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20 Easy Sensory Play Activities for Babies & Toddlers That Are Low Mess & Cheap

Need to keep an active baby or toddler occupied while you get some work done or have a break?

Here are some easy screen-free, sensory play ideas for babies that can be set up in less than 5 minutes, using common household items or items that are cheap to purchase, and don’t create a huge mess to clear up afterwards. 

Note that these are creative play ideas for babies approximately 6 months or older up until 2 years old who are able to sit up independently and are able to eat solid food. 

Obviously given the age group some degree of supervision is required. But I’ve tried to recommend sensory play ideas for toddlers that require less active participation by the carer.  

Have fun with this list of 20 sensory activities for infants and toddlers – that’s an activity a day for a month of work days!

Artplay bubs

What is Sensory Play for Babies?

You might have noticed that almost all of the activities on this page are aimed to stimulate the senses of your little one. Most of the screen-free activities for babies and toddlers are actually sensory-stimulating activities. But what exactly is sensory play for babies?

Sensory play aims to stimulate a child’s senses as they create, play, investigate, and explore. It triggers their sense of touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing, as well as movement and balance.

It’s a critical step in the developmental process and paves the path for more efficient learning.

It is never too early to start sensory play, especially since this helps the brain learn how to recognise different triggers and associate appropriate responses for these.

Eventually, this kind of training will help them decide between what’s safe or not, what they fancy and don’t, and what emotions to show in various scenarios.

Why is Sensory Play for Babies Important?

Sensory play helps kids reach important milestones because it taps into the basic foundations of a child’s growth — cognitive development, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, language development, problem solving, and social interaction.

As a young child is continuously exposed to sensory play, their brains become trained to handle more and more complex problems. It has even been found to help enhance a child’s memory, and provides a grounding experience where the child learns how to deal with anxiety and frustration. It’s the perfect way to help a child focus on learning in a manner they’ll enjoy.

sensory play for babies and toddlers

1. Putting small objects into larger objects

Babies in this age group are fascinated by games that involve inserting smaller things into larger things! It’s a great way to practise hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.  That’s why shape sorting toys are so popular for this age group. 

This one scores high on our top of favourite DIY sensory toys for babies, because you can make your own simple ‘posting’ game with these household objects:

  • Dry spaghetti poked through a colander with large holes;
  • Dry easy-to-hold pasta shapes (like penne) inserted into a slit cut in a cardboard box; or
  • Fluffy pom poms (large size so it’s not a choking hazard) posted into a bottle.

Buy a Shape Shorter

2. Pulling small objects out of larger objects

As well as putting small things inside large containers, kids of this age love to pull smaller objects out of larger containers! For instance, a drawer full of plastic Tupperware containers is a toddler delight (but a mess to clean up). 

A better sensory box idea for babies is to put handkerchief-sized fabric scraps and wide ribbons into a container with an opening, such as a box of baby wipes or an old tissue box. Add interest by including fabric with a variety of textures and colours. They’ll enjoy throwing, touching and scrunching the fabric too. 

You might even find that your toddler is interested in helping you to put all the scraps back in the box afterwards, which is another example of sensory play for toddlers.

Sensory ideas for toddlers and infants.

3. Wild Dough

Give your kids the gift of creativity, imagination and hours of endless fun with Wild Dough!

Made especially for kids, Wild Dough is a fun-tastic kids’ playdough that was created by Melissa Haque, an Australian mum who knows firsthand how important it is for little ones to have safe, imaginative playtime.

As Wild Dough is created with 100% kid-safe ingredients, parents can rest easy knowing their kiddos are having a blast without any harmful chemicals. On top of this, Wild Dough’s unique formula is durable and rehydratable, which means no crumbly mess and your kids can shape and mould to their hearts’ content for months to come!

4. Simple water play

Set up a shallow tub of water and add things that bubs can use to scoop, splash and pour water. Common kitchen utensils are great, such as measuring cups, measuring spoons, plastic cups and bowls and small Tupperware style containers.

If you need to set it up the water play inside, make sure you place a towel underneath to catch any splashes!

Note you shouldn’t leave your child completely unattended around water. 

Artplay Backyard - great sensory ideas for toddlers.

