Ultimate Guide to Sensory Play for Toddlers



· 5 min read
Sensory play setup with colorful bins and textures for toddlers

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova

Introduction to Sensory Play

Sensory play refers to any activities that stimulate a child's senses of touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing. It involves hands-on exploration and play using a variety of materials that engage the senses. Sensory play allows toddlers and young children to use their senses to learn about the world around them.

There are many benefits to sensory play for toddlers and young children. It promotes cognitive growth as children make connections between what they see, touch, hear, smell, and taste. Sensory play builds nerve connections in the brain's pathways which leads to the child's ability to complete more complex learning tasks. Sensory play also supports language development, fine motor skills, problem solving skills, and social interaction. Toddlers learn by exploring their environment through their senses, so sensory play facilitates this type of experiential learning.

The 5 Senses

Toddlers experience the world through their senses. By engaging their senses through play, toddlers build nerve connections in their brains that lay the foundation for future learning and development. There are five main senses that sensory play targets in toddlers:


Tactile sensory play focuses on developing fine motor skills and sensory recognition through touch. Activities such as playing with different textures, sensory bins, and finger painting provide toddlers with hands-on experiences that promote tactile awareness and cognitive growth.


Visual sensory play aids in developing crucial skills like color recognition, eye-tracking, and visual attention. Engaging activities such as colorful light exploration, mirror play, and shadow puppetry can significantly enhance visual processing abilities in toddlers.


Sound-related sensory activities help toddlers distinguish between different sounds, supporting language development and auditory processing. Simple instruments, sound matching games, and environmental sound identification are effective ways to enrich auditory senses.


Taste sensory play encourages toddlers to explore a variety of flavors and textures, promoting healthy eating habits and sensory integration. Activities like safe-to-eat play doughs, flavor painting, and taste testing are fun ways to develop taste preferences and vocabulary.


Introducing activities that stimulate the sense of smell can enhance memory and emotional learning. Using scented waters, markers, and engaging in garden explorations help toddlers make strong cognitive connections related to olfactory cues.


Tactile play activities that stimulate the sense of touch provide many benefits for toddlers. According to research, sensory play builds nerve connections in the brain's pathways which are related to fine motor skills, cognitive growth, and social interaction. Tactile activities also aid in developing hand-eye coordination and dexterity.

There are many easy DIY ideas for tactile sensory play at home:

  • Sensory bins - Fill bins with materials like rice, beans, water, sand, or cloud dough. Let toddlers explore the textures with their hands.
  • Finger painting - Using safe, non-toxic paints allows toddlers to experiment with textures and colors.
  • Playdough - Roll, squeeze, and mold homemade or store-bought dough.
  • Water play - Add cups, funnels, droppers, and toys to tubs of water.
  • Cloud dough - Mix flour and oil to create soft, moldable dough.

Always supervise young toddlers during sensory play. Set up stations with limited mess, and allow toddlers to freely explore different tactile sensations.


Visual sensory play is crucial for developing eye-tracking skills, hand-eye coordination, and color recognition in toddlers. Activities that stimulate the eyes and brain's visual system promote healthy visual development. According to the Inspired Treehouse, the visual system is one of the most important sensory systems to nurture in early childhood.

Here are some ideas for DIY visual sensory play at home:

  • Light play - Shine flashlights or laser pointers on the wall or floor for toddlers to chase. Use colored cellophane over the light source to make colored shadows.
  • Color sorting - Provide containers of colored pom poms, blocks, or beads and have toddlers sort by color.
  • Visual sensory bins - Fill clear containers with water, beads, glitter, or other visually stimulating materials.
  • Color matching games - Match colored clothespins to a card or colored objects to their matching silicone ice cube tray spot.

Safely exposing toddlers to a variety of colors, lights, and visually stimulating textures promotes healthy visual development. Rotate materials regularly to keep visual sensory play novel and engaging. For more visual sensory ideas, see this list from Your Kid's Table.


Auditory stimulation is critical for developing listening and language skills in toddlers. Activities that engage the sense of hearing promote focus and concentration, build vocabulary, and allow toddlers to differentiate between sounds. Listening games strengthen auditory memory and sequencing abilities. Making noise with homemade instruments also enables creativity and self-expression.

There are many DIY ways to incorporate sound into sensory play at home. Fill containers with rice, beans or pasta to make shakers. Let toddlers experiment with different materials to compare the sounds. Make rain sticks by putting beans in paper towel rolls. Play music and encourage toddlers to dance, sing or play along with rhythm instruments. Get creative with items around the house - pots, pans, spoons and plastic containers can become drums. Record everyday sounds and see if toddlers can identify them. Simple games like listening for a certain word in a song build auditory discrimination.

Outdoors, go on a listening walk and pause to identify sounds in nature. Make a listening lotto game matching pictures of items with their sounds. Sing nursery rhymes and pause for toddlers to fill in the missing word. With a little creativity, parents can easily stimulate and develop their toddler's auditory sense through play.


