How to Find Sensory Materials on the Cheap

Photo provided by ba1969.

dollar-sign3So you’ve found a way to create a sensory table without a huge hit to your budget.  Now how do you keep it filled with a variety of materials without dipping into your rainy day fund?  There are plenty of fantastic sensory experiences that you can provide with little or no cost, and most of them are reusable!

Capitalize on Catastrophe.  If you’re as lucky as I am, you have a few extra hands in your house that tend to increase the number of spills in your kitchen.  I’d be lying if I said all the spills were at the hands of my children.  Suffice it to say that between the four of us in our home, the floor has seen its fair share of disaster.  When these spills happen in our “dry foods department” and on a large scale, I scoop them up and store them with my sensory supplies rather than throwing them out in the trash can.  This is how my popcorn kernel supply began, and has also contributed to my colored rice collection.  With flour and salt, I often bag them up and save them for making playdough

Don’t worry if you don’t have small hands to help empty the contents of your pantry.  Grocery stores have their fair share of spills and stocking mishaps.  Get on good terms with someone at your local grocery store and offer to take any packages of rice, pasta, cornmeal, popcorn, flour, etc, that happen to end up with a small tear or are spliced open while unpacking boxes.  These items would otherwise be thrown out, but can find a second purpose in  your sensory table.

Think Outside the Box.  Consider how excited you are when you receive that long awaited package in the mail.  Ever notice that children are just as excited about the packaging that remains in the “empty” box?  Save those packing peanuts and poofs and use them in your sensory table.  Bury toys and add cups and you’ll be surprised at how long it will captivate your children.

One Man’s Trash.  My mom once embarked on a carpentry endeavor and proudly build her own bench with the help of her woodworking brother.  As she showed off her final product, she also pointed out a bucketful of sawdust leftover from the undertaking and asked if I could use it for anything.  I was almost embarrassed that I hadn’t come up with it myself!  We packed some into a box, and it has become a quick favorite with the children at the sensory bin!  They dig for plastic bugs and compact it into different sized cups.  What would otherwise end up in a garbage bag has provided the children with whom I work with a fun sensory activity with a unique texture and a connection with natural material.  Think about ways to use other “garbage” like  piles of paper from your paper shredder (add water for a more interesting effect) or leftover stuffing and beads from expired toys and beanbags.

Act Naturally.  Consider all of the natural textures around you that you can bring indoors for closer examination.  Dig a few shovelfuls of dirt from your garden, complete with worms, and let the children add water, dig holes, and explore with magnifiers.  In the winter, fill your bin with snow!  Add some cookie cutters to make designs, paint the snow with colored water, or simply dig and play until it melts and then examine the impurities in the resulting water.  Fill the bin with leaves and twigs in fall, adding a few plastic animals for dramatic play.  If you have sod to spare, cut out a patch of grass with plenty of dirt so the children can explore the grass, root systems, and soil with magnifiers and tweezers.  And then there’s water!  The ways you can use that in your sensory table should be a post of its own!  The list of natural sensory media could go on and on!  The next time you’re out on your own nature walk, take note of the fascinating features that could be further explored in your sensory bin!

You don’t have to break the bank buying prepackaged sensory materials from high-priced catalogs.  Just open your mind to the variety of textures and sensory experiences that present themselves each day and find a way to let children explore them within the boundaries and budget of your situation.



Filed under Learning through Play and Experience

7 Responses to How to Find Sensory Materials on the Cheap

  1. Pingback: A Handful of Fun: Why Sensory Play is Important for Preschoolers | Modern Familia

  2. sara

    How do you store all of your sensory and fun knick knack items for your kids to experiment with? My little boy is only 15 months and so I haven’t had a ton of experience with this yet but just thinking about all the things I could keep to help him explore the world makes me feel overwhelmed. If I had an organized way of keeping things I’d be more inclined to save them from going to the garbage when I happen upon them.

    Also, do you have a running list (or would you be willing to make one for us “list” people who need something to glance at :) of sensory mediums and objects to use in them that I could use to refer to. I realize it could be lengthy and I guess the sky is the limit. It’s more the objects to use with the mediums that I am having a hard time thinking about.

    Thanks so much for you website. It is amazing!! Especially for those of us who didn’t experience a lot of “exploring” as children and don’t exactly know where or how to start. Keep it comin’! :)

    • notjustcute

      Great suggestions! I do just as you do – several compressible items get their own baggies and are put together in a larger bin or even a Costco-sized bucket left over from dish soap or laundry detergent (they come with great stackable lids). I use a lot of the shoe-box sized storage bins for media like sand, beans, and rice. Don’t feel like you have to store them all. Sometimes you can enjoy something — like a pile of shredded paper left over from your office — spend a few days exploring and playing with it and then send it on its way to the recycling bin as was intended in the first place. You could also network with a few other friends, make a list of sensory media, and divide it among yourselves, so that you each have one or two at a time and rotate to keep things new. As for objects for working in the media, you’re right, the sky’s the limit and NannyDebbie gave some great suggestions to start you out. I like to hang on to the plastic scoops from formula, drink mixes, and detergents and let the kids explore with the different sizes. You could also use measuring spoons and cups. Tubes, funnels, “treasures”, basters and droppers, metal bowls (engagingly noisy with beans and such), and I’m dying to get my hands on an old hand-powered egg-beater for water play. You’ve given me a great topic to write a whole post on!

  3. NannyDebbie

    You can store sensory items in plastic “ziplock” bags, shoe boxes (reused or purchased plastic). Depending on what you are slowly adding to your “stash” ziplock bags take up less space. To store things like feathers, cotton balls, strips of ribbon or yarn they don’t need a box. I bag up the items and put them in double size shoe box for the art cabinet.
    At work I’m always looking in the recycling bin for things to reuse!
    Prewashed lettuce/spinach containers (like clear strawberry containers without holes) are the perfect size for tubes of finger paint (needed a container that was stackable for markers and other art supplies).

    As far as WHAT to use for the sensory objects… plastic cups, spoons, ladles, bowls, strainer, sand/water wheel, toilet paper or paper towel tubes, beach toys…rake, shovel, bucket, small watering can. Comb, brush, cars, plastic animals, legos …endless!

  4. Michelle Ashby

    Hello. I am just establishing some specific sensory education at our house. My son was just recently diagnosed with sensory integration disfunction. He just turned four this month and appears very hyperactive. I am told that he is sensory seeking. I am just now learning about this disorder and am trying to implement things at home that will help him develop. We have a LARGE sand box in our back yard that he loves to play in. It is approximately 6 foot by 3 1/2 foot. Him and his sister sit in the box and play for hours. He dislikes water in his face or around his head / ears. He also has a hard time intermittently with loud or competing sounds. I would love to have input from you.

  5. Pingback: No Cost Fun for Toddlers and Preschoolers | Imagine Toys Blog

  6. We’ve been doing a lot of sensory play with food, as one of my twins is in food therapy and also has sensory issues. I’ve found if you do it at morning tea time, quite a bit ends up in their mouth – so sensory play with food is serving two purposes! (e.g. custard coloured blue is the sea, weetbix acts as dirt for digging). Love your website BTW.

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