5. Prepare a lunch box of finger foods

Babies and toddlers love the independence of feeding themselves. Prepare a ‘grazing plate’ or bento-style lunch box with favourite foods that are time-consuming to eat. Examples include: 

  • soft-cooked vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, parsnip and sweet potato
  • fresh fruits, such as apple (soft-cooked if needed), banana or soft, ripe peeled pear or peach
  • grated or small cubes of cheese with whole grain crackers

For the easiest mess-free eating, try popping bub on a large washable mat, picnic rug or towel and let him and or her dig through the contents themselves. They might just tip the whole thing out…which is also fine because they can then pick and choose what they want to try off the mat!

6. Play with stickers

I find that a roll of coloured dots can be fun and they have the added advantage of not being too adhesive so can be easily removed. You can also buy cheap stickers at the supermarket or a newsagent. 

You can also get Reusable Sticker Pads like the ones made by Melissa & Doug to make your own sensory wall for babies.

yayoi kusama goma

7. How to make sensory bottles for babies

Make a few sensory bottles for babies to capture their interest, and to allow them to explore small pieces that they can’t usually play with unsupervised. 

Just use any clear bottle such as a water bottle and then you can fill them with liquids and / or small pieces like LEGO, elastic bands or those plastic toys from supermarket giveaways. Tape the cap on to be extra safe. 

If you’re short of time or ideas, the easiest sensory bottle for infants is simply an empty water bottle half-filled with rice, unpopped popcorn or dry beans inside! No need to even get fancy with colouring.

Childhood 101 has a roundup of easy to make DIY sensory bottles

To get even more enjoyment from sensory bottles – cover the outside in sticky Post-It notes that need to be removed in order to discover the bottle! 

8. How to make sensory bags for babies

Babies and toddlers are learning to explore their surroundings at this age, which means they love to poke things!

Like a sensory bottle, a sensory bag allows little fingers to explore small bits and bobs that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to let them play with. 

It takes just 5 minutes to create a sensory bag. All you need is:

  • Small items without sharp edges eg beans, buttons, beads, cotton balls;
  • Plastic ziplock bags;
  • Cheap hair gel; and
  • Duct tape or packing tape. 

Inside each bag you can fill with a variety of fillings, just as long as there’s nothing sharp inside that would puncture the bag eg LEGO bricks. Don’t overfill the bag with gel or items, otherwise the items won’t be able to move around inside the bag easily and the bag may risk bursting. 

After filling the bag, make sure you seal all four edges so the bag doesn’t actually open.  

Practically Functional has an easy great step-by-step tutorial on how to make a sensory bag, including tips on how to use it if your child is wanting to eat the bag! 

9. Tape chutes on a wall

Create a course of angled chutes on the wall with cardboard tubes (e.g. from wrapping paper, paper towel or even toilet rolls) and temporary masking tape. 

Then small cars, cotton balls, pom poms and other small objects can be sent down the chutes into a tray or tub below. 

10. Create a sticky wall or sticky floor

Tape pieces of clear contact, sticky side facing out, on a wall with masking tape. Ta-da sticky wall!

Then you can provide a variety of craft supplies that your child can use to stick on the sticky wall – try bits of card, play dough, large pom poms. 

Happy Toddler Playtime has a roundup of sticky wall activities.

You could also tape clear contact paper, sticky side up, to the floor or carpeting – like some kind of sensory mat for babies. Then let your toddler have fun running, jumping, dancing, or just standing on the paper while wiggling their toes on the sticky surface. You can also put small toys on the sticky surface and let toddlers try to pick them up.

11. Build an indoor obstacle course

Older babies and toddlers love to crawl and climb. Create an obstacle course using large pillows and boxes, and your little one will be thrilled at the challenge of getting over, under, and around the objects. 

You can even pile up pillows and blankets to create a mountain and encourage your little one to climb over and around it. Just don’t make it too high so that your baby may accidentally get buried in the pillows and blankets. 

12. Build blocks or Make your own blocks

Building blocks into a tower that can be knocked down is a favourite game. Duplo, foam blocks and wooden blocks are all popular sensory blocks for babies.

You can also make your own box blocks by stuffing milk cartons, cereal boxes and shoe boxes with paper and taping them shut.

Building block towers, sensory play babies love.

13. Build Tape Roads

Use masking tape or washi tape to make roads out of tape or you can buy some reusable road tape or train track tape.

You can stick the tape to all parts of the house (along the floor, up the walls), or open up a large cardboard box and make the tape roads on the flattened cardboard. 

