20 Best Sensory Activities Your Kids Will Love


20 of the Best Sensory Activities Using Items You Already Have

I have the magic formula for stopping classroom chaos from toddler tantrums to talkative teenagers. And I’m willing to give it to you. Are you ready?

Sensory play. Sensory play will calm any classroom at any time and will have your kids refocus within minutes. I’ve worked with at-risk children for decades and am also a parent to kids with complex emotional needs. 

I quietly ask a child who needs some help regulating their emotions something like:

“Hey, do you want to help me make something cool?” 

“Do you want to play with something special?”

“Do you want to get messy with me?”

And a few minutes later everyone involved is much calmer.

Benefits of sensory play

Emotional and behavioral regulation isn’t the only benefit of sensory play. It helps build and strengthen skills in all areas of development. Science, math, and language skills are developed as children explore. Social skills blossom as they experiment together. Motor skills are strengthened by kneading, pinching, pouring, etc. Children are able to flex their creativity, problem solve and make predictions through sensory play.

Also Read: 20 Best Brain Break Ideas for Your Classroom

Here are twenty easy sensory activities using items you probably already have on hand.

1. Ooblick

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Who doesn’t love Lisa Murphy, the Ooey Gooey Lady? She has several books filled with science and sensory activities for the classroom. She’s the one who introduced many of us to cornstarch and water. She calls it “ooblick.”  To make ooblick you just mix equal parts water and corn starch. The substance feels solid when your hand is submerged, but it turns to liquid once you pull your hand out. 

2. Calm bottles

These are great for all ages, including stressed-out teachers. Keep one at your desk, give it a shake or flip it over and watch the glitter move. To make, take the label off a water bottle. Voss bottles are especially attractive for this, but any brand will do. Drink the fancy water and then squirt two ounces of glitter glue into the bottle. Fill with tap water and a few drops of food coloring, then put the lid on tightly. Shake, shake, shake. Add more glitter glue or food coloring if you feel it needs it. 

3. Apple tasting

Bring in a variety of apples. Have one of each apple available to pass around, and then at least one more for eating. Let the students hold each variety of apple. Talk about smoothness, weight, color, spotting, smell, etc. Then slice the apples and allow students to taste while discussing the sound they make when you bite in, taste (sweet or sour), texture, etc.

4. The great freeze

Make giant ice cubes by freezing water in large plastic bowls, food storage containers or gallon ziplock bags.  Put small toys or manipulatives in the water before freezing. Add food coloring if you want to be fancy. Put the ice in your classroom sink or a large container. Provide students with warm water to pour over the ice using measuring spoons and cups, eye droppers, paintbrushes, etc. You can also put out tools to hammer or chisel through the ice. The goal is to melt the ice enough to get the treasures out. Freeze plastic letters or numbers in the ice and have students work together to uncover what is needed to finish a sentence or math problem.

5. Classic volcano

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The classic vinegar and baking soda volcano engages all the senses. Add a few drops of food coloring to the vinegar to make it more visually interesting. Pour vinegar on top of baking soda and watch (and hear) it bubble.

6. Make bread

Cooking is great for the senses! Bring in your breadmaker (or ask for a volunteer to come with theirs). Let kids measure, mix, knead, put the dough in the machine and of course eat the finished product!

7. Clean mud

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Another Ooey Gooey Lady concoction is clean mud. Grate three bars of Ivory soap. Mix in a bowl with a roll of toilet paper (torn) and about a cup of warm water. Add water and keep mixing until it has the consistency of mashed potatoes. Challenge students to a snowman building contest!

8. DIY playdough 

There are tons of recipes online to make your own play dough, including no-cook options. There are also many recipes you can make in a slow cooker in your classroom. Add some cooking extract or essential oil to up the sensory input.

9. Sink or float

Fill a bucket, large bowl, bin or the sink with water. Provide students with a variety of items they can put in the water to see if they sink or float. 

10. Build a sandcastle

Use kinetic sand to challenge your students to an indoor sandcastle building contest. Kinetic sand mimics the texture of wet sand and is way easier to clean up than regular ‘ol sand. (Tip search for CoolSand or Moving Sand on Amazon for lower-cost options. You can also find instructions online to make your own.)

11. Tear it up

Put out a bin of scrap paper, junk mail, magazines or old calendar. Let students rip it. Yup, that’s it. Tearing paper is a very satisfying sensory experience. It’s also good for fine motor development. 

12. Arctic challenge

Sensory activities and science lessons are a great pair. When discussing arctic temperatures, present students with a bucket of ice water. Use thermometers to find the water temperature. Have students dip their fingers in the ice water. Explain that arctic animals are able to handle it due to their blubber. Have them coat their fingers in vegetable shortening to act as their own “blubber” and invite them to stick their finger in the ice again. 

