Sensory tub ideas for toddlers and preschoolers

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Sensory tubs are great for mat time (blanket time) or as a table activity and are excellent for when you need to school older children, cook dinner, or during any other time when you need your little ones well occupied and absorbed in a worthwhile activity.

They are quick and easy to put together, cheap or free (depending on what you already have lying around the house) and can be used daily as part of your flexible routine for babies, toddlers, preschoolers and even older children. Obviously the materials you present will change according to the age of the child who will be playing with them, with safety always a factor for little ones who may put small items in their mouths.

There is no limit to what you can put into your tubs. Ideally the materials will be open-ended; that is they can be combined and used in a variety of ways.sensory tub trains IMG_8187

Younger toddlers do not have a well-developed imagination and therefore need more hands-on options, rather than pretend play materials. For example, in the trains tub above, I included a variety of scoops and containers to fill, transfer, tip and pour as well as the trains themselves. A young toddler may examine the trains before setting them aside in favour of transferring the stones from container to container. The older children may go straight for the trains and set up a complicated rail system with rocks delineating the tracks and the containers used as sheds for the trains. Another may decide to serve dinner on the silver pie tins or set up a picnic for the trains.

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I find that the tubs themselves are not large enough for the children to play within. They like to sort through, put aside what they are not using and generally spread out, so I use a blanket or sheet for them to play on. When play time is finished, the corners of the sheet are lifted up and all the materials can be quickly tipped straight back into the tub without a tedious pack-up session.

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The older girls were practically drooling over this jewel and miniature pony tub as I was putting it together – usually a sure sign it will be well-loved by the younger children as well! Again, a variety of scoops, containers, bottles and boxes with sparkly jewel squares and pebbles. (The kind used in vases or to fill bowls – from the discount shop.)

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Blue and green gem stones, plastic sea animals, shells, bowl, spoons, scoops and empty pill boxes. This tub covers opening and closing skills, spooning, scooping, tipping, pouring (all transferring skills) and could be extended to sorting and categorizing as well as the pretend play options.

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My youngest daughter used the pony and jewel tub this morning for the first time. She carefully removed all the ponies and put them back in the box before making a picnic for her teddy bear and the 12 disciples (!) with the containers and jewels. The older girls (6 and 8) have already asked to use it later and tell me they plan to set the jewels up as food for the ponies. The beauty of open-ended, attractive materials is that they will appeal to a variety of ages. My 15 month old can barely restrain himself and wants to dive straight in whenever he sees these tubs out. Unfortunately the pieces are just too small for him to use safely.

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This is the 15 month old’s sensory “tub” this week. He loved it and used the scoop (a large measuring spoon) to transfer from the large basket to the small bowl, filled and stacked the metal cups and filled and tipped out the basket numerous times. Provide a container or two and something to put in and dump right back out again and it will always be a hit with anywhere from an 8 month to a 2-year-old. 12 to 18  month olds particularly love to fill and dump.

For a stack of ideas to fill your sensory tubs,see this post. Many of the other ideas I have posted as table activities, highchair activities or mat time activities would all work in a sensory tub. See pasta play and teddy food play as examples.

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Christmas Gifts: Giving tools not toys.

Are your children’s bedrooms cluttered with plastic junky toys? Do you wrack your brains each Christmas trying to come up with gifts that are well made, will last and won’t add to that pile of clutter that they really don’t need? ‘Tools not toys’ is an excellent motto that we have tried to implement in our family.

So what are tools? In the words of Jill at the Sonlight Blog“Tools will encourage imagination, develop large and small muscles, and should get the child outside daily. Tools will stand the test of time, can usually be passed down from child to child in a family, and have a lot of play value.” Many traditional toys fall into this category as well as real tools such as those that you would find in a toolbox. Jill has an extensive list of tools for children at the Sonlight blog that is well worth a look.

She describes toys as “Anything that has batteries or makes noise that drives a mom crazy, if it is meant for the child to watch it rather than interact with it ….  anything that is cheap plastic and will break easily…. anything that is meant as an entertainment.”

Our children do have and receive toys that are definitely simply for entertainment value, but we choose to put our money into the more long-lasting, useful and educational toys that sit more in the tools category.

