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Simple & Safe Sensory Play for Toddlers

Sensory play, a form of playful exploration that engages children’s senses, supports every area of development: physical development, cognitive development, language development, and social/emotional development. Toddlers, in particular, are drawn to sensory play experiences due to their innate curiosity and desire for independence. When engaged in open-ended sensory play, toddlers:   

freely explore a wide variety of materials, including natural elements 

experiment with STEAM principles, make predictions, and problem solve 

express themselves through a creative process 

Ever feel intimidated by the picture-perfect sensory play ideas you see on social media? Are you struggling to embrace the mess factor of sensory experiences? Here are a few of our favorite ways to introduce sensory exploration to young toddlers! 


Simple & Safe Sensory Play for Toddlers

Embrace “Playtime Au Naturale”.

While playing indoors or outdoors (weather permitting), encourage your toddler to remove a few layers of clothing or go barefoot. Wearing less clothing (or no clothing at all!) allows children to experience different textures within their environment and move more freely.

Use whatever Mother Nature gives you.

Head outdoors to play in snow, mud, or rain puddles. On dry days, your toddler can play in dirt or sand. Invite your child to gather “tools” for your outdoor adventures, like measuring cups, colanders, or whisks. You can also bring natural elements indoors by filling a large bin with water or snow and placing it on a thick towel in an open play space. If you’re looking for less mess, solid items like rocks, seashells, sticks or pinecones inspire investigation, too! 

Say “yes” to water play.

Fill an ice cube tray halfway with water. Add non-toxic paint to the remaining space and place the tray in the freezer. Encourage your child to experiment with the “frozen paint” on paper or cardboard. If your child is sensitive to temperature, you can try this process again and place a popsicle stick or twig in the center of each cube before freezing. For a less messy water play experience, simply invite your toddler to stand on a step stool to play at the bathroom sink.You can offer small cups for pouring, utensils for mixing, and bowls for filling.

Have some foamy fun.

Cover a baking tray in shaving cream and invite your toddler to create lines and shapes with his or her fingers/hands, explore with kitchen tools, or simply feel and explore. If your toddler is drawn to exploring new materials with his or her mouth, save this sensory play idea for the future.

It’s all about the dough.

Dough is one of the simplest ways to engage in sensory play. Sit beside your toddler and notice how he or she stretches, rolls, and flattens the dough. Together, you can observe how the dough changes and chat about how the dough feels. Making your own playdough is a meaningful sensory experience that the entire family can enjoy!

Get out the glue.

Offer your toddler glue + materials of different textures for a sensory collage experience. Think scratchy sponges, smooth fabric scraps, and fuzzy pipe cleaners. Dripping, pouring or spreading sticky glue is an entire sensory experience of its own!

Set up a mini car wash. 

Set up a foamy “car wash” station with any soap or bubble bath you feel comfortable using on your child’s body. Gather vehicles that can get wet and offer your child sponges, scrub brushes, or tiny washcloths. Your child can dunk the vehicle in a bowl of soapy water, scrub, and then place in a designated “drying area” (towel) before moving on to the next! For less mess, you can also do this outdoors or in the tub. 

About the Author
Lauren Vien taught in private Manhattan preschools for over a decade before joining the Rose & Rex team as Education Director. With a masters in Early Childhood Education and Special Education from NYU, Lauren is deeply passionate about positive language and developmental play. She lives on the Upper West Side with her husband and two young children, Henry and Violet. Family pastimes include building with couch cushions, preparing plant-based meals, and scooting to neighborhood playgrounds.
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