor beach with some beach toys and scoops or get some kinetic sand that (more or less) sticks to itself and causes less mayhem in the clean-up department.
16. Bubble bath
Fill a tub or bowl up with warm, soapy water, a rubber ducky, and a scoop or a spoon, and wait for the squeals of delight. We recommend a mild dish soap or your kid’s favorite bubble bath.
17. Summer ice painting
Make colored ice cubes and paint with them on a warm summer day.
18. Make an I-Spy jar
Fill a jar with a variety of tiny things: this is the chance you’ve been waiting for to put those errant party favors to good use! Green army men, dice, broken figurines, buttons, coins, etc. Seal the jar well and play “I spy” with your toddler.
19. Listening walk
Your toddler likely points out the things they see on walks, but this walk asks them to tell you the things they hear. Stop several times along your walk and ask your toddler to listen and tell you what they hear.
20. Crinkle it
Honestly one of the easiest sensory activities is gift wrapping tissue! The nice, thick kind is the best because it crinkles endlessly, which means lots of crinkling fun for your toddler.
21. Soapy jar
Similar to the sensory jars, in addition to water and a bit of food coloring, add some soap for an additional textural experience. Glitter optional.
22. Shaving cream painting
Painting with shaving cream is ridiculously satisfying for toddlers. Use a brush or let them use their hands to paint onto a cookie sheet or other flat surface (it will just soak through paper). You can tint the shaving cream lightly with food coloring to create an array of foamy colors.
23. Water bottle shakers
Turn an old water bottle or plastic jar into an instrument by filling it with dried beans or rice. Shaky, shaky!
24. Alphabet scoop
Get a box or bin full of foam alphabet letters and numbers and a spoon or scoop. Have your tot scoop and pick out letters and numbers. They can say them out loud as they discover each one.
25. Construction site sandbox
Combine some of the sensory bin ideas and get a plastic bin deep enough to house tiny construction vehicles and sand, and you can create a miniature construction site with a lid that can be stored away when not in use.
26. Foil fun
Spray some whipped cream onto a piece of aluminum foil and let your toddler explore the combination of foamy and crinkly textures.
27. Tub time
Save a large 32 oz. yogurt tub and lid so your little one can have a drum. Use some duct tape to seal the lid in place and chopsticks for the perfect drumsticks.
28. By the gallon
Fill a gallon Ziplock bag with a couple of pom-pom balls, some glitter, oil, water, hair gel, pasta, and all manner of things to make epic sensory bags. Just make sure you seal them well.
29. Make an outdoor sensory path
Create a path that gives them different sensations as they step. You can place a bin with sand, then have a stepping stone, a pan with cool water, a bin with jello, etc. Alternate sensations and enjoy the responses.
30. Make an indoor sensory path
Use pillows, faux fur blankets, a large book, etc. to create a series of stepping stones they can walk on. Be sure to alternate surface textures as much as possible.
31. Taste test
Blindfold them or have them close their eyes and then give them a taste of a familiar food and see if they can guess what it is. Try a variety of textures, like yogurt, applesauce, crackers, etc.
32. Bake something together
Even at this age, children can help in the kitchen. Let them assist in mixing the ingredients together in a simple recipe, like muffins that don’t require perfect mixing techniques, or allow them to mash the bananas for banana bread.
33. Or peel something
Give them a navel orange with a nice thick rind and a little starting point and let them peel the rest themselves. The texture of the peel combined with the smells of the fresh orange is a feast for their senses.
Toddlers love to sort things! You can get a bag of soft little puff balls in a variety of colors and ask them to sort them into piles by color or find something else like Duplo bricks, etc.
35. Obstacle course
Set up a small obstacle course for your toddler to run through in your front yard or nearby park. Use simple items like cardboard and jump ropes to create obstacles for them to jump over and through.