Early childhood teachers know that hands-on learning is essential. Sensory play encourages open-ended thinking, language development, collaboration, and builds fine motor skills. Sensory materials are magically both engaging and calming.

The great thing about sensory tables and bins is that reinventing the wheel is not required. Tried-and-true materials like sand, beans, rice, and water will always delight children. But, since mixing it up is fun, too, we’ve gathered some of our favorite next-level sensory play ideas below. If you need even more inspo, we suggest grabbing a copy of Exciting Sensory Bins for Curious Kids by Mandisa Watts. She’s the creator of Happy Toddler Playtime (see #19) and she knows her (ooey, gooey, squishy) stuff. 

Worried about kids swapping germs while they scoop and pour? Check out the end of the post for some ideas for when you need to keep sensory play extra squeaky clean.

1. Confetti and Eggs

A collage of three images of a student's hands in a yellow sensory bin with plastic easter eggs and confetti 

What kiddo wouldn’t go wild for an entire bin of confetti? Eggs for opening, closing, scooping, and hiding “treasure” make it extra fun.

Source: Wildly Charmed

2. Gems in Epsom Salt

A red bin filled with Epson salt, faux gems, and a cup and ice trays for scooping.

Source: @secondgradethinkers

3. Colored Ice Blocks

Blocks of colored ice in a water table made by freezing colored water in containers and balloons

Freeze water and food coloring into ice cube trays and any containers you have handy. (For super cool balls, freeze colored water balloons!) Add a few utensils, and play away!

Source: Fun-A-Day

4. Mini “Skating Rink”

Mini skating rink for sensory play made by freezing water in a pan and freezing toys in ice cubes

A pan of frozen water + figurines frozen into ice cube “skates” = miniaturized skating fun!

Source: @playtime_with_imagination

5. Itsy Bitsy Spiders and a Spout

A picture of students playing with a water table that has fake spiders, a plastic spout, and measuring cups in it.

Investigate water in motion while singing the classic nursery rhyme.

Source: @playyaypreK

6. Iceberg Ahead!

Frozen ice blocks, arctic animal figurines, and water in a sensory table for classroom sensory play

Hop on! Freeze a couple of pans of water and float them in your sensory table with some Arctic animals. 

Source: @ganisraelpreschoolsantamonica

7. Gourd Wash

A picture of five sensory bins with colored water and mini gourds floating in them with triangle sponges.

Washing pumpkins is a preschool fall staple. Adding colored water and fun-shaped sponges definitely adds some oomph!

Source: @friendsartlab/Gourd Wash

8. Button Boats
Clear sensory bin with water, small plastic container, foil shaped into a boat and buttons in it

Buttons are fun, foil and container “boats” are really fun…together, LOTS of fun!

Source: @the.life.of.an.everyday.mom

9. Floating Flower Petal Fun

Flower petals and colored water in a sensory table for classroom sensory play

Deconstruct a spent bouquet, or bring in some clippings from outside. Just add water and utensils for hours of flower-themed fun. (It’s also amazing to freeze flower petals in ice cube trays or muffin tins of water!)

Source: @the_bees_knees_adelaide

10. Magic Puffing Snow

a student's hands playing in fake blue snow.

Okay, so you will need one unusual ingredient (citric acid powder) to make this Magic Puffing Snow, but it’s so, so worth it. Check out the whole Fun at Home With Kids site for every other kind of slime, dough, and foam you could ever want to make, too.

Source: Fun At Home With Kids

11. Shaving Cream and Blocks

A student's hands holding blocks covered in shaving cream building towers and walls

Shaving cream “glue” adds new possibilities to block play!

Source: @artreepreschool

12. Shaving Cream and Water Beads

Child's hand in a sensory table filled with multicolored water beads and shaving cream

Water beads are tons of fun on their own. When they start to get a little slimy and ready for the trash, squirt some shaving cream into your sensory table with them for one last hurrah!

Source:@letsplaylittleone

13. Birds and Nests

A collage of images of a sensory bin with shredded brown paper, pretend eggs, baskets used as bird nests and stuffed animal birds

Tweet, tweet! Sandi at Rubber Boots and Elf Shoes is your guru for themed sensory bins. Be sure to check out her entire A to Z list.

