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.

sensory tub trains JIMG_8193

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.)

sensory box sea IMG_8185

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.

sensory tubs A teddies IMG_8194

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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Routines: Introducing table activities

Table time is a valuable addition to any flexible routine. Simply put, it is a time when the children sit at the table (or desk or kitchen bench or wherever) and work on a quiet activity. It is a time set by the parent for this to happen and the activities used are those that are previously approved and designated as table activities.

I choose the activities for my toddlers and younger children and set them out, the middlies usually get to choose between a limited number of activities (“Would you like drawing or felt board today?”) and the older children choose for themselves from activities that they know are already approved table activities. I chat to the children while they play at the table and am able to get the dinner made and served at the same time.

While my routines have changed over the years, for the majority of the time I have used table activities after bath and shower time and just before dinner time. This allows me to get everyone finished in the bathroom and send them to their activities as they are done – no roaming about the house getting into mischief.

I find that it is the transition times, the few minutes here and there between activities, that cause the most trouble and produce the most accidents. Left to their own devices, even for just a few minutes at this time of day, a cranky, tired, hungry toddler or child will rarely make good choices with their time!

The possibilities for table time activities are virtually unlimited. I have a cupboard with shelves that is designated for table activities which makes it easy for the children to see what they can do. Anything you have that can be used independently while sitting at the table is a suitable activity. Some families like to use this time for homework. I’ll be posting some table time ideas soon and of course, any of the toddler, workjob or Montessori ideas I post would be suitable, as long as your child can do them without assistance.