13. Classroom dance party

Put on some (appropriate) tunes and have a classroom dance party! Even if it’s only for five minutes, the music and movement engage multiple senses and will improve moods all around – including yours.

14. Bubble painting

Fill a container with water. Add a couple of caps of non-toxic bubbles and about three tablespoons of (also non-toxic) paint. Mix.  It should be sudsy and colorful so add more bubbles or paint if needed. Give each participating child their own cup of the solution along with paper and a straw. The kids place their cup of liquid on a piece of paper and then use the straw to blow bubbles until they overflow onto the paper. The process is the main activity, but as a bonus, the bubbles leave cool prints on the paper once dried.

15. Plant a classroom garden

Even if it’s just beans in cups or a few herbs, start a classroom garden. Bring a bit of nature into your room.

16. Cooked pasta

Cook pasta.  Add enough cooking oil to lightly coat each noodle. Add a few drops of food coloring and mix until evenly dyed. Separate into more containers or ziplock bags if you’re going to do more than one color. Spread the pasta out on parchment paper to dry for an hour or so. You can do different colors or a solid color. A container of blue pasta and plastic sea creatures makes a great ocean. 

17. Rainbow rice

Place a cup of uncooked white rice in a ziplock bag. Add a teaspoon of vinegar and a couple squirts of food coloring. Seal the bag, then shake and squeeze until the rice is evenly colored. Add more food coloring if your results aren’t as vibrant as you like. Pour rice out onto a paper towel-lined cookie sheet. Spread into a thin layer and allow to dry. Repeat the process with other colors of food coloring. Combine the colored rice in a container once dry. Students can sift through the rice with their fingers, attempt to separate the tiny grains by color, use sifting tools and more.

18. Nature scavenger hunt

Have a sensory scavenger hunt. Take the class outside and instruct them to collect examples of hard, soft, crunchy, pointy, rough, smooth, etc. Bring the array of shells, rocks, pinecones, leaves, flowers and other treasures back into the classroom and store them in a container. You can further the sensory play by pressing them onto playdough or clay, painting with them or just leaving them out to touch. 

19. Puffballs

Make a sensory bin by pouring in puffballs of different sizes and textures. Add dried corkscrew pasta to provide a contrast to the soft texture. Kids can sort by size and shape or just run them through their fingers. Make individual sensory bins using pencil boxes (or shoeboxes), so students can quietly use it at their desk.

20. Shaving cream

Shaving cream is a cheap and easy sensory play item. Spray some on a desk and let kids spread it around. They can “write” with their fingers to practice math problems or vocabulary words. As a bonus, you’ll have clean desks once the students wipe it up! This can be contained using pie plates or other shallow containers.

Other tips:

Involve students in the process. A lot of science and math concepts can be explored when measuring and mixing cornstarch, water, and other ingredients. 

Modify for your students. You know your students and what they can handle. Modify as needed.

“But the mess!”  Plan cleanup into the process. This is easy to do when you consider your students and make appropriate modifications. 

Make sensory items available all the time. Playdough, kinetic sand, fidget toys, stress balls and pipe cleaners are all great sensory items. Pipe cleaners are actually one of my favorite sensory tools. I’ve given them to preschoolers to bend and loop while their classmates are napping and also given to teenagers who need to be fidgeting with something in order to focus. They are cheap, quiet and discreet. 

Provide a variety of tools. Sorting, digging, sifting, digging, burying, measuring, pouring, etc. builds both cognitive and fine motor skills. Fun tools for sensory play include measuring cups and spoons, straws, combs, funnels, sifters, shovels and pails, plastic eggs, small toys (vehicles, animals, people, etc.), shells, tweezers and whisks. 

Don’t make anyone get messy. Some kids don’t want to touch things. The sensation of sticking their hand into cold, wet, bright blue spaghetti just isn’t their jam. They might be sensory avoiders. They might also just not want to get messy.  Whatever, the reason it’s okay. They can still get the benefit of sensory play in a way that feels comfortable for them. They can use spoons or other tools or wear gloves. You can also put the shaving cream, puffballs or other offending items in a ziplock bag. Seal it up and allow the child to experience it that way.

Sensory experiences benefit everyone – from infants through adults. Calmer students who are learning important concepts in a fun way? That’s worth a little bit of cleanup. 

ASLO READ:

20 Best Sensory Activities Your Students Will Love

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Rachael Moshman
Rachael Moshman, M.Ed. is a mom, educator, writer, and advocate for self-confidence. She’s been a teacher in classrooms of infants through adult college students. She loves pizza, Netflix and yoga.
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