Sensory bins for toddlers: I call this a “super mom” moment

To uphold my mother’s reputation, I want to start by saying that I grew up in a very anti-TV home. We rarely watched TV as kids. In MY home, however, my son had developed a healthy addiction to Elmo by the time he was 19 months old. Back then David watched TV every now and then, but things have changed. The biggest change is Mary Virginia; as soon as she arrived, I relinquished all parenting responsibilities to the good people at PBS.

TV is just so easy. Anytime I need to nurse/change a diaper/do laundry/play Candy Crush, I can glue David’s bottom to the couch with an episode of Curious George. In fact, sometimes I’m so desperate for him to stop climbing on my back while I nurse, I’d be happy to not only turn on the TV, but also give him a quart of ice cream and a spoon if it means I can put Mary Virginia down for a nap without wondering about that splashing sound coming from the bathroom.

We realized we created a TV problem in our house when David started this litany of requests: “Watch Elmo? Watch Curious George? Watch The Hat? Watch Super Why? Watch Dinosaur Train?” That’s the entire PBS morning lineup. In order. David knows it by heart. You know those parenting moments when you’re simultaneously proud and embarrassed?

When we say no, he pauses, raises his eyebrows and says…”Watch…football?” Then he pulls out his ace card. “Watch Breaking Bad?” David has never watched Breaking Bad, but he’s heard us talk about watching Breaking Bad, and he’s doing whatever it takes to get us to turn the TV on. He is equal parts genius and manipulator.

I’m slowly coming out of the newborn fog and before David completely loses all capacity for imagination and independent play, I’m looking for some new activities to replace the TV. Mary Virginia usually takes a really good morning nap, and I want to be intentional with that part of the day. We go outside, we go to the park,we run errands, we have play dates, we play blocks, we draw, we play play dough. All of that takes 5 minutes or less. So I need 100 ideas to get us to 8:30 a.m. without Elmo.

I was inspired by my friend Lynsie who made sensory bins for her kids. (This post has a good explanation of what sensory bins are.)

The first thing I tried was a box of water beads, otherwise known as a hundred tiny balls. David’s head almost exploded at all the sensory and tactile possibilities.


Water beads are awesome, wet-feel balls. I bought mine at A.C. Moore. They bounce around like bouncy balls if they’re dropped, so they go all over the place. I added a baking sheet under the bin to help contain them, which sort of worked. Once I have a crawler this activity will be shelved for a while; these things are the definition of a choking hazard.


I gave him a bunch of scoops and he was happy scooping and pouring for about 20 minutes. Education!


It took me at least twice as long to chase down all the balls, but it was worth it.


The next day I gave him a dry box. I grabbed all this stuff from our cabinets and dumped it in a Tupperware. I used rice, some of Tom’s daal (don’t tell Tom), and black beans (Organic! Grown in our back yard!)



Again, I gave him some scoops and he went straight to work. It’s really cool watching him, because I didn’t have to try to get him interested, he really wanted to play and scoop and pour.


When his interest started to wane, I gave him a few trucks to let him try scooping and dumping the rice.


The rice made a pretty serious mess. The pan helps, but rice still went everywhere. Post-play vacuuming is necessary.


When he finished, I was this close to turning on a show I could clean up his room. Apparently David isn’t the only one with a habit to break. But, ok, let’s all admit that TV isn’t all bad. For example, David knows all his numbers. ALL OF THEM. And it’s not because I taught him; Elmo did.

The last thing we tried was cloud dough. This recipe is all over Pinterest, and for good reason: it’s fun, mostly clean, and really easy to make (8 cups flour, 1 cup oil, and stir. We used vegetable oil, but you can use baby oil, olive oil, or even coconut oil if you’re fancy.)



We went outside and I put him on a plastic table cloth. He needed a little help because it isn’t as easy to scoop or pour. He liked stirring, because he saw me making it.

I showed him how to squeeze it in his fist to make a ball, which turned into, “Na-ee make ball? Big ball? More ball? More ball? Na-ee ball?”


I showed him how to pick up a handful and drop it “KABOOM!” in the bowl. He loved that, and it gave me a break from ball-making duty.


