Thursday, October 13, 2011

* Sensory Boxes 101 Tips and Inspiration: How To Make A Sensory Box, Theme Ideas, and Frequently Asked Quesitons

Today's post is called Sensory Box 101
because we could all use a little help sometimes and because Play Matters!

We LOVE sensory boxes here. 
When I made my first one with Oatmeal for "E" 7 years ago in 2004, 
I didn't blog, I only used my computer to write papers and send email. 
I did not know to call my first "sensory box" a sensory box. 

Baby "E" playing with her first oatmeal sensory box (2004)

I just wanted something fun for "E to play with that was something she couldn't choke on
and something she could safely put in her mouth, hence the dry oatmeal. 
It was a great way to entertain her indoors in nasty weather and if she ate some, 
it was just some extra fiber. I did not introduce her to the sand table outdoors until this 
box had been mastered and I knew the "tasting" stage was over. 

She loved it. 
So did her friends.
 It was the go-to activity for play dates. 
A mini indoor sand box made out of a plastic under bed-style storage box,
 two canisters of dry oatmeal, some small cups, and some Little People figures and animals. 
I was onto something. 
We made them as gifts for friends and family - they were a huge hit! 

Do you use sensory boxes (or tables) at home or in your classroom?
Are you afraid of them? Don't be. 
They are great for hand eye coordination, fine motor development, and 
serves as a great sensory processing integration experience. 
Both of my girls (and all of their friends) have a great time digging into them!
When they're done, they get a Montessori-style lesson in cleaning up with
small dust pans and brooms. Don't be afraid of a little clean up at home or in your classroom.
It is a great learning tool and a gentle way to teach children how to play nicely together.

I got a great email from one of my blog readers this week and
she inspired me to write this post, thank you Angell. 

I figured if she has questions like this, some of you might be wondering the same thing.

Here is some of her email to me:

"I see all these bins but being someone who has never made one,
I don't have all those items to throw in there. It could actually become expensive.
I'm also not crafty, so I don't have craft supplies hanging around. Do you reuse your fillings (beans, rice, etc.)?
How do you keep the cost down? 
What is your thinking process like?
Do you have sensory bins in the back of your mind? While you are shopping do you think,
 "Wow this would be a good item for a bin in the future?
What are some things you would use as a bin?"

I'll do my best to answer these questions, so here we go.

Do you reuse your fillings?
Absolutely! I store my "main ingredients" in gallon zip lock bags, 
inside a cardboard copy paper box on a shelf in our garage.

I also re-use my boxes. I keep 2-3 sensory boxes going at a time,
then I cycle out the ingredients and store the extra parts in gallon-size ziplock bags. 

Right now I have the following stored on my shelves
(in gallon ziplock bags inside a plastic box): 

  • Dried Green Split Peas (that are seasoned with cinnamon and allspice for Fall)
  • White Rice (winter snow & wedding box)
  • Silk (faux) Dollar Tree Fall Leaves
  • Shredded Paper Easter Grass (green and yellow)
  • Oatmeal (dry, uncooked)
  • Black Fish Tank Gravel (dry black beans are awesome too!)
  • Blue Fish Tank Gravel (you could also just dye rice blue)
  • Small Pebbles/Gravel in Earthtones
  • Rainbow Rice (homemade) 
  • Coffee Grounds (Dry)
  • Dry Black Eyed Peas
  • Rainbow Pom-Poms
  • Faux Flowers and Faux Green Leaves (cut off Dollar Tree Vines)
  • Moon Sand (make your own with play sand and cornstarch - google it)

You can also use:

  • Cotton Balls
  • Birdseed (then feed it to your birds when you're done)
  • Dry Pasta
  • Un-popped Popcorn
  • Dry Beans
  • Shredded Paper
  • Faux Snow (warning: it's really messy)
  • Some moms even use real potting soil outdoors (I'm not that brave!)
  • Sand

*NOTE*: I also keep a box of goodies for sensory boxes like:

  • scoops
  • spoons
  • cups
  • funnels
  • ice trays 
  • egg cartons
  • tweezers
  • small mirrors,
  • tongs
  • etc.

How do you keep the cost down?
Great question, my husband asks me the same one all the time! ; )
I don't just go out to the store and buy everything to make a sensory box. 
Most of it evolves from stuff we already have here at the house, even if it's from the recycling bin. 

I do occasionally have to buy the bulk dry ingredients but they get re-used.
(for example, I had to buy the dry rice, peas and beans at first but now I re-use them all the time)

I re-use/recycle the dry ingredients
Take the green split peas for example, I've used them for: 
two "Fall" boxes, a "Spring Garden" box,  a "St. Patrick's Day" box, and the "Apple Box". 

I make a lot of the "ingredients" 
like my homemade felt toilet paper tube trees for the Apple Box.

Homemade "Fall Trees" by gluing brown felt to TP tubes and gluing fake leaves on top.

