This Ultimate Guide to Sensory Bins Using Water Beads, is an in-depth how-to for parents, to help intentionally provide sensory-expanding activities for their kids. It’s not an exhaustive list of every idea ever, but this is a great starting place to start building your own some sensory play ideas.
In my experience, all young children enjoy a great sensory play opportunity. And my kids are no exception. They love sensory play and it’s become an important part of our at-home enrichment plan.
In fact, playing with water beads is one of the few activities we’ve been doing for years and that my kids (and their friends) still find entertaining!
Let’s talk about why that is and what are the benefits of sensory play for children.
Ultimate Guide to Sensory Bins Using Water Beads
What Are Sensory Bins?
A sensory bin (sometimes called a sensory bottle, tub or box) is usually just a plastic tub (the kind you’d store winter clothes in) or a container of some sort (like a plastic bottle or cardboard box even) filled with items and materials specifically chosen to help stimulate a child’s senses, like touch, taste, sound, feel, smell and sight. Mostly used for play, these sensory bins can be filled with a wide variety of materials to help facilitate learning, experimentation and, sometimes relaxation or mediation.
The point of creating this opportunity for sensory play is to provide an activity that stimulates a young child’s exploration skills and naturally encourage them to develop their scientific learning and growth while they think they’re playing.
Why Are Sensory Bins Important?
Initially intended for children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), sensory bottles, bins and bags can also be a healthy learning opportunity for all children. It especially helps children with sensory processing concerns because being exposed, in a controlled environment, to what gives a person anxiety can often reduce that anxiety’s power.
And where else can children get a chance to solve problems using sense of touch, sight, sound, smell and taste? Sensory play encourages kids to use scientific processes by stimulating their senses, helping them to develop creative skills, social and emotional skills, cognitive function, linguistics and physical abilities through low-stress play.
Because the ability to learn and retain new information is increased when we engage more than one sense, it helps children to use these skills throughout their learning, while they play.
A sensory bin also:
- Encourages a child’s critical thinking skills, allowing a child to problem-solve on their own, make observations about the materials in the bin and come up with conclusions as they scoop, remove items, pour things from one smaller container to another and measure how much or count or anything they do.
- Foster a child’s imagination, allowing them to pretend to be anything from a farmer to a doctor with the items and tools you placed in the bin for them. Sensory bins are really easy to customize to specific themes.
- Strengthens a child’s fine-motor skills as they squeeze and manipulate tweezers, tongs or other tools and items in the box.
- Helps a child to build their language skills by introducing new words to their vocabulary when different and unfamiliar items are placed in the bin.
What Do Sensory Bins Teach?
In addition to triggering and growing a child’s scientific exploration skills, they’ll learn valuable skills like scooping, pouring, and dumping; spoon skills and transferring skills. You’d be surprised how important it is for children to know how to use a set of tweezers or tongs–and how to find items buried in sand or cloud dough.
These kinds of kids are invaluable for helping children to learn to solve problems on their own and grow their exploration skills. It also helps to develop their fine and motor skills.
When to Start Playing with Sensory Bins?
Right this very minute. Early childhood is the best time, but even if you’re past that, your child will still benefit and get a lot of enjoyment out of it. There have many times where I end up playing with the water beads too because they feel great and relaxing!
All you need to get started is a box or bin with age-appropriate tools and items in your sensory bin. You can start a kid’s growth with sensory bins at any age, at any time.
Just be sure, with the very small children, that you don’t place anything in their sensory bin that might be a choking hazard, especially, if they have a tendency to put things in their mouth… It’s always a good rule of thumb to supervise kids when playing with sensory tools.
What Age Is Best for Sensory Bins?
No matter your child’s age or skill level, they will definitely benefit from sensory play. It doesn’t matter the child’s age, investigating items that trigger you to use all of your senses is fun and exciting! In fact, it even benefits adults to be reminded not to be uncomfortable with mess, and sensory play can be the perfect tool for that.
But, when using water beads, definitely supervise your kiddo if they have a tendency to put things in their mouth. Because water beads could be a choking hazard for little ones.
We started using water beads when our children started walking, so they can be used with really young ones too! (Under supervision!)
How to Make Sensory Bins with Water Beads?
Pick the container:
Depending on the number of children playing the bin, you may want a larger or smaller bin. If you plan to take this sensory bin traveling or you want to keep it overnight, I recommend finding a container with a lid.
