How to start using sensory bins

Ok, some of your friends use sensory bins with their kids. You also follow some instagrammers who seem to have mastered the bins. So you do a quick Pinterest search and are immediately overwhelmed with the possibilities.

Have no fear, Alex is here! HAHA. But seriously, it definitely can be overwhelming but it can also be absurdly simple. So let me show you my bins and also tell you how to start (with minimal effort and money). And, go!

The Table/Bins

I use Ikea’s FLISAT table. I love it because it’s child height and uses the TROFAST bins, which I already own. The top white pieces come off and the bins fit inside. We use mostly shallow bins but occasionally use deeper ones for water play (but the deeper ones are harder for shorter kids to reach inside).

I used to also use this table for the kids to eat at but because of all the openings on the top, food and milk would leak through and it was a giant pain to clean. Even using playdoh on it is a pain to clean up after. So now it’s almost solely used for sensory bins.

Before I had the Ikea table I used a simple under the bed storage bin like this. It was an awesome size and I did in fact store it under the crib. These are also incredibly handy to store all the stuff that goes with sensory bins. The problem with this is the kids often end up inside the bin and it makes a bigger mess. So I would put a sheet or a plastic table cloth underneath to try and catch some of the mess. You could also use a slightly smaller bin and place it on top of a table. You can really do whatever you want… depending on your kids… the mess varies how you do it.

Our daycare uses a giant sensory bin. If I had oodles of money to spend and a place to put it, I’d definitely buy one like that. You can get them off Wayfair or daycare supplies stores. But! I don’t have the cash or space, so the FLISAT is perfect.

Materials

I have dried black beans, dried kidney beans, dried lentils, dry pasta, dry rice, popcorn kernels, kinetic sand and cornmeal for my bins. I also use water. I store them all in Ziploc freezer bags (except the water, HA) in one giant TROFAST bin.

I think kinetic sand is probably my favourite. The kids love it and it doesn’t really make much of a mess.

I like the bigger materials (pasta, kidney/black beans) for younger kids. It’s easier to clean up. I also like cornmeal for the cleanup factor. It vacuums up really easily.

Rice is definitely a kid favourite. No kid can resist a rice sensory bin. If you’re feeling fun, google how to make rainbow rice. Yippee! BUT it’s messy. I swear the rice ends up EVERYWHERE. So only use rice, lentils, etc when you’re having a day of extreme patience. Or maybe the day before a cleaner visits? Sadly at my house “the cleaner” is me. And she gets pissed pretty easily. And doesn’t visit often. Bitch.

ANYWAY. Go visit the bulk section of your grocery store and find whatever works for you.

Insides

If you’re just starting off, keep the insides simple. A couple of jars, strainers, funnels, scoops, whatever you can find at the dollar store!

If you have a birthday coming up or are okay with spending some money, here are a few of my kids’ favourites: construction vehicles, Learning Resources kit, bugs, dinosaurs (from the dollar store), any other kinds of animals and creatures (farm, underwater, etc).

Organization

I pre organize bins. I put different things in each bin that goes together to make an activity (pictured above is a strainer to fish out pompoms and a few other water play things). You could also organize them in ziploc bags or whatever you have. This helps me because I only have to be creative once, build all the boxes and then on the day I need one, I just grab and go. This pretty much sums up how I “mom.” I have moments of creativity and genius and then the rest of the time I’m barely surviving, HAHA (that was awkward hysterical laughter).

I also have a separate drawer full of extras like jars and scoops. Stuff that’s general and too big to go in the little bins.

All together

So when I’m ready to go, I grab a material, a container of insides and some jars… and that’s it!

Clean up

Clean up is the WORST. And I have yet to find a way to make it easy. I’ve tried putting towels, tablecloths, sheets, whatever underneath… and the materials usually go everywhere. I don’t like to do it outside because I don’t want to attract animals. So I do encourage the kids to keep the material in the bins. If they deliberately scoop material out, we close up the bin for the day. If they accidentally spill, I remind them to be careful. BUT you have to not be super stressed about the mess or it won’t be fun for anyone. Find material that works well with your vacuum (mine just spits out rice but does great with cornmeal) or just start with water and work your way up. Sometimes it’s truly worth the mess if it keeps your kids entertained for a long period of time.

Know your child

My eldest wasn’t ready for sensory bins until he was about 2, my youngest was doing them before 1. Other kids need the impulse control that comes with being 3. Some kids like to spill materials, others are better. Some kids put everything straight into their mouths and need “taste safe” materials. Make sure you set your child up for success and use what works for them. Explain the rules clearly (no materials outside the bin) and be prepared to hold firm boundaries and close it up if they’re not following along. Staying close in the beginning and stopping the throwing before it starts works best, “I’m not going to let you throw that” and holding their arm down. Stay calm and figure out what works best with your kid.

How to start now

  1. Get a bin or a table
  2. Get freezer bags ready
  3. Head to the grocery store’s bulk aisle and find some materials
  4. Go to the dollar store and buy a funnel, measuring cup, scoop and strainer
  5. If you’re feeling extra, buy some kinetic sand, bugs, animals, pompoms, whatever your little heart desires
  6. Mentally prepare yourself. There will be giant forking messes to clean up and that’s just part of it

Written by Alex Turner