Exploring taste is an important part of sensory play for toddlers. Tasting new foods and textures helps develop their gustatory senses. There are many benefits of gustatory play:

  • Encourages toddlers to try new foods and expand their palates
  • Helps develop language and descriptive skills as toddlers learn words to describe tastes
  • Stimulates and engages multiple senses at once
  • Promotes fine motor development as toddlers use hands and fingers to eat

Here are some fun DIY ideas for taste sensory play:

Edible Finger Paint

Mix together yogurt, food coloring or fruit purees, and a thickening agent like corn starch or flour. Let toddlers create art and lick their fingers clean! The textures will thrill their sense of taste. See the full recipe at Pinterest.

Sensory Bags

Fill small ziplock bags with edible items in different flavors, like mini chocolate chips, raisins, cheerios, goldfish crackers, etc. Let toddlers squish the bags and take a taste of the contents. It's a tasty way to explore new textures and flavors. Get inspiration from Empowered Parents.

Gustatory play allows toddlers to explore new tastes and food textures while developing their senses. Get creative with edible finger paint, sensory bags, and tasting parties!


Smell activities are a great way to engage your toddler's sense of smell and introduce new scents. According to research, sensory play that stimulates smell in the early years helps develop connections in the brain responsible for memory and emotion. Scent exploration encourages toddlers to use scientific thinking to identify different smells and make distinctions.

Some fun DIY ideas to try at home include:

  • Scented play dough - add a few drops of essential oils like lavender or lemon to store-bought or homemade play dough
  • Smelling jars - place cotton balls with extracts like vanilla, almond, peppermint into small containers with holes punched in the lids
  • Scented cloud dough - mix a few drops of essential oil into cloud dough made from cornstarch and vegetable oil
  • Smell scratch and sniff cards - make your own scented cards for your toddler to sniff

Let your toddler sniff and explore new scents to build their scent memory. Smelling activities for toddlers stimulate brain development in a fun, hands-on way.

Sensory Play for Different Ages

Sensory play looks different as toddlers grow and develop new skills. Here are some age-appropriate sensory activities:

12-24 months

At this age, toddlers are gaining mobility and independence. Sensory play for 12-24 months may include:

  • Finger painting with pudding or yogurt on a high chair tray
  • Playing with sensory bottles filled with water, glitter, beads, etc.
  • Dumping and filling containers in a bin of dry beans, rice, or sand
  • Squishing play dough and clay
  • Simple puzzles with knobs, textures, or lift-the-flaps

2-3 years

As toddlers gain more coordination, sensory play gets more complex. Ideas for 2-3 year olds include:

  • Digging in a sandbox and molding wet sand
  • Painting with fingers, brushes, sponges, rollers
  • Playing dress up with different textured costumes
  • Dancing to music with scarves, ribbons, and streamers
  • Sorting objects by touch - smooth vs rough, hard vs soft

Focusing sensory play on your toddler's emerging abilities promotes healthy development.

Setting Up a Sensory Play Station

Setting up a designated sensory play station can help contain the mess while allowing toddlers to freely explore different textures and materials. The best sensory play stations have a few key features:

Best Materials and Supplies

Look for supplies that engage multiple senses like rice, beans, water, sand, and playdough. Open containers like plastic bins, buckets, and trays allow kids to scoop and pour. Include spoons, cups, funnels, and sieves for transferring materials. Soft brushes, sponges, and paintbrushes introduce new textures. Add hidden treasures like plastic animals, letter beads, pom poms, or seashells to discover. Rotate materials regularly to maintain interest.

Sensory Table Ideas

A plastic table or tub provides a contained space for sensory play. Look for one with high sides to prevent spills. Use a flat bottom tub for water play or a textured tub for tactile exploration. Cover the area below with a plastic mat, old sheet, or shower curtain. Adjust the height so your toddler can access the materials while seated or standing.

Storage and Organization

Use clear labeled bins, baskets or trays to store sensory materials like beans, rice, and small toys. Shelving, over-the-door hanging organizers and drawer organizers can neatly store the supplies. A rolling cart provides portable storage that can easily be moved from room to room. Set up the station in an area that can be easily cleaned like a laundry room, bathroom, or kitchen.

Safety Tips

When engaging toddlers in sensory play, it's crucial to keep safety top of mind. Here are some key things to consider:

Supervision - Always directly supervise toddlers during sensory play. Stay engaged and watch them closely to make sure they are safe. Toddlers are prone to putting non-food items in their mouths, so vigilance is a must. Source

Choking hazards - Avoid any small, loose pieces that could become a choking hazard if put in the mouth. Items like beans, beads, and small toys can easily become lodged in a toddler's airway. Stick to larger pieces or supervise very closely with smaller items. Source

Allergies - Be aware of any food allergies and avoid those ingredients during sensory play. For example, if a toddler has a peanut allergy, do not use peanut butter. Some children may also have skin sensitivities, so watch for any adverse reactions with creams, paints, or soaps used. When in doubt, check with parents. Source


About Claudia

Claudia brings a wealth of experience and passion to ProKids. As a loving mother and an advocate for child-centered education, she believes in the power of play ...

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