Sensory bins. Pinterest is overflowing with them. Seasonal bins. Color-themed bins. Alpha-based bins. Shape-based bins. You name it. There is a sensory bin linked on Pinterest for that!
Of all the activities I find on Pinterest, sensory bins are the ones that sadden me the most – because my son just can’t play with them.
I’m starting this series off with tips for creating and using sensory bins in ways that make them safer and more adapted to neurodiverse and disabled children.
Why sensory bins may be a challenge for neurodivergent/disabled children:
- Small parts are a choking hazard for a child who still mouths everything.
- A child who has a tendency to throw things across the room will create a huge mess, but may also hurt/ damage other people/things, or even themselves.
- Sensory overload is an issue for children with sensory sensitivities. While we want children to be exposed to different sensory experiences, some of the bins we find have so much going on that they may cause some children to shutdown.
- Bins may be too deep or too difficult to reach into for a child in an adapted chair.
- Some bin themes do not meet the developmental level of some children.
- Some children cannot engage with this type of activity unattended. Because of the nature of the contents, you cannot just leave a sensory bin out for free-play like we see so many of the kids on Pinterest images do.
- Prolonged attention is difficult for some children – especially when something like a sensory bin doesn’t make sense to them.
Suggestions for adaptations/ modifications for sensory bins
- Choose your container wisely. If the child can play with a bin while seated on the floor, the depth might not be a big issue. But, if the child is seated on an adapted chair at a table, be sure not to select a container that is too deep. Ideally, sensory bins should be wide and shallow. Having a container with a lid is great if you want to reuse the bin for several weeks.
- Begin with one sensory component at a time. The main purpose of sensory bins is to help a child develop an acceptance of different sensations. Even one object can have a ton of things going on such as color, texture, and size. It can be an overload of sensations for a child if there are tons of different items in one bin! Over a span of time (days or even a couple of weeks), add one more element/variable and, then, yet another.
- Select large-sized objects to fill the bin. Usually, there is a base element in a sensory bin. Pinterest is full of ideas for tiny things like pebbles, rice, or popcorn kernels. Avoid those items unless you know the child is able to manage these items safely. Use large materials like newsprint paper, tissue paper, flannel sheets, fabric, large sheets of sandpaper, and silk scarves as base elements. For play objects, think of the largest items the child can explore safely. Large wood chips, or large stones (not for throwers) are some possible fillers.
- Use familiar objects first. What’s the point of placing objects your child already plays with in a bin? The novelty of having their wooden blocks sitting in a box surrounded by tissue paper is incredibly motivating. It allows a child to take the first step of reaching in and grabbing what they like. They are intrigued by the familiar object, and they just tackled the skill of pulling out an object from a container. When there is more than one item in there, they may get that additional sensory experience of touching two textures or hearing two sounds.
- Eventually, introduce new objects in the bin. Sensory bins are exciting because they’re new and different from the child’s usual play routine. Get creative with safe objects. Some additional suggestions besides toys are child-sized utensils, tools for daily living like a comb, toothbrush, hairbrush, brushes of different kinds, etc.
- Build language skills. There are tons of opportunities for building language skills with these bins as there are a limited number of items but an unlimited number of words to go along with them. Besides the obvious labeling of objects (which helps build receptive language), you can use verbs in a verbal routine like: “Crunch, crunch, crunch the paper!” or “Tap, tap, tap the blocks” or “Rolllllllll the ball.” After a while, you will connect some of the activities you do daily with the verbal routines you use during sensory bin-play (and vice versa).
- Use the communication tools the child already uses. If the child is non-verbal and uses ASL (signs) or PECS or other AAC, then incorporate that into the sensory play. Sign and teach them the signs for the names of the objects.
- Build excitement and success. For more language play, vary your own excitement level as you introduce the objects or entice your child to find or touch certain objects. “Ooh! You found a ball! YAH!” or “Find ball. You found it!” or “What’s that? A block! WOW!” If the child is able to locate objects upon your request, reward them with praise. “You did it!” works wonderfully for my son. I just need to say that phrase and he inevitably requests MORE.
- Aim to target as many senses as possible – over a period of time. You certainly don’t want sensory overwhelm by having items that target all 5 senses at once. But, do keep the 5 senses in mind when you don’t know how to plan the contents of a bin. Once the child gets the idea of what sensory bins are all about, you can combine two elements like touch and smell (add a drop of essential oil on newsprint paper), or touch and sight (tissue paper and colored blocks), or sound and touch (rattles of different textures). You will find the options limitless. I would stay away from taste for sensory bins because you don’t want to confuse the child who already may mouth objects.
- Keep it short. Don’t expect the child to sit for hours with sensory bins. If you are just introducing these bins, start with 3 to 5 minutes. Build to 10, 15, then 20 minutes. And, really, if all the child will ever do is 5 minutes, celebrate that!
- Use different body parts. If the child cannot use their hands, what about their feet? Place a sensory bin at their feet and have them shuffle around in there! =In that case, you can use just about anything without having to worry about mouthing the items. You might consider having them squish about in pudding or dirt or even cooked, but cooled spaghetti!
- Build developmentally-appropriate boxes. If the ideas above are just too easy for the child, bump it up! Children of all ages can benefit from sensory bins. Older children may be more interested in scientific items, or water-play (that’s a sensory bin too), or play with dirt, sand, and flour.
It’s important to note that no matter how advanced the child is, sensory bin activities should be supervised at all times.
Have more ideas? Share them! How do you play with sensory bins?
If you’re looking for ideas for sensory activities for a child beyond sensory bins, I offer consultations for parents and educators of neurodivergent and disabled children. I’d love to connect with you.