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sensory play ideas for a busy toddler

Ava is such a busy bee. She can entertain herself for hours... gathering toys (her own and always a few dog toys), and then methodically placing them on a table. Then gathering them back up and moving them to a new location. It was this self-motivated organizing that made me start to think about other ways Ava could play and learn independently.

Enter: SENSORY PLAY! Definitely a hot term in the mommy world right now, and for a good reason. Let's start by defining it. Sensory play is any activity that stimulates your child's senses: touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing. Sensory activities promote exploration and naturally encourage little ones to play, create, investigate and explore!

Sensory definition from

So today, I wanted to share the sensory play activities we've been loving. These items were either things I had around the house, or cheap items picked up at our local Walmart (I'll be listing the purchase price next to each of these items).

1) Painting with water


-colored construction paper ($2.97)

-paint brush



Just dip the brush in water and let your little one have fun seeing the paper change color with each brush stroke.


Helps with pencil grip, can use the paper to help teach colors, promotes artistic ability.

2) Magnetic letters on a cookie sheet


-cookie sheet

-alphabet magnets ($6.88)

-optional: twine


Let your little one stick and unstick the magnets to the cookie sheet. You can name each letter as it goes on the sheet, spell out short words, or organize by color. Your child will experience a little magnetic force, as they try to figure out why the letters stick to the tin but not to the carpet or table. Since the cookie sheet is small and more portable than a refrigerator, this is a great activity to bring when visiting grandma for the weekend!


You can also randomly wrap the cookie sheet with twine or plastic wrap, so your little on has to figure out how to remove the letters underneath. *Note: this activity should always be supervised, as plastic wrap and small letters can be choking hazards.


Helps teach colors, letters, numbers, fine motor skills, problem solving.

3) Sorting colored sticks


-Colored popsicle sticks ($2.97) (I found a pack of thicker sticks at Walmart, but you could dye plain ones with markers or food coloring).

-Paper bags in corresponding colors ($0.33 each)

*Note: you can make sorting activities out of almost anything! Head to your hardware store and pick up a handful of paint swatches (at least 4-5 of each color). Clip a color to each bag and encourage your little one to place each color in the corresponding bag.

TO PLAY: Set out each bag and the pile of sticks. Encourage your child to put the correct color in the corresponding bag.


Teaches colors, matching, fine motor skills.

4) Pipe cleaners in a colander


-Pipe cleaners/fuzzy sticks ($2.47)



Pre-thread the pipe cleaners through the holes of the colander. Let your child take them out and try to put them back in. For an added challenge you can twist two colors together, string the pipe cleaners through multiple holes, or even twist two loose ends together to make it more challenging for your little one to untangle.


Promotes problem solving and the development of fine motor skills; helps teach colors and exposes your little one to new textures.

5) Coloring with bulb crayons


-Bulb crayons (these are amazing - from Amazon ($8.58))


TO PLAY: Okay so this one is an obvious one, and your child may already be coloring, but I had to share this Amazon find! Ava still puts things in her mouth that don't belong there, so I've been cautious about the whole crayon situation. I loved these crayons because they have a nice bulb at the top her little hand to grip, and they have a hollow middle (meaning air can pass through), making it less of a choking hazard. Ava likes to see the streaks of color these crayons leave on a crisp white sheet of paper.

So that's it! I hope you and your little one(s) have fun exploring and creating together... and remember: Every kid is ready for these activities at different times; Don't think my 17-month-old places the colored sticks in the correct bags. She would prefer to gather up the bags and walk around the house with them! But we will keep trying and keep playing. The goal of these activities isn't to perfectly execute each task. It is to expose your child to different colors, shapes and textures... and most importantly, to have fun!


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