How to incorporate the senses in to sensory play.

This is a sponsored blog post

I am extremely passionate about learning through play. I share all sorts of activities we do at home and most of the time it looks like complete chaos, but there’s method behind the madness. I try to incorporate opportunities to learn in to everything we do, in such a subtle way that Arlo doesn’t realise he’s learning new life lessons.

I often get asked about how I manage to engage him for long periods of time with one activity but the truth is that he has a maximum ten minute attention span, and so my trick is to not throw everything in all at once. I try to build up an activity I’m creating. I use aspects of play from the senses to guide me in setting up something which will last for longer than it takes to clean up.

I often share colourful pictures and craft projects we have completed together and one common theme is colour. So we’ve usually got the visual aspect of “invitations to play” covered. I save all sorts of bits and bobs and try to stick to seasonal and festival themes through the year and having a craft stash is the first step to creating engaging play set ups. Never throw anything away – plastic toys seem to have a bit of a bad reputation in the play communities but we look after ours and constantly wash and re-use them. I also provide “real” tools for Arlo to use in play – usually kitchen utensils.

1. Sight

Babies see in black and white – did you know that it’s not until about five months when babies can see the full colour spectrum? Somewhere around 4-6 months old babies begin to develop hand – eye co-ordination. The first time a baby reaches out to touch something they can see is a huge milestone and a precursor to weaning.

Toys such as stacking blocks, cups and rings are fabulous to play with at this stage and I purchased bright sets with rainbow colours and we still use these now. We used to have daily themes and literally wear and eat and play with one colour or texture all day. I use food colouring and paint to brighten everything up however It’s not just about being colourful. Sometimes you can go for a shiny or a natural theme which is just as inviting.

By combining efforts to incorporate the other senses in to play I add new experiences and an additional dimension to play. A tuff tray covered in brown paper to apply paint to a huge canvas was fun – the plan was to learn about how to make secondary colours from primary colours with this one. Adding in pine cones and bamboo sticks as well as paint brushes gave Arlo the chance to experiment with mark making and paint mixing in new ways. Appealing to his touch sense as well as just being visual.

Our drinks mixing station activity began life like this. As we have been doing lots of mixing activities recently Arlo enjoyed approaching the bottles of colourful water and trying to make the yellow turn green by adding blue. He didn’t know at first glance that I’d also been considering the other senses and that his drinks were “real” and this led us on to a careful drinks sampling exploration.

2. Taste

Arlo is almost four and so we play with all sorts now that he has gone past the “putting everything in to his mouth” stage. This is entirely normal for babies and so all of the different activities we share will need to be adapted for younger ones to avoid any choking risks with younger ones and I always supervise play and keep a count of small objects too.

When Arlo was little “food safe” resources were often used. Adding jelly to his high chair tray as a play resource just before we began weaning was a great way for him to be introduced to food items and his high chair. I’d give him a spoon to hold too. Cereals and spaghetti were fun to use and adding food colouring to yoghurt to use as paint worked wonders for us.

Something as simple as providing the fruit garnishes in our potion station was a great way to discuss the differences between sweet and sour. Comparing oranges and berries to lemons and limes was a great discussion point but it began with the colour differentiation and the sight before we eventually used touch to explore too.

3. Scent

The way things smell is very closely linked to taste – it was when Arlo noticed that the coloured drinks in the potions had a smell and were slightly sticky. With encouragement from me that these were real and okay to drink he figured out each colour was a different drinks flavour. He went around each cup sniffing and trying to guess which flavour was which – I’d used food colouring to try and disguise the flavours – so the orange flavour drink was blue. He found this hilarious because it was a trick and a totally new experience.

We have been experimenting with scent from the early stages too. Letting him wave around a bunch of fresh lavender or mint as a six month old in the high chair was fun enough for him. More recently I’ve adding essential oils and fragrances to play dough. When I made a cinnamon dough he said it “smells like Christmas” and he compares the smell of mint to toothpaste. It’s great when the scent isn’t immediately obvious but then through play the aromas emerge and create a new sensation.

