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There's a time and a place for flashy, distracting toys, but they usually don't come with big benefits. Sensory play—which, you might have guessed, is play that stimulates the senses—can help toddlers learn about the world around them and even help them to regulate their emotions. But providing little ones with these experiences does not need to be complicated or expensive. There are plenty that you can create simply by using what you have around the house.

Kinetic Sand

There's nothing quite like the feel of sand running through your fingertips. Kinetic Sand takes that sensation to the next level by allowing toddlers to squish and build with it—even without water. This Kinetic Sand set includes 10 different colors (and matching mini sand-castle forms), so it’s great for visual stimulation as well.

DIY: Uncooked rice will provide just as fantastic a sensory experience. If you would like to add a visual element, put the rice in a sandwich bag with about 15 drops of food dye and a few drops of water. Mix until the rice is coated, adding more dye and water if needed. Lay the rice out on a paper towel or tin foil to dry. Got extra time? Repeat with several more colors for a rainbow extravaganza.

Water Beads

Orbeez are small water beads that grow up to 100x their size when wet. Rolling the colorful, cool balls through little palms and fingers is a fun and trippy way to play. My toddlers also love putting their feet in a box of Orbeez, and I find it relaxing as well.

DIY: For kids who like slimy substances, or who are still too young not to put things in their mouth, try cooled spaghetti or skinned grapes cut in half for a similar sensory experience. Make sure your toddler has clean hands before they begin, and they can eat their toy for a snack once they're done.


Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty is a fantastic sensory toy because it can be twisted, sculpted, stretched, squished and bounced. Translation: It can take a serious beating from your wild toddler. Crazy Aaron’s Scentsory Treat also stimulates other senses with a fun bubble gum scent and eye-catching rainbow glitter. I really like that there are so many variations, including glow in the dark, so my toddlers can always find one they like. One more bonus: It's much more durable than silly putty and less messy than slime.

DIY: No putty? No problem. It takes two ingredients to make your own. Add ¼ cup liquid starch to ¼ glue and mix until combined. Parents should do the mixing for kiddos, but they can watch in awe as these two magical items transform into a goopy, new toy. This putty will be blue if you use blue starch, which is the most common type.  

Land of Dough

Squishy Land of Dough is a new kind of playdough made from sustainable materials. Beyond providing tactile fun, it's designed to stimulate sight (my kids love the double dinosaurs with glitter and watermelon) and contains a blend of chamomile, lemongrass and lavender essential oils to provide a calming scent. Also good to know: It can be rehydrated with a wet paper towel.

DIY: It’s easy to make your own playdough with just four ingredients: All you need is ½ cup water, ½ cup salt, 1 cup flour and some food coloring. Let your toddler help knead until everything is combined for an additional sensory experience.

Finger Paint

Messy, gooey finger paints are perfect for tiny artists who want to dig into the creative process. Crayola’s My First Fingerpaint Kit is a hit with my littles, specifically because they can squeeze finger paint out of tubes. It’s a hit with me because they're completely washable.

DIY: One of my toddlers’ favorite DIY sensory activities is playing with shaving cream colored with a few drops of food dye. I use a baking sheet to keep the mess contained. Once my toddlers swirl the cream around to their hearts' delight, I gently press a piece of white paper over the designs they have created. The pattern transfers to the paper, making a beautiful piece of art.

Rain Stick

There are few sounds quite as soothing as a gentle rain. My toddlers like this small Bamboo Rainstick Rain Shaker, which easily fits in their hands, can be turned over again and again for a continuous “rainfall” and is wrapped in colorful rainbow fabric.

DIY: Start with an empty paper towel tube. (In a pinch, an empty toilet paper tube will work.) Cover one end of the paper towel roll with construction paper and tape it in place. Then, place a thin stick of tin foil twisted into a spiral into the tube along with a spoonful or two of dry rice. Cover the other end of the tube and you have your very own DIY rain stick. My toddlers like to decorate their homemade version with markers.

Calm-Down Tubes

Sometimes tiny humans just need something relaxing to stare at for a while to help them chill out. This set of Sensory Tubes from hand2mind comes with four different tubes to match your mini-me's mood, including a calming glitter tube, a fantastic fidget tube, a magical reverse hourglass and a soothing gravity spinner. I love bringing these guys on long car rides and other places I know my toddlers may have a hard time waiting since they are small, light and mess-free.

DIY: Calm-down jars, FTW! Take any empty jar and fill it about 1/3 full of warm water. Then, add about two ounces of glitter glue, a few drops of food coloring and a healthy amount of glitter. Finally, fill the jar with more hot water. I like to seal the top of my kids’ jars with hot glue, but this is optional. Adding a couple of drops of liquid soap will add a galaxy effect.

Sensory Bins

Sensory bins are (surprise!) self-contained bins filled with items with a variety of textures. My toddlers love these ones from Creativity For Kids, which come in themes that match their interests, from Dinosaur Dig packed with sand and mini-dinos to an Outer Space bin loaded with squishy "space rocks." Get a few and rotate the objects for a variety of sensory experiences.

DIY: It's easy to make one with things you have lying around the house. Grab an empty box or Tupperware container and fill it with rice or sand. Bury a few of your child's smaller toys (in various textures) and challenge your pint-size archaeologist to find them.

—Jamie Davis Smith

Jamie Davis Smith is a writer and photographer who loves reading, going to amusement parks, and exploring with her four children. Read more stories by her here.