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Sensory Bins

Do you incorporate sensory play into your programming? I understand why people don't - it can seem daunting to figure out what materials to use, and I know people worry about the mess. But I've been tinkering around with sensory play since 2012, and I'm going to share my tips on how to make it meaningful, engaging, and best of all - EASY! 

First up - the container! When I first started in kindergarten I used the large sand/water table that was in the room, and I only filled it with (you guessed it!) sand or water. Now, I do still use the large table, but typically I have wheeled it outside or used it with larger scale activities. What I have found works for me now is a clear storage bin (I buy the 32 litre size) with a lid that latches. There are a few reasons I like to use these bins. First of all, they are large enough for the kids to really get in there and have a good time with the materials, but they are small enough that typically only 2 - 3 kids can play together at a time. This has been crucial for successful sensory play in my classroom; 2 children playing together means they are able to really explore and engage with each other and the materials. Larger containers with larger numbers has typically meant more chaos (at least in my experience). This size of bin allows them to be able to remain calm and use the materials respectfully. Secondly, it is easy for me to pack it up and store it out of the way if I need more space in the room. The latched lid allows me to move the bin around freely, and it also shows the students that it is off limits until I take the lid off again. Lastly, this smaller size is SO much easier for me to clean out than the large sand table. I empty out the materials and I can wash it out in the classroom sink as needed. I like to provide a lot of sensory play opportunities, so I love how easy this is for me to clean and switch out materials regularly. 

Now onto the fun stuff - the fillers! My favourite filler is rice - its so easy to dye and I find students love running their hands through it. Dying rice is so incredibly easy, if you haven't tried it yet, you should! You will need some large ziploc bags, food colouring, white vinegar and of course - white rice. I usually put 2 - 3 cups of rice inside a large ziploc bag, add in 1 to 2 capfuls of white vinegar, and several drops of food colouring (if you want a more vibrant hue, you can add more drops of food colouring), and then I shake it all up until the rice is pretty evenly coated. Once its coloured, I lay it out on parchment paper lined cookie trays to dry - usually for about 30 - 45 minutes. If I want multiple colours, I use multiple bags and repeat the process. The end result is stunning, as you can see below. 

vibrant rainbow dyed rice
Rice is really versatile, I've added different oils (like peppermint) or spices (cinnamon,  pumpkin pie spice) depending on the theme of the bin to really up the ante on the sensory experience. You can add in whatever materials you have on hand that support your learning, and make sure to model for your students that we don't throw the rice around. Below are a few different examples of how I've used dyed rice in a variety of bins. 

ocean life sensory bin

peppermint scented sensory writing trays

fall themed sensory bin

Rice is not the only material you can dye, I've also used white kidney beans in the same way. Check it out below!

flight themed bin

What I love about sensory bins is the versatility. There are so many options for fillers, both food and non-food items. As far as food fillers go, dried lentils, different coloured dried kidney beans, and even oats have all been huge hits in my classroom. How you use them is up to you, but all of the above lend themselves quite well to whatever you might be able to dream up. You can see a few different ways I've used these items here:

Dried black beans (top left), oats and cinnamon (top right),
birdseed (center)

There are also tons of non-food fillers that you can use in your sensory bins as well. I've often used sand and water in these bins, just in much smaller quantities than I would in the larger sand table. Again, it makes for much easier clean up, as well as providing a calmer setting for students to use the materials and learn to use them appropriately. 
Sand used as a filler for a sensory bin during a dinosaur inquiry.

Water paired with sharks, seashells and rocks for an ocean inquiry

I love using sensory bins to compliment an inquiry, or a holiday, but I have also used them quite often to work on retelling skills. When I do this, I always ensure to display the book beside the bin, so students can refer back to the book throughout their play. I add in elements and characters from the story, often using household items or things I've found at dollar stores or craft store sale bins. Here are a few examples below:

Now, the big question of WHY do I love using sensory bins so much... there are many reasons actually! Once I started using these smaller (compared to the large table) bins, I started to see the calming effects of sensory play. All of the students I have had who were on the autism spectrum have been able to use these bins as a way to calm themselves down when they have become overwhelmed or agitated. It has also been a great social skill building area for these students, where they are able to play one on one with a peer and interact in a low risk setting. 

I also love using the bins because they are a great way to reinforce learning. When we are exploring the season of fall, I fill the bin with the types of items we have been talking about - leaves, pumpkins, forest animals, etc. If we are working on retelling a particular story, I will fill it with characters and elements from the story to aid them in their acquisition of story telling skills. And of course, they are always great fun during the holidays - check out my previous post for more on that!

The biggest reason I love using sensory bins? They are so ENGAGING to young learners. They get to explore, manipulate and just play while being immersed in their learning. They can literally dig in to an inquiry! 

Thanks for reading! 


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