For example, we just made an "Ice Cream" sensory box
and I saved tiny gelato cups from Whole Foods and 
tiny Blue Bunny Brand single serving ice cream containers from our recycling. 
I made ice cream balls by wrapping yarn around forks and making pom-poms.
We made tiny popsicles by gluing felt to popsicle sticks and felt "cones"
Then, I gave the girls some deep spoons and our ice cream scoop.

Homemade (inexpensive) felt popsicles. 
Glue a popsicle stick to two piece of felt or card-stock/scrap-booking paper. 

How do color rice or noodles? 

I use the same technique for both. It's quick and easy and you DON'T cook anything.

Where To Find Ingredients For Sensory Boxes

While you are shopping do you think, 
"this would be great for a sensory bin"?
Sometimes depending on the store. 
Especially at "Goodwill,"neighborhood Garage Sales,
 the Target Dollar Binsand Dollar Tree.
And...occasionally at my two favorite craft stores,"Michaels" and "JoAnne's" in their seasonal areas 
(they always have coupons and... JoAnne's gives a teacher discount to teachers and home-schoolers).

Goodwill and Garage Sales are great for:
 ice trays, cookie cutters, scoops, tongs, small containers, 
faux flowers/leaves (you can dismantle a wreath or centerpiece)

Grocery store and big box stores like Walmart have sales and good prices 
on bulk dry goods like pasta, rice, popcorn, beans, oatmeal for "filler." 

Dollar Tree, Target dollar bins, and craft stores are great for seasonal goodies
and trinkets think major holidays and 4 seasons. 

What are some things you would use in a bin?
It really just depends on the "theme" 
Small toys, trinkets, and figurines from the playroom.
Goodies from the kitchen like scoops, measuring spoons or cups, and funnels.
Items from recycling like egg cartons, yogurt cups, wine corks, bottle caps, etc.
Bathroom goodies like cotton balls, Q-tips, Toilet Paper Tubes.
Seasonal decorations and do-dads.
Pom-poms, buttons, wooden cut outs from the craft store.
Doll house furniture and accessories.

Sensory Box Themes

What is your thinking process like?
I work off of themes like seasons and holidays, they're the easiest to do. 

Our "Spooky Halloween" Sensory Box

Our "Winter Wonderland"Box (which turned into a rice table)

Our Easter and Bird Themed Spring Box

Our St. Patrick's Day Box

4th of July/Patriotic Box

 I also try to make boxes with stuff I think would be fun to play with and touch. 
For example: 

The "Coffee Box"

and the "Oatmeal" box is just fun to play in.

Or...I'll do a theme box based on the girls' current interests 
or tie it to a unit they're doing at school or with me like:

Our "Outer Space" Box

"Zoo Box"

Our "Farm Box"


Our "Cats" Sensory Rainbow Rice Table for "C"s 4th Birthday Party
was a huge hit with all of the guests.

Sometimes the material sparks an idea for a theme:

White Rice for our "Wedding Box"

Pom-poms for our "Ice Cream Box"

Blue Fish Gravel for our "Ocean Box"

Gravel for our "Under Construction" Box

Some ideas are inspired by other wonderful bloggers, 
visit my Pinterest board and check out 
my Sensory Box Love! page for tons of great ideas
 and get your own inspiration from around blog land! 

I hope this helps answer your questions 
and helps to spark some fun new sensory box/table experiences 
so you can CREATE * PLAY * EXPLORE in your own home or classroom!

Pink and Green Mama, 


brooke said...

These are so smart!!! You have this down to a science. Baby Q is going to get a few for sure.

Lisa said...

Great post! It's a nice encouragement to use what you have as much as you can, and find inspiration wherever you are. Thanks for sharing.

pink and green mama MaryLea said...

Thank you Lisa, What a lovely way to sum it all up!

: ) MaryLea

pink and green mama MaryLea said...

Yay Brooke! I know Baby Q will love them!! : )


Nicky said...

This was such a timely post. I spent last night researching ideas for sensory boxes. I did my first one..a fall theme and my just turned two year old loved it..and my almost 6 year old loved it too. So fun. Can't wait to do another. What size box do you use? Thanks! NIcky

pink and green mama MaryLea said...

Great Question Nicky! -- I should have put that in the post too -- I use a Low Rectangular Storage Box with a lid - they're 23"/25" - 13"-15" depending on the box.
I'll sometimes do a mini box (like for the 4th of July, Apple Orchard, or Ice Cream Box) Those boxes are approximately 13" x 15".


Yvonne said...

I love all of your ideas! I just made a halloween box for my home daycare "classroom" I know they will love it. You're my go-to for sensory inspiration, thanks so much for this post.

Angell said...

I have been looking forward to this post!!! LOL

I just made the oatmeal one. I had an under the bed storage container and a ton of oatmeal that I was worried about (I had it for at least a year..good sale lol).