I often find adding a new layer or dimension to a Play activity based on the senses helps to prolong the interaction. I often get asked how I manage to keep Arlo interested for longer than five minutes and this is how. As soon as he mentioned the minty toothpaste smell he linked teeth to dinosaurs and so out came some Dino cookie cutters to use and this added an extra ten mins or so to the activity.

4. Touch

I love creating play activities which are touch safe. There’s so many situations where you have to tell a child “no” that it’s hard to help them build up enough confidence to explore and problem solve. Of course we need boundaries and have to know not to touch hot water or ovens or to leave a tap running but sometimes children need to know why rules are in place and also have a change to use their problem solving skills to try and create solutions.

Lots of household objects are often “off limits” but if you create a safe environment to explore and supervise play then anything is possible with items you already have around the house. Arlo was obsessed with clothes pegs and so one afternoon I gave him a bunch attached to a mug tree and it was his job to try and pinch them off – really challenging those fine motor skills and then trying to also peg them back on. He also liked the sounds of my bracelets as they clinked on the metal and so we added in a ring toss type game with the mug tree too.

I use tuff trays, the mud kitchen outdoors, trays for dough and big tubs when we are using really slimey stuff indoors now. Learning things like the difference between hot and cold is a great life lesson and so we often use ice and warm water to melt things and demonstrate the difference and meaning of the two words.

Placing smaller bowls and cups inside a bigger environment works well for us. Arlo knows he can pour and mix and do all sorts within the boundaries of the tray. A great place to begin exploring paints and messy play is the bath tub for a quick clean up if you aren’t quite ready for the chaos of a tuff tray – then you can literally shower everything away and wash off in the same place.

Being able to touch things is a great way to help babies to explore food when weaning – smushing up fruits and covering faces with porridge is great fun and also a way to acquaint ourselves with new textures. Touch is also important as a pre-Curser to writing – learning to grasp tools and exercise all the muscles in their hands is great preparation for holding a pencil and so play for us is always very hands on. I always provide “tools” to interact with our play trays in different ways. Our drinks station had squeezey bottles, pipettes and cups to pour things. I keep our equipment in storage boxes and so often Arlo will approach a play activity and then run to fetch the tools he thinks he might need.

Whenever we use dough, I begin with one colour which is usually scented and one or two tools. Arlo will sit nicely and want to touch it and squish it, make marks with the rolling pin I have provided but his interest would wain within about ten minutes when he was younger. This is normal and a great time to introduce another layer – another colour dough or a new tool. Depending on his moods and interests on that day I might add a toy animal for him to make them stomp through the Dough and leave footprints behind. This example was a snowman building set and I added glitter and peppermint scent to the dough along with a tinker tray.

Tinker trays are a selection of bits and bobs which require a lot of extra investigation. It’s a little more of a grown up version of a sensory basket, and I like to save all sorts of bits and bobs to use. I will try to provide resources which fit a theme – little wooden trinkets, beads and buttons, Pipe cleaners etc. These tinker trays are great to explore on their own – you can play by sorting things by shape, size and colour. I also use these a lot with play dough, at almost four he will methodically explore the bits and add features like eyes, wings and legs to shapes to bring them to life.

A small selection of our art materials live in our accessible craft area at all times along with the usual PVA glue, and a big box of our recycled loo rolls and cardboard – so whenever Arlo says he wants to make something totally random like a peacock or a snowflake we can rummage through together and find the bits we need. I tend to rotate this around with the seasons so I’m about to swap in a lot of pastel colours for Spring.

5. Sound

It seems obvious to say “talk to your babies” and in some respects this has backfired on me because Arlo really is a chatter box. When he was tiny and I was at home on maternity leave I would literally narrate my entire day to him and I noticed pretty early on that he recognised my voice and would react to noisy toys with delight. We read books together and so a lot of our inspiration comes from rhythms and rhymes in stories. You can usually hear us before you see us.

Rattles and squeaky toys were fun back in the baby days. Almost every toy makes a noise but it’s fun trying to invent your own too. A saucepan and a wooden spoon can provide hours of entertainment, as can adding rice to a sealed bottle to make a shaker. If you use a transparent bottle then you can add in colours or if you use a shaker with a fabric lid you could use scented rice (layering the senses remember!) – I created a rainbow of sensory bottles for Arlo when he was tiny using coloured rice and feathers in sealed bottles so he could compare the weight and sounds when shaking the bottles. Notice that the bottle contents are also different colours too. Arlo’s favourite toys as a one year old were those which made the biggest bangs.

