These days, the word 'sensory' is used a lot when talking about children. A child may be called 'sensory defensive' if he or she wears socks inside out, refuses to wear certain fabrics or does not like certain textures. Kids who like to tap, rock, or put things in their mouth or who pay attention better when sitting on a bumpy cushion can be referred to as 'sensory seeking.' Then there are ALL kids who benefit from opportunities to engage in 'sensory play.'
All you need to achieve sensory learning at home is a shallow container and some type of material that won't make you go over the edge to clean-up. This can include rice; coffee beans; dry pasta; cooked pasta; flour; pom poms; dish soap bubbles; corn husks; cotton balls; tiny beads or elastics etc. Supply scoops, an empty container, cookie cutters, funnels and almost any tool in the kitchen your child would enjoy using and voila! You are providing a rich activity that (while messy) improves your child's spatial relationships, eye-hand coordination, and motor planning. The major rule of thumb is to never force a child to engage with a texture they do not wish to touch. By watching you fill a dump truck with rice, he may eventually get comfortable to stick a finger into the bucket.
The simplest way to begin using sensory play is to see what is readily available to you. I recently bought large bags of inexpensive macaroni and filled a clear plastic shoe box with some of the dry pasta. I buried miniature animal models and had my one and half year old search for them. I got to boost his vocabulary by using talking about 'deep' and 'shallow' and giving him directions to look for the animals. He then went to find his favorite small stuffed Mickey Mouse and tried to cover it with the noodles. Interestingly, he wanted to put his feet in and actually get in the shoe box. This makes sense because our feet are actually more sensitive than our hands. I think a larger container, like my now empty water table, would work better. Hopefully I will get around to cleaning it out and setting it up in my playroom filled with one of the materials I mentioned above.
Some parents and caregivers get extremely creative with sensory play, like this mom I found on Pinterest, who cooked and dyed spaghetti to represent the colors of the rainbow. With two toddlers at home, I don't have that much time or willingness to devote to an activity like this. However, I do have extra bags of sand from my sand box and plan to try this moon sand recipe (see below) which is supposed to be 'cleaner' than using actual sand.
I hope that you will find some of these ideas helpful on the days that you want to pull your hair out because nothing is keeping your child engaged. A lot of these materials can be stored for several weeks to use again and again. If the mess if preventing you from trying sensory play, just try to remember, that childhood is fleeting so dig in and enjoy!
4 cups sand