One specific idea we have implemented in the past is to give the boys toolboxes filled with tools as gifts for Christmas or birthdays and add items to these collections throughout the years. One aim of the toolbox idea is that the boys will learn to use the tools as they work alongside their Dad’s to tackle household maintenance and projects. We hope they will eventually leave home well kitted out to be able to attack the handyman tasks around their own houses, both in tools and skills learnt over the years.

Other tools we give are sporting equipment, handiwork and craft sets and equipment, imaginative toys,  books, wooden toys etc. Again, check out Jill’s quite extensive ideas list for inspiration.

Outside activities: Water play

The warm weather continues, which in some ways is wonderful and others not so much! Instead of enjoying outdoor time, my children start pressing themselves up against the glass sliding door and asking to come inside where it’s cool. Time to bring out the water play. We bought this water table secondhand for $5 last year and it definitely was a bargain. All the children, even the toddlers, enjoy standing around it and getting thoroughly soaked as they play with the sand toys in the water.

I like to use outdoor time to get some of my own responsibilities completed, so all water play needs to be set up so that it is safe – no deep containers for children to fall into. The swimming pool and slide etc. does not come out at these times – that needs high level supervision. I do keep an eye on the children but, as I am not right next to them, water levels are kept to a minimum. The water table is ideal as it is up high and only holds a few inches of water.

Before we owned it though, water play was just as enjoyable. We used the lid of a clam shell sandpit and filled it to a shallow depth (about an inch) and the littlies could sit in it and play – double the wet fun. The older children prefered containers like buckets and tubs filled to a deeper level so I put these up on benches away from the little ones. While I do not expect the older children to take on the responsibility of supervising their brothers and sisters around water, the fact that they are playing there means there are several pairs of eyes on the situation, including mine. I know I will be called very quickly if a toddler starts trying to get into the deeper tubs – particularly as it interrupts the older children’s games!

Babies and toddlers are happy with just a couple of containers of water to splash about in but as the main game seems to revolve around tipping the water out again, you or an older child needs to be available to constantly refill their containers. The bigger children don’t mind scooping a saucepan of water out of their tub over and over again as they have the freedom to access the hose and refill it to the agreed level as required.

If you can stand the sandy mess, add the water play to the sandpit and you won’t hear a single complaint for hours! Nothing much is better for young children to keep busy in than water and sand. When it’s time to come in, I just stand them in a line and hose them all down before sending them in for proper showers and baths.

Felt boards

Felt boards are an excellent independent activity. They make great table activities (although usually they use it up against the wall rather than actually at the table) and if you have a small version can also be used for highchair time. They require no special skills and are completely open-ended. Language development is enhanced as children create and tell their own stories using the pieces provided and they will keep a child’s attention for an extended period of time. The children in my family have enjoyed using the felt board and still choose to do so even as they grow older.

I made this felt board at Uni as a mini assignment and almost failed because the lecturer thought it was too big to be easily portable!! Now I use it all the time and love the fact that it is large enough for one child to set up a large scene or even for two children to play side by side.

To make a felt board, all you need is a very light piece of plywood or very strong piece of card. Box card is no good as it usually has corrugations and will tend to crease along these. Mine is strong card and has stood the test of time, although the corners are getting a little dog-eared now. If I was making it again I’d go for thin, light wood. Buy a large enough piece of felt to cover the board, with enough overlap to stretch around and glue (hot glue gun is ideal) to the back.

Use your imagination to cut out any number of felt shapes. You may like to have a mixture of animals, people and recognizable characters, as well as an assortment of shapes for building houses, gardens and whatever the child thinks up (i.e. squares, circles, triangles, grassy clumps, stems, petals, tree trunks, leaves, circles for flower centres etc. The possibilities are endless)

Basic colouring books are a great source of simple shapes that you can trace and transfer onto the felt pieces to cut out. I also have several sets of felt figures that go with specific stories which allow the children to re-tell these favourites to themselves.

It is helpful to have the board on a slight lean to help the pieces to stick and some people even stick Velcro dots (hook side) on the back side of each piece for extra grip.

That’s it! Easy to make and hours of play for your child. As with most of these activities, start simple. Put out a few basic shapes to begin with, or just the garden pieces, or animals and fences etc. Older children like to have them all at once and create complicated scenes but the toddlers will be more focussed with less to choose from and rotating pieces to keep their interest levels high.