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8 sensory activities for babies and toddlers

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Sensory play helps babies and toddlers learn about the diverse and complex world around them. Educators can plan activities that encourage young children to use their five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.

Popular sensory activities include finger painting and bubbles. Here are eight more activities, including their learning outcomes and links to the Early Years Learning Framework.

What’s in the box?


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Cut holes in opposite sides of a cardboard box, large enough for a child’s hands to fit through. Invite a child to sit behind the box and place their hands through the holes. Place a familiar object into the box. Ask them to hold it and guess what it is.

This learning experience promotes problem-solving, spatial awareness, verbal language skills, and one-on-one interactions between children and educators.

Outcome 4.2 – Children develop a range of skills and processes such as problem solving, inquiry, experimentation, hypothesising, researching and investigating.

Mark making trays

Photo credit: Artful Parent

Cover the bottom of a tray with a thin layer of sand, dirt, flour or rice. Encourage children to scratch lines with their fingertips. This swirling and scribbling is called mark-making, which is the first step in learning to write. Babies and toddlers will develop their fine motor and emergent literacy skills.

Outcome 5.4 – Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work.

Fruit sticks and salad wraps

Photo credit: Kids Activities

Research suggests that sensory play with fruits and vegetables increases children’s willingness to taste these foods. Some educators avoid using food for play because they don’t want wastefulness, but these activities can replace an ordinary meal. They allow children to use their senses and eat.

Toddlers can explore healthy food by:

  • building fruit sticks by threading soft, cubed fruits onto skewers
  • building wraps from flatbread and salad ingredients
  • squeezing fresh orange juice, using their muscles and a hand-held juicer
  • mashing guacamole with forks or potato mashers
  • making a noisy snack using an air popcorn maker.

Outcome 3.2 – Children take increasing responsibility for their own health and physical wellbeing.

Manipulation boxes

Photo credit: Early Impact Learning

Collect loose parts that can be manipulated and used together in open-ended, creative ways. The options are endless: kitchen utensils, large wooden beads, ribbons, pieces of sheepskin. Keep them in a box or treasure bag.

Babies and toddlers will use loose parts to build towers and even make their own musical instruments. The benefits of manipulative play include support for fine motor and cognitive development.

Outcome 4.4 – Children resource their own learning through connecting with people, place, technologies and natural and processed materials.

Baby massage

Baby massage in an early childhood setting can be effective and uncomplicated. Educators understand how patting a child’s back can soothe them to sleep. Baby massage can help in a similar way, to comfort and create a sense of security.

Sit on a mat with a small group of babies. While they are fully clothed, gently rub their feet, tummy or head. Introduce interactive rhymes like “round and round the garden” and “this little piggy went to market”. This experience develops the sense of touch, language and social bonding.

Outcome 1.1 – Children feel safe, secure, and supported.

Shadow play

Play with shadows when natural light shines against a classroom wall, or make a shadow screen using a bed sheet and a torch. Show children how to move their bodies and see their own unique, dancing silhouettes. Shadow play will teach them about luminosity and their bodies while sparking their imagination.

Outcome 1.3 – Children develop knowledgeable and confident self-identities.

Scented soup


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A tub of water can be turned into soup – all you need is flowers from the garden! Babies and toddlers will be delighted by squashing soggy, scented flowers through their fingers. You may also add fresh mint, fruit peel, leaves or seed pods. Scented soup provokes multiple senses while engaging children with natural materials.

Outcome 4.4 – Children resource their own learning through connecting with people, place, technologies and natural and processed materials.

Sustainable glitter

Photo credit: One Little Project

The natural world offers sensory experiences for children of all ages. Unfortunately, popular sensory activities often involve manufactured craft materials that are not biodegradable or recyclable.

Educators have found sustainable alternatives for glitter. Mix salt and food colouring together before leaving it to dry. Children can play with a colourful, light-catching material while observing sustainable practices.

Outcome 2.4 – Children become socially responsible and show respect for the environment.

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