It also took some encouragement from me to get him to roll his trucks in the dough. The irony, I realized, is that we have a big pile of dirt in our yard right now. David loves playing in it with trucks and needs no direction. I guess this stuff is cleaner than a pile of dirt. But, then again, most things are.


Once we were done, I was cleaning up and David played in the yard. He gathered up some leaves, piled them in his stroller and pushed it around. That’s the best sort of sensory activity, right? Independent play with materials that are texturally, audibly, and visually appealing. The difference is Mommy didn’t have to do any work on the front end or clean up after. That must be why “making a pile of leaves” doesn’t have a fancy name.


  1. Lynsie October 7, 2013

    LOVE IT!!!!!

  2. Andrea October 7, 2013

    When Daniel was David’s age, he was really into something similar, except he used this big collection of really old hazelnuts that I used to use for decoration…and then we invited a toddler friend over who has a serious nut allergy….they.were.everywhere. Ummm….whoops! I think my husband, my nanny, and my neighbors were all glad when I finally trashed them all! Loved this post!

  3. Becky October 7, 2013

    I really could have written the “before” part of this post. I still from time to time turn on Curious George so that I can take a shower. I am pretty sure Allie would be safe but she’s quite a chatty lady lately. So sometimes I like to have that time with the Lord in order to get my head on straight. You are inspiring me to try some different things. Lately we have been buying washable paint and painting Allie’s toy box. It is quite big and I limit the amount of painting to about 1 hour so that we have plenty of space to do it all over again. She loves it.. and it’s really not super messy if we put plastic bags down. Keep being an awesome mama!!

  4. Katherine A. October 7, 2013

    One day I planned this cool block / flash card activity for my daughter. I was super excited about it. It lasted … five minutes. Total.

    My son’s activity was a bowl of hard noodles (with the box). ONE HOUR … for both of them! It was amazing! The noodles were gross, unedible at the end. But, I did not care.

    I need to look into these water beads …

    • amandakrieger October 7, 2013

      The water beads are great! Maybe like $5 for a big bottle? They’re in the floral dept. you can get them from amazon, too (of course).
      I’ve planned awesome crafts and games and David has taken one look and walked away. Come on!! Mommy’s trying!!!

  5. Kristie October 7, 2013

    Now you know why Abram was so excited about the pteranodon. 🙂

  6. Grammy October 7, 2013

    anti TV?? Well, maybe. But you can always make chores an activity. Just let them do it!! He is still so sweet!!

  7. alisa October 8, 2013

    my grandmother used to give us a bucket of water and paint brush to “paint” the concrete steps out her back door…the side walk works as well. Easy lesson for teaching evaporation.
    I love the sensory bin ideas! In public school we call them math tubs and students have to record estimates of amounts filling various size containers. Children LOVE to do something- so much better than TV. One time I gave the twins a bucket of water on the driveway with a couple of ice cubes …who knew they would find this so entertaining?

  8. Meredith October 8, 2013

    Yes awesome! Ice cream for more calories, right??

    Great ideas – what is AC Moore? I want the water beads! I also scored some awesome moon sand – have you heard of that? – at a yard sale for $2. It’s usually super expensive online but she really loves it. Kinda like sand, kinda like play dough. I will have to try the cloud dough! Except she’ll want to eat it because that’s all she wants to do when we make bread.

    • Meredith October 8, 2013

      PS do you follow this blog? Check out that post for like 8 billion ideas for sensory activities. It’s overwhelming how many ideas that lady has!!!

      • amandakrieger October 8, 2013

        I just quickly scanned that blog, it’s awesome! That’s a legit super mom!

        • Meredith October 10, 2013

          Oh yeah. She sets the bar way too high!

    • amandakrieger October 8, 2013

      Moon sand sounds like the cloud dough!! I actually used vegetable oil instead of baby oil so it’d be ok if he ate it. I’ve made edible play dough and finger paint for the same reason!
      A. C. Moore is just a craft store, like Ben Franklin or Michael’s. I’m sure they’re at Walmart, too.


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