I put them all together with some construction type toys and my 2 year old and my 6 year old are having a field day as we speak.

I was afraid of sensory bins with my 2 year old. He feverishly puts things in his mouth that he shouldn't. So the oatmeal is good. My 6 year old has never had a sensory bin so it's not like he would complain about "boring" oatmeal lol!!


Melissa @ The Chocolate Muffin Tree said...

Excellent! Love this post! You have a fantastic way of explaining things!

Erin said...

Thank you, thank you! This was a really helpful post! I feel inspired and empowered to make some sensory boxes!

Joyce said...

I remember the first sensory box I made for R, long before blogging as well. He played with that box in so many different ways. It was his favorite thing to play with for *months*. Thank you for sharing and hopefully inspiring more love for sensory boxes! This is a fantastic post!

I also wanted to thank you for stopping by my blog. I really hope you like the play dough today, and I hope she feels better soon!

SushiQ said...

Hooray! Thank you thank you! We can't wait to make one!

Money Saving Enthusiast said...

Wow! These are EXCEPTIONAL! My sensory boxes never looked like this. Wow! These are beautiful. My friend use to think I was crazy wehn I would let my kids do this bc someitimes it's messy. It bought me MUCHO free time! Kids play with this for hours.

Deb Chitwood said...

What a great post, MaryLea! You always have wonderful sensory boxes, and it's fabulous that you shared so many tips and photos about creating them! I featured your post and Halloween sensory box photo in my Montessori-Inspired Halloween Activities post at http://livingmontessorinow.com/2011/10/17/montessori-monday-montessori-inspired-halloween-activities/

pink and green mama MaryLea said...

Thanks Deb!

: )

Jen said...

Did your kids really leave most of the stuff in the box? I've been thinking about making a box for my 22 month old son, but I suspect it will just result in handfuls of oatmeal or whatever being thrown all over the house. He's not normally a "sit still" kind of kid, but I'd really like to start encouraging him to enjoy some quieter activities occasionally. (In between the jumping, running, and climbing, ha.) Any suggestions for how to keep at least most of the items in the box?

pink and green mama MaryLea said...

Hi Jen,

22 Months is very young to start with sensory boxes but every kid is different. When "E" was little she dumped some oatmeal but it didn't last very long. I had the same rules for the sand table on our deck- to keep it inside the box so she would have sand to play with next time.

I got this exact same question in a private email from a reader last night so here's my response to her:

"I think some kids like to dump more than others.
My girls have mostly left it inside the box so I haven't really had this problem, when their friends started to do it, my girls were bossy enough to put an end to it without me intervening! (future teachers to be)

I do put down an old table cloth on the ground sometimes when we're playing indoors (especially with the rice and the fish gravel), that way when it's over I can gather it up and pour any spilled ingredients back inside the box. For the coffee box it's only at the kitchen counter and for the oatmeal box it stays on the kitchen floor, not the carpet in the family room or playroom.

You could try sitting down with him the first few times he plays with a box and model how to play with it.
When he dumps it out, say "No, we keep the oatmeal/sand/beans inside the box." And repeat the instructions as needed with gentle but firm reminders.
If he keeps dumping it out, you could give a warning that you'll have to put it away until he can play with it inside the box.
If it continues, take the box away, "I have to put it away now because you keep dumping it out. We can try again when you can keep it inside the box. "

If you're consistent with the "rules" he should be able to follow them -- with that said, I don't have complete information for the advice I'm giving such as your child's age, maturity level, and what issues you're dealing.

You know your child best and you're his best teacher.
I'm sure you can figure out a system that makes you both happy! : )"

I hope this helps!


Melissa Taylor said...

the best post on this I've read - and I wish I knew this when my kids were younger. . . shared and linked here:

Colleen said...

Thank you SO much for this post and for answering the questions in detail! I am a working mother who tries to do as much as possible on weekends and evenings, so I appreciate all of your tips from purchasing, storing and using the sensory box! I am going to try this this weekend!! Thanks again!

Karen said...

I just found your blog, and am BEYOND excited!! I teach 2 & 3 year olds and cannot wait to get a sensory box or two going for them! Thank you for sharing your amazing ideas! You are so creative!!!

Christina Morley said...

I was blown away and have shared this post on Google+ with #tags. Amazing! Thanks for sharing.

Tina - mom of 4

Allison said...

You answered so many of my questions I have had! Thank you! Great post! I have a 24 month old who still likes to put things in her mouth and isn't showing much imaginative play. She also only shows interest in something for a short time. Do you have to force your kids to stay at the bin? And do you monitor or is it more independent play?

pink and green mama MaryLea said...

Hi Allison,

When the girls were younger the sensory bins were always used with supervision. Once they got older they could play with them independently!


Michelle Campbell said...

What a lovely post my daughter turns 3 next week and we were struggling for presents as she is non verbal and doesnt really play with toy's but im definitely gonna give this a try thank you x

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