- For one or two children, these types of containers work well:
- small baking dish (glass or pan)
- shallow Tupperware container
- dish tub
- storage box with lid – this is my go-to box when I’m making individual sensory boxes or when we’ll be traveling with them
- For 2 or more children, you’ll need a larger container so the kids can all comfortably get hands into the bin. These containers will generally work well:
- large new (un-used) litter box
- small inflatable pool
- shallow large storage container (like you would use for winter clothes). We got one of these and I found it to be a great size to use with multiple children. We got our bin when we started doing sensory play activities and have been using the same bin for over 6 years.
If you follow me on Instagram stories you will be this bin used in a action quite frequently.
Pick a Theme:
Themes for sensory bin ideas can be anything, and I usually just find inspiration from the things around the house. Many times we don’t even do a theme, we just make the water beads, add some Safari TOOB toys and use our sensory tools.
But, if you’re looking, here are some ideas:
- Rice Sensory Bin – if you don’t have sensory beads, you could rice instead
- Frozen “Dinosaur Eggs”
- Beach or Ocean Themed
- Farm Sensory Play
- Digging for Bugs
- Build a Snowman
Choose a Base Material:
While I prefer making sensory bins with water beads you can use items and substances that are interesting to feel and touch and that have interesting smells. Using items that make a little noise when you brush your fingers through it can be fun, too.
You can make sensory bins with:
- water beads
- uncooked rice
- dried beans
- dry pasta
- tiny rocks
Water beads are super easy to “make”, they’re clean and, frankly, they’re really fun. Plus you only need a tablespoon to make an entire bin so one pack of water beads has lasted me for years.
Tip: If you make a sensory bin using a plastic shoe box, I recommend you add 2 teaspoons of water beads – it will look like very little but once they grow, they will take up about half the bin.
You can also let your water bins dry and reuse them in the future.
Water beads also come in different sizes, most grow to a standard size and others grow to jumbo size. Here are out favorite picks:
Decide What to Put in Your Sensory Bin:
To make your sensory bin more fun (because, frankly, water beads are fun on their own, but adding more is never bad), add several small, interesting things. I like to pick out small waterproof toys that go with whatever theme I’ve chosen. So, for example, if we’re going for dinosaur dig, I find all the little plastic dinosaurs in the house and add them in.
I like that our sensory bin with water beads is helping the kids to build their fine motor skills, so I like to add tools like:
- tweezers and tongs
- scoops and measuring cups
- magnifying glass
- a turkey baster, and similar
- you can also just get one of these sets instead
How to Keep a Sensory Bin from Becoming a Mess?
I don’t get too worried about the kids making a mess with the water bead sensory bins anymore because we’ve played with them so much, it’s kind of a given that they understand the rules. But, if you’re concerned that there might be a mess, especially your first time playing with water beads in your sensory bin, take it outside, put a tablecloth under the bin or stick it in an empty tub and tell your kids to jump in.
Then you can just “brush it off” and be done with any mess the kids might make.
And, I think it helps a lot if you give your child very clear instruction about how to play with a sensory bin. I told mine that the items in our bin cannot be put in our mouth or thrown, or even put outside the box, unless they plan to clean it up before we’re done. Then I just supervise what they’re doing and make sure we don’t get off track and start throwing water beads at each other.
Where to Buy Sensory Bins and Sensory Bin Tools?
Often, I just use the tools around my house to play with our sensory boxes – things I found at the local craft stores or in our home. However, you can find all the supplies you need on Amazon or Etsy. Here some of my favorite items – which you can also view for inspiration:
- Water beads
- Giant water beads
- Water beads separated by colors
- Wooden Scoops Tongs and Bowls
- Sensory Box Stand
- Extra Long Box Stand
Although it’s really easy to figure out how to make a sensory bin on your own, I have, admittedly, thought about buying a kit or two (because they’re just SO CUTE!). Here are some of my favorite sensory bin kits you can buy and just add to your water beads that I’ve found online:
- Construction Bin
- Anatomy Box
- Planting a Garden Set
- Farm Life
- Fall Baking Sensory Bin
- Ocean themed bin
- Dinosaur excavation set
- Outer Space Bin
There are just so many ways to use water beads in sensory play. But again, it’s really all up to you because you’re providing your child an opportunity to explore – so you get to decide WHAT they’ll explore.
And remember that sometimes simple is best – having water beads is a must but everything else you add to your bin is up to you!
If you love this and would like to be able to come back to it to remind yourself of the benefits of sensory play, be sure to pin this to your favorite sensory play board on Pinterest!