Now he’s older I like to try and interact with Arlo to discuss things as he plays – I will add things like a cardboard tube from a kitchen roll to a tray of rice or chick peas – he will pour the hard pieces down and listen to the rattling, cover each end and shake to make a noise. He loves the raspberry sound a squeezey bottle makes when it’s running out of air, or holding a cup under water to listen to the bubbles pop to the surface and just being as loud as he possibly can be. As he brings his toy animals in to play I will ask “why’s that” or “where’s he going” “what’s he doing”

The challenge now is to try and think of ways to incorporate all of the senses in to your play activities, they’re probably already present, but if you think about this before you set something up then you’re going to provide an enriched learning experience.

It’s just as important for adults to talk care if their senses – for advice and information check out Auris Ear Care

How to dye chickpeas for messy play.

I often use rice and chick peas for indoor play activities. They provide the sensory fun element of play but as dry ingredients the clean up process isn’t as daunting as it is with slime.

You will need:

  • Chick peas
  • Poster paint
  • Vinegar
  • A pint glass
  • Sandwich bags

My process for dying the peas is very simple, and I use the same process for rice too. I pop a sandwich bag inside a large glass and then fill it about 1/3 full with peas. Then I squeeze in some paint and add a small splash of vinegar. Then I pick up the bag and scrunch it to disperse the colour around the peas, making sure they’re all evenly covered.

I tend to leave the bags open on the kitchen. side with the peas spread out as much as possible, giving them a scrunch every time I walk past to prevent them sticking together and they do dry fairly quickly. If you’re making a big batch you can spread them out on a tray. I like to prepare a few colours at a time and keep them stored separately in air dry containers to arrange some themed play trays – green for farm land and blue for the ocean etc.

Every so often it’s fun to play with colour and so the first activity we set up with these chick peas was a simple pouring and scooping game. I often use a transparent under bed storage tub for indoor play on a large scale which is about 8 inches deep and it’s great – the peas can be poured at height making a rattling noise. You can use scoops, funnels and all sorts to inspire play and this is more than enough on its own.

We do like to re-use our dry messy play ingredients for as long as we can. My black Halloween chick peas have been with us for three years and are still going strong. Once these neon chickpeas were all mixed together Arlo said they reminded him of a chameleon and so this inspired a whole new game. Arlo went to fetch his toy chameleon and so I went to fetch his favourite book and printed off a colouring sheet from Twinkl at the same time.

I love it when we can link our play to a story and this was a real success. We sat together at the table reading the book and every time a different animal was mentioned Arlo charged through the house looking for his miniature toy creatures, and proceeded to hide them in the sensory bin. While he was doing this I hid the colouring sheet under the transparent base and so when we eventually got to the end of the book I told him the chameleon had camouflaged and so he had to scrape and scoop the chickpeas away to reveal the picture.

He was delighted to eventually reveal the chameleon and then he spent quite a while covering the picture up with chickpeas to match the book cover illustration and decorating his features – pointing out his curly tail and boogely eyes. I sat back happy to see him utilising those fine motor skills and sorting out the colours and counting to himself independently. This gave me another idea and so I fetched a ice cube tray from the kitchen cupboards. Entirely led by Arlo we discovered another way to play with our chickpeas – counting and sorting them out in to the compartments of the tray. He’s getting quite confident now and so I’ve been showing him very basic addition, counting out four and then saying “let’s add one” and asking “how many did we make?” – I don’t sit down with the intention of encouraging reading, writing and counting but when you play like this, there’s often ways you can incorporate learning without even realising.

So there we have it – from one batch of chickpeas we have created a variety of different activities and every single time we do this we uncover more ways to play taking inspiration from different colours and themes. We have been playing with neon and glow in the dark colours this last month as part of our “light and dark” theme and I’ll be uploading more activities very soon. Check out how we used neon paints outdoors here

Painting outdoors with toddlers

Arlo absolutely loves painting, and playing with colours. He hasn’t stopped talking about the snow painting activity we did and every morning he looks out of the window checking for snow. We do of course get our messy play materials out indoors but there’s nothing better than having a giant canvas outdoors. Unfortunately the snow has all gone, but I had an idea and thought we’d kick half term off with something big.

