This Counting Cupcakes Sensory Bin is super simple to set up and so much fun! We're in a stage where both of my boys love and benefit from activities in our sensory table. Sensory play is certainly a common catchphrase around classrooms and homes. Pinterest, Instagram and blogs are full of ideas and there's a whole market for materials related to sensory play. But what exactly are children gaining from playing in a basin full of dried beans, sand or water? Isn't it just playing? Not to mention the mess! I'm here to cheer you on and encourage you to take a deep breath. Grab a cheap dustpan and brush from your dollar store, maybe a plastic shower curtain, too, to catch the spills. And while there is a whole industry to target folks looking for sensory bin fillers, props, tools and trinkets, you don't need to break the bank. You can use (and re-use) inexpensive materials, many of which you have in the pantry or can access inexpensively from dollar stores, the grocery store or even secondhand. Unless something gets irreparably damaged in play or we all have horrendous runny noses, we store and save our fillers for future use. It's a good idea either way to wash hands before and after sensory play.
What skills are children developing through play at the sensory table? As a teacher and a parent, I'm of the mindset that sensory play targets a huge range of skills, especially when you are creative in your setup. Particularly for children who may struggle in certain developmental areas, the sensory table is a safe and confined space to explore and expand skills that are challenging in a more traditional setting.
- Fine motor development is targeted through scooping, pouring, pinching with tongs or tweezers, transferring, manipulating more viscous substances (like slime, dough, ooblek, kinetic sand, etc.). Sensory bins are a great place for scissor practice as well when children cut their own crepe paper, ribbon, yarn, paper, etc. Provide scrap paper and hole punches for children to create their own confetti filler. For children too young to cut with scissors, tearing tissue paper or crepe paper is another great way to target those tiny muscles.
- Literacy skills are targeted through the use of novel vocabulary. Talk about textures, colors, scents, what you are doing, planning, creating... You can add letter manipulatives and written words and labels to create a print rich environment or base a sensory table on children's literature to extend a lesson through play.
- Social skills like engaging in conversations, problem solving (navigating sharing materials, space and ideas) are targeted especially when children work in pairs. In my classrooms, the sensory table was a place where children who may not typically play together did have an opportunity to do so. Sometimes this was strategic on my part (as in, I chose pairs and the desire to play in our sensory bin outweighed the desire to only play with certain students). Friendships developed in this space that might not have happened on the playground or in other areas.
- Problem solving skills and other executive functioning skills are called into play when children tinker, build, rearrange and otherwise navigate materials in the sensory bin.
- Symbolic play and abstract play skills that children struggle with or resist in a dramatic play setting are often more appealing (and less threatening) in the confines of a sensory bin when small world play is introduced through the addition of toy animals, people and other props. Children who do not naturally engage in role playing and character/story development through traditional dramatic play often feel more comfortable to do so in this setting.
- Math concepts like sequencing, measurement, sorting/categorizing, shape and numeral recognition, one-to-one correspondence and even early operations and fractions can be introduced through sensory play.
- Science is in action as children manipulate and observe materials found in nature or chemical reactions and states of matter of various concocted sensory bin fillers.
- STEM skills are targeted with opportunities to build, construct, design, transport and otherwise manipulate a variety of materials and loose parts.
Lately, S has been very engaged in play about cupcakes and baking. He uses pom poms, toy dishes and recycled containers on a daily basis to set up shop and sell his wares. He is always making sweet treats with play dough and clay (in fact, we've been working on a batch of Model Magic cookies to be used in our kitchen set). Such was the inspiration for our latest sensory bin. S is also making huge strides in his math skills both at school and at home. As it is something that interests him, I incorporate it into our play. Nonetheless, even if you have a reluctant mathematician at home, sensory play is a great way to sneak it in! Y just LOVES playing at the sensory table. He often spends even more time playing there than S! He loves practicing scooping, pouring and transferring and, um, cleaning up spills... He isn't quite to the point of counting candles or numeral recognition, but he will surely have a great time playing and exposure through play is the path to success down the road.
Here's what you'll need to set up your own Counting Cupcakes Sensory Bin:
- Rainbow Dyed Rice for filler. We reused the batch I had from our UnBirthday Party theme last spring, so it has some birthday confetti mixed in.
- Vanilla extract (optional) for scent
- Plastic cups and scoops (both from Dollar Tree). You can also use silicone cupcake liners and recycle scoops from protein powder or other drink mixes.
- Birthday candles
- Number magnets or candles
- A number line (optional) to support early mathematicians who do not yet recognize numerals
Children can use scoops to fill their cupcake cups, choose a number or number candle and then stick in the corresponding number of birthday candles.
Variations on the theme:
- Provide a second set of magnetic numerals and an addition symbol and equal sign. Children can set up and solve their own addition problem by adding two cupcakes together.
- Add some dice or a spinner into the mix and have children roll/spin to choose their number.
- Younger children (like Y) can play and explore by scooping, pouring, transferring and sticking candles into the rice.
Looking for more sensory bin ideas? Check out our extensive collection of related posts here and stay tuned for more ideas in the future! Until then...