Simple (but effective) Upgrades for Sensory Tables and Sensory Bins - The Inspired Treehouse (2024)

These ideas will give your sensory tables and sensory bins more bang for your buck!

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If you live or work with kids, you might be familiar with sensory bins (also called tactile bins) and sensory tables. These sensory play activities present an awesome opportunity for simple tactile play and can be created with inexpensive, easy-to-find materials.

In a simple plastic container, kids can dig, pour, stir, and play with the tactile material (e.g. dry rice or dry beans) and can use props like cups, spoons, and small toys to hide and find.

But there’s more to tactile bins than just digging around with your hands…at least we think there should be…

Whether you have a kiddo who enjoys tactile play or a child who is still warming up to the idea of touching unfamiliar materials – many kids will quickly lose interest in a sensory bin full of only dry beans or rice. Adding a few simple tools and/or incorporating a fine motor, pretend play, visual, or cognitive task can go a long way toward promoting interest and engagement and maximizing this sensory play activity by targeting other skills.

So how can you maximize the benefits of play with sensory tables and bins? With a little extra thought and planning, a tactile bin can be a great way to reinforce skills like attention and stamina, pretend play, cognitive skills, academic concepts, visual skills, fine motor skills and more!

Here are some of our favorite props to add to sensory bins to promote healthy tactile processing and a variety of other skills at the same time!

15 Skill-Building Additions to Your Sensory Table

These simple additions can give a skill-building boost to your sensory bins and sensory tables!

1 || Tongs

2 || Small toys/treasures to seek and find

3 || Laminated mats with dots and numbers

4 || Containers with a slit or hole in the top

5 || Letter or number magnets

6 || Muffin tin or ice cube tray or egg carton

7 || Laminated photos of treasures/toys to find for i spy

8 || Empty paper towel or toilet paper rolls

9 || Small rakes/shovels

10 || Kitchen utensilsmeasuring cups, spoons, measuring spoons, spatula, funnel, pot, pan, bowl

11 || Small containers with lids

12 || Lego bricks

13 ||Beads and string

14 ||Sight word cards

15 || Math flashcards

Sensory Play With a Purpose

Adding props like the ones mentioned above, along with having a clear “task” or “purpose” for the bin can help to target all kinds of developmental skills…

Social and Play Skills

Sensory bins offer the perfect opportunity for practice with pretend play. For kids who struggle with social skills and play skills, tactile materials can provide just enough novelty to get them interested in “cooking”, “gardening”, and other pretend scenarios.

Kids can also work together in various ways while playing in a sensory bin – filling up a bucket together using shovels or finding all of the hidden treasures as a team.

Academic Skills and Language

It’s easy to work some academic and cognitive concepts into the mix when kids are playing with sensory bins and sensory tables. We love keeping laminated counting mats on hand so kids can pull out small toys and manipulatives to work on one-to-one correspondence.

Kids can also sort and categorize the items they find in the sensory bin (buttons, beads, etc.) by color, shape, or size.

Try hiding items with different beginning sounds in the bin and see if kids can dig for and pull out an item that begins with a target sound. You can also bury math flashcards, letter cards, number cards or sight word flashcards in the bin to work on those concepts during sensory play!

Visual Skills

Beyond the obvious input to the tactile system that kids get when playing in sensory bins, they also get a major visual workout! Help them focus on finding specific items by including photos of small objects that are hidden in the bin – like a game of I Spy!

Make the challenge harder by matching the color of your tactile bin material to the manipulatives/small items hidden in the bin (e.g. black beans with black spiders). Or make it a bit of a contrast to help kids find the hidden manipulatives more easily (e.g. white rice with black spiders).

Fine Motor Skills and Hand Strength

Sensory tables and fine motor skills are a match made in heaven! There are tons of ways to work on hand strength, coordination, bilateral coordination, and in-hand manipulation skills when kids are playing in tactile bins because you’re already working with small objects!

Putting small objects into containers, using tongs to pick up objects, opening and closing containers, grasping, scooping, stirring, pouring – all awesome fine motor work!

Also, for kids who become overstimulated or overly excitable by tactile input, a repetitive fine motor activity can sometimes help them regroup and organize themselves. Having a container with a hole in the top or an ice cube tray handy is a great way to encourage kids to take small objects from the sensory bin and put them in the container one at a time. You could also hide beads in the tactile bin so the child has to find one at a time and add them to her string.

Simple (but effective) Upgrades for Sensory Tables and Sensory Bins - The Inspired Treehouse (2)

Our Favorite Sensory Bins and Sensory Tables

Free play-style, unstructured sensory bins are awesome and so beneficial for kids, but some of our favorite sensory bins are ones that include a task or a purpose and this can be tailored depending on the child or group of children you’re working with.

These sensory bins and sensory tables are great examples of tactile play with a purpose! They would be great for classroom centers and would also make awesome activities for push-in therapy!

1 || Five Little Pumpkins Sensory Bin

2 ||Magnetic Letter Sensory Bin

3 ||Shape Sorting Sensory Invitation to Play

4 || I Spy Sensory Bin

5 || Pumpkin Shape Sensory Bin

6 || Apple Picking Sensory Bin

7 || Doctor Tool Sensory Bin

8 || Bug Sensory Bin and Bug Hunt

9 || Straws and TP Roll Sensory Bin

10 ||Spider Counting Sensory Bin

11 ||Pumpkin Seeds Fine Motor Bin

12 ||Duck Race Fine Motor and Sensory Play

13 ||Rainbow Egg Letter Matching Sensory Bin

14 ||Feed the Animals Sensory Bin

15 || Button Tree Sensory Bin

16 ||Nuts and Bolts Sensory Bin

17 ||Frog Counting Sensory Bin

18 ||Collection of Sensory Table Ideas

19 || Construction Sensory Bin

What are your favorite ways to use sensory tables and sensory bins in your classroom or therapy practice? Leave us a comment below!

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Claire Heffron

Claire Heffron is co-author at The Inspired Treehouse and a pediatric occupational therapist in a preschool/primary school setting. She began her career with a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism but quickly changed course to pursue graduate studies in occupational therapy. She has been practicing therapy for 10 years in public and specialized preschool/primary school settings. She is a mom to three funny, noisy boys and relies on yoga, good food, and time outside to bring her back to center.

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Simple (but effective) Upgrades for Sensory Tables and Sensory Bins - The Inspired Treehouse (2024)
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