You will need:

  • An old sheet
  • Washing line and clothes pegs
  • Squeezy condiment bottles
  • Water based paint
  • Mark making tools (the broom is optional)

I filled the bottles, using a generous squeeze of paint and topping them up with water before giving them a good shake. This was a very cold day and so my top tip is to use warm water for this. We’ve been playing with neon and glow in the dark colours recently but this is a great activity to try with the three primary colours for mixing and experimenting.

Arlo attacked the sheet with vigour at first, splashing and squeezing the bottles but not long after we began he decided to fetch the broom himself and squeeze colours on to it to apply his colours to the sheet. The wind was strong but this made it all the more fun. He spent quite a while running through the sheet with the broom and laughing at the splashes of colour. I think he was playing at jousting but at this point in time I was taking cover.

The best thing about this activity is that because we have used watered down water based paints, after we have finished I can pop the sheet in the wash and re-use over and over again.

We have been playing with neon colours as part of our light and dark theme recently – check out how we played with dyed chick peas indoors here

Rainbow Snow Activity

I’ve never seen Arlo have quite as much fun as we did today. We’ve been lucky enough to have lots of snow recently and last night it was coming down thick and fast so I decided to put together this activity for the morning.

You will need:

  • Water based poster paint
  • Water
  • Condiment bottles

All you need to do is add a small amount of paint in to a bottle and fill it up with water. Shake them well and then let loose on the snow.

The spray bottles lasted a lot longer than the squeezey bottles which I topped up a couple of times. We started off tentatively with the primary colours – testing out mixing the sprays to make new colours and trying to be a bit educational – also utilising those hand muscles too.

Then we went crazy with the spray bottles – flinging the paint around and making rainbow colours in the snow – Arlo enjoyed making circles by spinning around.

We invented a new game by address my colours to snow balls and then throwing them to make some really cool splats on the garden shed.

We built a snowman together in the garden and he got his own technicolour coat to match Arlo’s – here’s a short video which shows how our morning went:

For more of our snow and ice activities click below

Ice cream Mud Kitchen set up

We had snow last night and I knew Arlo would want to play outdoors and so I rummaged around the house trying to think about what we could do – and an ice cream station seemed like the best plan.

You will need:

  • Cups / tubs
  • Spoons
  • Scoops
  • Slime/foam for ice cream
  • Water beads for sprinkles

It’s as simple as this to set up….. as you can see it was freezing cold outside so I made up batches of slime and our water beads with warm water which helped keep his hands warm when playing – keeping him outside for longer. Whenever I create a station like this I always make up an example, demonstrating how he can interact with the invitation to play and also because it’s fun to join in.

Arlo has a variety of tools and resources he likes to use in the mud kitchen including a turkey baster, normal kitchen spoons and measuring scoops. I pick things up in the high street shops and supermarkets whenever I get the chance and have found that plastic is best for this just because they are durable if they get left outside and they are also easy to clean. We have had years of use from some of our items.

Arlo found pinwheels in the garden plant pots and chose to decorate his creations and then we had lots of “make believe” play discussing how delicious everything was before eventually deciding that we needed to have some real ice cream and sprinkles indoors.

The slime from Zimplikids and foam from Kids Stuff Crazy were previously provided as PR samples.

Arctic indoor sensory bin activity

Continuing on with our Antarctic and winter themed play activities today I decided to make Arlo up a messy sensory bin of icebergs…. but instead of using a tuff tray outdoors I used a storage container which has a depth of about 20cm which is enough to contain the mess for indoor play.

You will need:

  • A storage box
  • Slime
  • Orbeez
  • Various plastic containers
  • Plastic Animals
  • Water

This was an activity which required a little bit of forward planning but because Arlo loves ice I’m in the habit of freezing things most evenings anyway. My initial idea was to just make huge ice blocks but I fancied a little bit of colour and so I threw some left over orbeez from a previous activity in to some plastic cups, cups, ice cube trays and as many containers as I had space for in the freezer.

