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Creative Play

8 Sensory Activities to Engage Kids So You Can Make Dinner


Sensory activities are calming for toddlers & preschoolers and improve fine motor development and assist with language acquisition. Rachelle Doorley of Tinkerlab shares her favorite sensory activities to help your family get through the witching hour.

water beads_rachelle doorley

Updated May 2021

The Power of Sensory Activities

The other day my kids and I came home to a sink full of dishes, an art table that was hit by a tornado, and a living room that had been turned into fort city the night before.

In short, my home was a mess.

When we walked in the door my girls, ages 2 and 4, each wanted my attention—one asked me to help her with a Valentine-making activity and the other wanted me to play a mermaid game.

And me...

I had one eye on the dishes and another on the clock that was ticking closer and closer to dinner time, and I wanted to help my girls find something that they could work on together, without my assistance.

Do you have moments like this?

My first inclination is to say, “Just a minute…I have to wash these dishes and I’ll be right with you.” But this only frustrates my kids who can see, by the size of the dish pile, just how long that “minute” might be.

wheat berry sensory bin_rachelle doorley

What I did instead was pull out a large plastic container that was filled with wheat berries, little bowls and scoopers, miniature trees and rocks, and small farm characters. I sat down on the kitchen floor with my girls for a few minutes and invited them to play with me. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t, but the other day they bit. And before you knew it they were pouring “rain” wheat berries on the farm. And inventing landscaping solutions, moving the characters through the imaginary world that confronted them.

After playing with them for a few minutes, I was able to step aside and get dinner going. Win-win!

The Benefits of Sensory Activities

  • Calming: Playing with dry rice, sand, water, play dough, and other materials that stimulate the senses can calm children and improve their focus
  • Find inner voice: Sensory experiences encourage children to tap their inner voice as they test their ideas and explore the phenomena of the material/s that are in front of them
  • Fine motor development: Oftentimes sensory experiences foster fine motor skills as children are challenged to scoop, pour, cut, sift, or mold.
  • Language acquisition: Sensory experiences can build language acquisition when adults facilitate the experience with contextual description language such as, “You’re moving the sand into the corner of the box,” or “Do you feel the warm water pouring over your hands?”

The Challenges of Sensory Activities {for grown-ups}

For the above-mentioned reasons, sensory experiences are wonderful for children, but one of the most common points of resistance from adults is that they are often, ahem, messy.

Yes, I said it.

But please, don’t let that stop you from introducing these experiences to your children.
In the wheat berry-filled box example I just shared, the aftermath of the experience is that my kitchen floor was covered in wheat berries. But it was easily cleaned with a few swift passes of the vacuum.

Favorite Sensory Activities for Kids

water scooping for babies_rachelle doorley

Water Scooping for Babies

This is one of the first sensory activities that my children were introduced to. We drink it, bathe in it, cook with it, and water our plants with it. Water is familiar to children, safe to touch, and endlessly fascinating.

cloud dough_rachelle doorley

Cloud Dough

This moldable, yet crumbly, dough is made from flour and oil. That’s it. It’s so simple and I’ve found that even if it spills all over my table and hardwood floors, it’s easy to clean up. If you add a little bit of lavender oil to the dough it will also leave your hands with a yummy smell.

cutting slime_rachelle doorley


The texture of this gooey substance is somewhere between play dough and silly putty. If you have carpets you’ll want to cover them first, but this is otherwise a fine activity to do indoors.

ingredients for oobleck_rachelle doorley

Goop (also known as Oobleck)

A simple mixture of cornstarch and water. It feels like a solid, and then a liquid…the texture will boggle the mind.

water beads_rachelle doorley

Water Beads

You’ll want to keep a close eye on small children who mouth objects. This is one of the most popular sensory experiences in my home.

sensory play ripping wet paper_rachelle doorley

Tearing wet paper

I gave my toddler a tub of water to play with and she carried sheets of paper over to it. Before I knew it she was soaking the paper and shredding it. She loved this activity.

shredded paper_rachelle doorley

Shredded paper

This is a super messy activity, but my kids ask for it ALL the time. See what you think.

wheat berry sensory play_rachelle doorley

Wheat Berries

Read more about how my girls used wheat berries in their play. Wheat berries could easily be substituted with dry rice, beans, sand, or lentils.

More Sensory Activities for Kids

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8 Sensory Activities to Engage Kids So You Can Make Dinner


  • Reply
    [email protected]
    February 13, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    Love your ideas and site. Thank you for making my job as a mother a lil easier and fun!

  • Reply
    February 14, 2013 at 6:19 am

    I absolutely love these ideas – I never thought of putting lavender oil in play doh or ooblek, but what a wonderful idea. Especially for its calming properties at the witching hour! I am due for a new batch of play doh – I think we will add lavender oil…

  • Reply
    February 14, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Love these ideas, we have enjoyed almost all of them at our home. It’s true, they are messy, but nothing a vacume can’t clean up and much better than distracting with tv, in my opinion. My daughter ate a bunch of the water beads one day and after a call to poison control, I learned that they are non-toxic ;)

  • Reply
    February 14, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Great post! You read my mind. Just yesterday I sprayed a good bit of shaving cream into the bathroom sink for my 2.5 boy who was bouncing off the walls while his sister wanted her nails painted. I gave him a comb and some bath toys. He played with the shaving cream for half an hour at least. It was very easy to clean up and I thought to myself, “we have to do more activities like this in the witching hour.”

  • Reply
    February 14, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    Love the activities you’ve introduced. Where can I get water beads?

  • Reply
    Rachelle | Tinkerlab
    February 14, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    Hi Sheila!
    You can find water beads in the floral section of the craft store — we get ours at JoAnn Fabrics. If you click on the link to the water bead post, you’ll see another link to where you buy them online. Or just do a search on Amazon for water beads or aqua crystals.
    Have fun!

  • Reply
    February 14, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    Thanks for sharing these, we love a lot of these activities in our house, too. I often find that the bin of beans or the play dough that I left out for my preschooler attracts the older kids after school. My eight year old spent 45 minutes scooping beans while I made dinner last night… he was so calmed, almost like a zen meditation!
    Another favorite in our house is playing with shaving cream in the bathtub. It can be a little slippery, but the older kids still love this one, too.

  • Reply
    December 3, 2013 at 12:37 am

    Fantastic .activities I did as a child but its that long ago one forgets!! Thanks x

  • Reply
    December 3, 2013 at 10:45 am

    These are all great ideas and I have tried some of them wih my exuberant 4-year-old. Sometimes they are a success but other times he really takes things way further than I could have ever imagined and feel comfortable with (for example smearing shaving cream all over the car and me and the garden furniture and the he wants to have a water fight when I get the hose out to clean the car). I recognise that his creativity will be a desirable quality as an adult but I usually feel like my nerves are totally fried by the end of an activity and it takes me a while to work up the courage to try again. I want to say, I do feel like I am quite open to children’s mess in the house (my son can draw a mural with chalk on the outside of the house, my daughter can open multiple tea bags and tip them on the kitchen floor etc etc). I do try to think of ways to minimize any potential for things to go too far beyond my comfort zone but my son often seems to take things in a totally different direction. Maybe I need to reframe the concept of mess, maybe I need to find ways to make cleaning up seem fun (any ideas?). If you have any tips are thoughts I’d love to hear them. I always read these blogs with parents talking about how occupied their kids are by sensory play and I really want to share those experiences with him.

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