Kids will love driving the cars up and down the roads! For extra play suitable for older toddlers, you can create houses out of cardboard, blocks or LEGO.

Buy reusable road tape or train track tape

14. Encourage Button pressing

Speaking of top sensory activities for babies, kids really love pressing buttons. So grab some easy to use torches to let them click the torches on and off! 

Of course don’t use torches that are so heavy that they’re likely to get whacked on heads or other objects and only let older toddlers loose with torches as they will better understand cause and effect ie if I shine this torch facing this way then I will get a bright beam in my eyes!

15. Build a temporary music station

Tie a piece of string between two posts/trees/chairs and then tie or peg different objects that create different sounds when struck with a wooden spoon, such as different sized saucepans, metal measuring spoons and utensils. 

This is not just a sensory experience for babies, but for parents too. You might want to do this outside to avoid the noisy orchestra!

Artplay Backyard is a popular sensory experiences for babies

16. How to make a sensory box for babies

A popular option among sensory box ideas for toddlers is to fill clear plastic containers you have around the house with little things that your baby can explore from the outside. 

Just tape the lid shut and let the little one spin the containers around to explore the contents.

17. Crawl through tunnels

For older toddlers, divide puzzle pieces or parts of a toy set into two piles, placing a pile at either end of a play tunnel. That means that your child will have to move back and forth through the tunnel to complete the task!

This helps with sustained attention, sensory processing and learning how to complete multi-step sequences.

18. Creative play for babies: paint and stamp with water

This is a good one for outdoors – fill a cup with water, dip in an easily graspable paintbrush, and give it to your toddler. 

You can do the same thing by cutting sponges into different shapes to use as stamps.

Then let them loose to ‘paint’ or ‘stamp’ whatever they like – the footpath, fences, rocks and trees!

19. String beads

A one-year-old can generally string bead-like objects on a thick lanyard or rope, as long as the beads aren’t small enough to present a choking hazard. For instance, try large pieces of pasta with a hole through it or O-shaped cereal.

Stringing beads helps with fine motor dexterity and coordination, along with hand-eye coordination, which is an important part of sensory development for babies.

20. Make edible jelly finger paint

Admittedly this one is a little messy, but you can do it outside or in a bathtub. I also think it’s less messy than traditional finger paints and it’s not as much of a problem if it’s eaten! Plus, it’s a great sensory experience for babies!

Basically combine a sachet of jelly powder (ideally without artificial colourings and flavourings) with enough hot water (not boiling) until it becomes thin enough to be like finger-paint consistency. Obviously jelly is supposed to set so you will have to experiment with how much water to add. 

You can then set up your jelly finger paint with brushes and paper (if you wish) or just let your little one explore the gelatinous colours with their fingers. The texture, taste and smell of jelly is great for sensory play too! 

*Bonus* Happy Little People Activity Cards

Looking for even MORE screen free, sensory activities for babies and toddlers?

Melbourne company Happy Little People was started by two local mums and bachelor qualified teachers to help parents navigate their baby’s foundational early years.

Their signature products are the Happy Little People Activity Cards, a deck of development-promoting activity cards with play prompt for babies age 0-12 months and 1-2 years. It offers a new meaningful, development-promoting and bonding activity a week for 52 weeks.

Happy Little People Activity Cards come as a physical card deck or in a digital format, or you can purchase in a card and digital bundle.

Just use my exclusive discount code TOT20 to get 20% off the Happy Little People Activity Card range! Note that this discount code only applies to the Happy Little People Activity Cards and does not apply to the Happy Little People Play Club as it’s already discounted.

Happy Little People - a sensory game for babies

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This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase using the links there is no extra cost to you and I earn a small commission that helps me to provide free, valuable and useful information for you! Thanks, Joyce

cropped Kristyna Hess Lockdown Portraits x

Joyce Watts is a former intellectual property, IT and media lawyer turned serial entrepreneur.

As well as being the founder of TOT: HOT OR NOT she helps businesses with their SEO, email marketing & social media as BrightSmart.com.au; she owns an online bike store CycleStyle.com.au and develops and produces creative experiences for families via WheelieGoodFun.com. She used to publish another popular lifestyle and food blog called MEL: HOT OR NOT The decisive guide to Melbourne.

She lives in inner-city Melbourne with her husband, two children and seven bikes.

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