They freeze quite nicely in to blocks and then it was simply a case of mixing up our slime stuff and popping our icebergs in to the container before placing the animals in and around, and the letting Arlo loose to play.

I know that Arlo loves this slime stuff and playing with water and cups etc as we usually use it in the bath – so I made this mixture up with half the water required and also provided cups and a jug of warm water – this meant that as water was added the ice bergs melted – the orbeez were released in to the mix and we ended up with a colourful sensory experience.

The best thing about using these under bed storage boxes is that they come with lids so after the play this morning we covered it all up, and then came back to it again this afternoon. I like to try and make the most of these big sensory bins when we use lots of materials so I’ll pop this stuff in to his mud kitchen or on his tuff spot outdoors tomorrow for some more messy play fun.

A snow dough tinker tray

Continuing on with our winter themed activities I have made a batch of snow dough, Thai is slightly different to our usual play dough recipe and has a texture which is a bit like kinetic sand. I added glitter and provided Arlo with a tinker tray and invited him to build snowmen with me.

You will need:

  • One cup of oil
  • Two cups of cornflour
  • Glitter

The secret here is to add the cornflour to the oil and not the other way round because it’s easier to mix it all up. Cornflour is the stuff we use to make oobleck and it’s non Newtonian texture means that it creates an unusual dough texture – its crumbly and flaky but makes fab snow balls. I use baby oil but if you have little ones who still mouth things then you can use vegetable oil just as well. Mixing the ingredients together is a part of the fun for little ones so roll your sleeves up together and get stuck in.

For alternative themes you can add food colouring and scents/flavours to your dough to create a more sensory experience.

I like to use “tinker trays” when we play with dough, they are party platters from Asda. I fill the compartments with random bits and bobs to suit the theme – so with the idea of building a snowman in mind I rummaged around and I found matchsticks for arms, pipe cleaners for a scarf and then various buttons, plus beads and sequins for facial features – and some cotton wool and buds just because they were to hand.

When we do things like this it’s always interesting to see how Arlo interacts with the pieces. I like to make an “example” ready for him to copy and give him an idea of where to start. Sometimes he pushes me aside and wants to completely get involved. Other times like today he sat beside me and gave me orders…. but didn’t want to actually touch anything at first.

He asked for a dog and so I moulded a shape and then he took over and added the button nose, Google eyes and pom-poms himself. He’s come back to the table two or three times to have a play and quite likes the matchsticks but insists that he doesn’t like snowmen so we’ll have to see where we end up. I’m going to try a different type of dough with cornflour later this week so we’ll see how we get on with this.

Creating a masterpiece

I thought I’d share a quick “how to” – this is such a simple idea, and if you get a couple of the steps right you can create something to treasure forever.

First things first – head to The works for your materials. You don’t need to spend huge amounts on things for arts and crafts, and their basic canvases come in all shapes and sizes.

You will need:

  • A canvas
  • Masking tape
  • Paints
  • Brushes

To get going use the masking tape to mark out something on your canvas – a name, a shape or just some random lines. We’ve tried hearts for gifts, a sunshine, initials etc – there’s no limits.

Now here’s where to focus – only put down one colour at a time to begin with. Use small amounts because it goes a long way. Try and stick to one colour per brush – this helps to stop everything becoming a brown mush.

The paint is going to get everywhere – just let it go! I use water based paints which do come off everything and I put something down, a tarpaulin or an old towel and have a pack of wipes to hand.

Here I’d just added the yellow – the order you place the colours is important – obviously Arlo doesn’t know about the colour wheel at this stage but we do – keeping red and green separate helps. It’s never going to be “perfect” but that’s the beauty of it.

Arlo was almost 14m when we did this activity and you can see in the video clips just how much he enjoyed himself. We spent about 45 mins painting and chatting about all the colours. Yes he did try and eat the paint brushes and we did make quite a lot of mess but he thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

The final thing to remember is to be patient with your finished piece. Don’t peel back the masking tape until the paint is dry. I left ours in the sunshine whilst Arlo had a splash around in the bath tub.

And voila – this little canvas takes pride of place in my front room.

Have you tried this out? Do you have any ideas for creative projects I could try at the weekend? Share your experience in the comments