Source: Rubber Boots and Elf Shoes

14. Rainbow Pom Pom Fun

Multicolored pompoms, silicone cupcake liners, rainbow rice and scoops in a sensory table for classroom sensory play

How can you not smile when you see this colored rice sensory table with giant pompoms and cupcake liners? (No time to dye rainbow rice? Check out readymade kidfetti for a similar feel. It’s even washable!)

Source: @friendsartlab/Rainbow Pom Pom Fun

15. Hot Cocoa Bar

Beans, play mugs, spoons, and cotton balls in a sensory table for classroom pretend play making hot cocoa

There are many variations of this activity across the web, but how cute and fun is this simple one? All you need are some pinto beans, mugs, spoons and cotton ball marshmallows!

Source: @luckytoteachk

16. Three Billy Goats Gruff

Trip, trap, trip, trap! Retell a favorite story with fun props. Growing Book By Book has lots more ideas for book-themed sensory tables, too.

Source: Growing Book by Book

17. Grassy Playground

Sensory table with grass seed planted and grass growing with animals hidden in the grass

Curriculum for days! Plant grass in the sensory table and play with it once it grows. Genius!

Source: @truce_teacher

18. Ramps and Chutes

Raid your recycling pile and get kids thinking out of the box about how to move sensory materials around, like with this corn chute setup!

Source: Fairy Dust Teaching

19. Acorn Drop

Three children using tweezers to drop acorns through a cardboard box with small holes cut in it

Add an element of mystery to your sensory bin simply by adding a cardboard box with holes on top. Drop, plop, retrieve, repeat!

Source: @happytoddlerplaytime

20. “Bake” Up a Pie

Sensory table with oats, pompoms, cinnamon sticks and recipe card to make pretend apple pie

Doesn’t this apple pie look good enough to eat? You could vary the pie recipe based on the season.

Source: @PreK4Fun

Tips for Keeping Sensory Play Good, Clean Fun

The only trouble with friends’ little hands digging into a bin of fun is … that’s a lot of germy little hands. You can always station a bottle of hand sanitizer next to your sensory table to clean hands before and after playing. If that’s not enough, here are some other strategies to try.

(Note: We definitely aren’t the CDC. Please defer to any regulations or guidance put forth by your district or state!)

21. Add soap! 

Classroom water table with hollowed pumpkins, colored soapy water, utensils and colored plastic bottles for potions sensory play ideas for the classroom

Move hand washing right on over to the water table. You can soap up pretty much anything in a sensory table and kids will love it, but this pumpkin potions setup is especially cool. Bubble, boil, and brew!

Source: @pocketprovision.eyfs

22. Individual Mini-Trays

Wooden trays with sand and nature items labeled with student names for individual sensory play in the classroom

Play together, separately. How cute are these individual labeled trays? (Though dollar-store lasagna pans or other budget options would work just as well!) You could periodically sanitize and trade the accessories around.

Source: @charlestownnurseryschool

23. Take Turns

Sensory tubs with water beads and plastic containers labeled with children's photo name cards for individual sensory play in the classroom

Set up a table of individual sensory bins and mark each child’s spot with their photo. Sanitize or quarantine the bin contents before inviting a different set of children to use them.

Source: @charlestownnurseryschool

24. Sensory Bags

Sensory bags with glitter and water and objects to seek and find for individual sensory play in the classroom

Yeah, it’s more fun to get your hands messy. But bags can easily be wiped down between kids, so they could be the next best thing. Plus, these may get some sensory-cautious kids to play when they otherwise wouldn’t! You could go in so many directions with these seek-and-find examples.

Source: @apinchofkinder

25. Multi-Bin Table

DIY photo and instructions for a PVC pipe sensory table with four individual bins

Major props to the person who figured out this cheap and easy DIY PVC solution for a four-bin sensory table. In the classroom, you could set up a simple water play center in each bin. When one kid moves on, swap in clean water and toys, and the next kiddo is good to go!

Source: @mothercould

How do you use sensory tables in your classroom? Share your favorite sensory table ideas in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, our favorite preschool games and activities.

PreK and Kindergarten Teachers, You'll Want To Try Every One of These Fun Sensory Tables