Around the time my daughter was 18 months old, I had an epiphany moment. I was a full-time stay at home mom. The majority of my focus was on raising and teaching her, so I needed to treat it more like it was at least my part-time job. I spent my day running my own errands, dragging her around with me, and when I needed to accomplish tasks around the house I would try to pawn her off to her room to play with her toys.
Well, her toys eventually were boring to her and she spent more time clinging to me than ever before. That’s when I realized something needed to change. If my job was to raise and teach her, then that’s where I needed to shift my focus.
I researched age-appropriate, educational activities for her, built up a good stash of supplies, and got to work. In the year I have been doing these with her, I have also come up with a decent list of tips that I believe can benefit everyone, whether you’re also a stay at home mom like me, a working mom, or a teacher of littles.
Without further ado, here are the crucial tips I’ve learned.
1. Everything can and will be cleaned up- Sensory bins are messy. Painting for the first ten times is messy. Even playing with stickers can be messy. This was so hard for me and I would have to just take a deep breath and remind myself that it will be cleaned up, but for now, she’s learning.
2. Cleaning is fun for toddlers, take advantage of that- My daughter LOVED wiping up the table after a small sensory activity. She’s two years old now and still loves it. I’m taking full advantage of her help for as long as possible. It’s also teaching her some cleaning skills. Double win!
3. Don’t overfill the sensory bin with too many tools- The first sensory bin I did with my daughter was a giant bust. I filled it full of fun tools she could use to play in the water. Right away she became overwhelmed with the number of things in front of her and refused to play with it. Too many options and information can overwhelm any child, even into kinder and first grade.
4. Just because they weren’t very good at a certain activity or bin the first time, doesn’t mean it’s a bust. They’ll get better and have more fun every time you pull it out.
5. “Taste Safe” does not mean it’s an afternoon snack. It means you don’t need to try poison control when it’s put in their mouths- Especially small kids are notorious for eating EVERYTHING. So taste safe can be best, sometimes even into Kindergarten, because five-year-olds are just as guilty at placing anything in mouths, noses, and ears! This doesn’t mean they have free reign to eat cornmeal. It just means you don’t need to worry when it’s in their mouth, you just need to respond with, “yuck!” so it doesn’t continue happening.
6. Don’t underestimate their abilities.
7. Messes mean their learning. It’s hard, but it’s true.
8. They don’t have to do an activity exactly how you envisioned for it still to be fun for them.
9. Some activities are a bust, and that’s okay. Try again later.
11. Tape. Construction paper. Markers. You don’t need a lot of supplies, or even expensive supplies to make it fun and educational. In fact, the activity on repeat in our house is painting with water on construction paper. This takes construction paper, some sort of paintbrush, and a cup to hold water. So. Easy.
12. 1-2 drops of food coloring is all you need.
13. Water play is the cleanest play. Nervous about sensory bins in your house or classroom because they are notorious for being messy? You’re not alone. If you have access to a non-carpeted area, water sensory bins are great because they can only do the floors a favor when all it needs is a good mopping when it’s over.
14. They’ll never learn the responsibility of playing in a sensory bin or with messy activities if you never give them the opportunity to.
15. You don’t have to understand what concepts they are learning, you just have to understand that it’s important that they really play. I used to be nervous about making hands-on activities for my daughter because I wasn’t exactly sure what she was learning or how to explain it to her. The good news is- you don’t need to either. In this photo, my daughter is experimenting with baking soda and vinegar. She doesn’t need to know that what’s happening are the hydrogen ions within the vinegar react with the bicarbonate in the baking soda, causing a reaction, creating new chemicals, which lead to a second reaction. All she needs to know is that when the vinegar hits the baking soda, it makes bubbles. Don’t feel daunted by the minute details. Just let them play.