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The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Materials Your Kids Will LOVE to Explore

by Jean Van't Hul
August 9, 2021

Sensory materials are great for children’s development and can be used in learning, play, & art activities. The more senses we regularly use, the better.

Foam paint and animals
Photo by Rachel Withers

Updated June 2021

We’ve always been big fans of sensory materials and sensory experiences.

And while some children seem to crave sensory experiences more than others, they are important for all kids. The more senses we involve regularly—touching, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting—the better.

Jean Van’t Hul

Young children, especially, learn about the world with their whole bodies. 

Sensory materials and experiences can be wonderfully engaging (and also calming and grounding, depending on how you use them).

Some natural sensory-rich experiences include cooking, playing in nature, gardening, swimming, and swinging.

Sensory Materials for Kids

The Importance of Sensory Materials for Kids

Sensory play and sensory activities are not just fun for kids. They encourage young children to explore and investigate. Sensory play and sensory art therapy can also help build nerve connections in the brain and encourage the development of fine motor skills.

Jean Van’t Hul

Sensory play helps build both physical and mental abilities. It stimulates the five senses: sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste. It can provide a sense of calm and comfort for a child and can help them learn to regulate their behavior, which can ultimately also improve focus.

Want to learn more? See Why Sensory Play Is Important for more information and fun sensory play ideas for kids.

You provide children with the opportunity to learn, play and encourage creativity with sensory rich materials. Without further ado, here are some of our favorites.

Sensory Materials for Kids

Cloud Dough with toys
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

1. Cloud Dough

Recipe: 8 cups flour to 1 cup oil (baby oil or vegetable/canola oil). To color your cloud dough, mix oil based (candy) food coloring with oil first.

Watch our Youtube video on how to make cloud dough!

Oobleck and toys at sensory table
Photo by Rachel Withers

2. Oobleck 

Oobleck, or sensory goop, is super easy to make. And there’s a surprising number of fun ways to learn while playing with this non-Newtonian liquid.

It looks messy, I know, but it’s simply cornstarch and water, making it easy to make and clean up.

Glitter slime for kids
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

3. Homemade Slime

Slime is also easy to make at home! Plus, it’s a great sensory material to hold, squeeze, stretch, and fiddle with. A super fun sensory material for big kids to mix up at home. And be sure to try out How to Make Slime Creations for Kids afterwards.

You can even make giant bubbles with it! Here are a few of The Artful Parent’s favorite recipes:

  1. How to Make Fluffy Slime!
  2. 5 Fluffy Slime Recipes to Try
  3. Maia’s Best Ever Butter Slime Recipe

Boy playing with shaving cream
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

4. Shaving cream 

Shaving cream is always a favorite sensory and art material for kids. It’s fun to paint with, rub all over your body, or paint the window!

Here are lots of idea for using shaving cream for kids’ art, play, and learning, including shaving cream marbling, sensory table ideas, holiday crafts, and parties.

Photo by Rachel Withers

5. Kinetic sand 

Kinetic sand is another favorite sensory material for kids to play with. There are lots of brands out there and, chances are, you’ve tried at least one of them. Kinetic sand both flows through the fingers and holds shapes remarkably well. My kids love to play with this stuff!

Child playing with playdough on tray with toy animals and poke ins.
Photo by Rachel Withers

6. Playdough

We might not usually think of playdough as a sensory material, but it totally is! Kids can knead and mold the dough, roll it into balls and snakes, poke their fingers into it, and squish it between their hands. P

Playdough is a wonderful sensory material and can be made even more so with the addition of essential oils or textures.

Water play table with citrus and flowers
Photo by Rachel Withers

7. Water

Water is another fun sensory experience for children, especially in warm weather. Kids love to run through a sprinkler on a hot day, play with water balloons, splash in the creek or kiddie pool, take extra baths, and water the garden. You can also use water play tables or make your own water wall.

Kids playing with aquafaba
Photo by Rachel Withers

8. Aquafaba

Aquafaba is a newer sensory play material made using the liquid from a can of chickpeas. If you’ve never hear of it, be sure to check out our recipe and instructions on this fun taste safe material for babies on up!

Kids playing with bubble foam and animals
Photo by Rachel Withers

9. Bubble Foam

This sensory activity also has what it takes to become a messy play experience. For this, all you need is a bit of water and a few squirts of dish soap. Once blended together, the mixture should become nice and thick.

You can pour the soap and water mixture onto a tray and let the kids play in it. Or add a couple of drops of food coloring to turn the foam into the kids’ favorite colors so they can create some foamy sensory art.

Recipe: Bubble foam is 1 part (tear free) bubble bath to 2 parts water.

Kids playing at rice table with pom poms
Photo by Rachel Withers

10. Rice Bin

Rice bins present a calming and quiet opportunity for kids to explore sensory play. Dyed rice is easy to make with a teaspoon of vinegar and a squirt of food coloring or liquid watercolors added to a bag of rice. For multiple colors, add 3 cups of rice per Ziploc. Seal and shake to incorporate color into the rice. Let dry and rice will keep indefinitely.

Add pom poms, scoops and vessels or small plastic animals or construction vehicles for kids to play with.

DIY Zen Garden Sand Tray
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

11. Sand

Sand is a wonderfully tactile material and great for all kinds of sensory play and experiences. Here are a few ideas to try:

Giant water beads
Photo by Rachel Withers

12. Water beads 

Water beads have long been a favorite in our house as they are soothing to touch and can be a relaxing way to start or end a day. Playing with them can help calm an upset child or soothe a high strung one.

Coloring tapioca pearls (an edible water bead alternative)
Photo by Rachel Withers

Despite all that we love about water beads, they do pose a serious health concern if swallowed so this is only an activity to do WITH your child under close parental supervision. If your child puts things in his/her mouth, we recommend exploring edible replacements for water beads such as tapicoa balls or pearls.

Photo by Rachel Withers

13. Bubble Wrap

Use bubble wrap from a recent package and let your toddler turn it into an art piece. Place some different colors of paint on a tray and then show your toddler or preschooler how to press the bubble wrap into each paint color.

They can then transfer the bubble wrap to paper to create beautiful artwork. Bubble wrap makes for a good sensory material because the bubbles can be squished and popped. Even babies love it!

See Bubble Wrap Printing and Painting for more painting ideas with little ones.

Child fingerpainting
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

14. Finger Paint

Finger painting is one of the ultimate sensory art experiences for young children! Kids have permission to cover their hands with paint and slip, slide their fingers through gooey color.

Finger paint is the epitome of sensory art and, for young children, especially, sensory art is important for development and even helps them learn.

Crazy Aarons Thinking Putty - Three Kinds

15. Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty 

Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty a top requested present for birthdays and Christmas and a favorite gift to give to friends. This stuff is played with, stretched, and fiddled with more than probably anything else in the house.

How about you? What are your family’s favorite sensory materials?

Watermelon themed sensory bin with rice & pasta
Photo by Erin DeThomas

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