Mommy’s Sanity Savers: Garden Sensory Bin

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m struggling a bit with our afternoon downtime. We are usually pretty busy in the mornings, and mid-day brings lunch and just enough time to run an errand or two before naptime, but that stretch between T waking up around three and  Daddy getting home at six-thirty was feeling looong. C can usually play independently pretty well, but for some reason by the afternoon she forgets how and instead wants me to play with her. So I do, but have you ever tried playing with a three year old? They dictate the game and the rules, and lose it if you play any other way than how they want to play, only they don’t explain the rules they just expect you to read their minds. So after about thirty (ok twenty) minutes of that my nerves are completely shot and whatever was left of my patience has completely evaporated. And then what to do with the other three hours until dinner time? The easy answer was turn on a show, but then C started asking to watch something every five minutes. I needed a better solution. One day I got super ambitious and moved all of C’s art supplies into the shelves next to the kitchen table. I also stocked some bins with coloring books, plain paper, construction paper, pom poms, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks…all the crafting basics I could think of. I then scoured Pinterest for “preschool art activities,” typed up a list of projects, and stuck it to the fridge. I had visions of Charlotte expressing her creativity and improving her fine motor skills while I worked on scrapbooking and Tessa played happily on the floor. You can guess where this is going.
The first project I picked was name-tracing. She was supposed to outline her name in paint with a cottonball/clothespin contraption. It actually went pretty well, except it required some set-up, lots of clean-up, and my constant supervision in-between. Of course Tessa wanted in on the action, and was not happy that I wouldn’t let her play in/taste the paint. The whole project took about twenty minutes, fifteen of that being for set-up and clean-up. Not exactly the hours of independent crafting I had envisioned. With a sinking feeling I looked at my list of projects. Sure enough, they all required quite a bit of prep work (by me) and way too many of them also called for paint. I scanned the list, desperately looking for something that wouldn’t be so messy, and found the list of sensory bins I had tacked on the bottom.

I knew the basic concept of a sensory bin – some sort of tactile material in a container paired with tools/toys to interact with it. I honestly thought C may be too old for something like this, but I decided to try it anyway. I picked one that didn’t seem too messy, called “feed the birdies.” To my utter amazement she played with it for over an hour! Independently! Then came back and played with it again the next day! And the next! I was going to change it the next week, but she wouldn’t let me! She said she liked it the way it was. 🙂 Finally after two weeks I switched it out for a garden version, which she loves just as much. Now I will warn you that these aren’t exactly mess-free, but the time she spends with it paired with the fact she does it independently means I am happy to run the dust-buster under the chair when she’s done playing.
There are literally hundreds of sensory bin ideas out there (seriously, the pin I used boasted 101 different sensory bin ideas) but in case you’d like to see what I did, here are the two I’ve made so far.

Bird Sensory Bin


  • Shredded green paper grass (I found mine in the party supply section at HL)
  • Small paper cups
  • pipe cleaners
  • pop poms 
  • foam stickers
  • googly eyes
  • glue gun 
  • clothes pin
  1. Fill a large plastic bin with the shredded paper. 
  2. Cut the pipe cleaners into small pieces and bend them into squiggly shapes (like worms)
  3. Stick the paper cups down into the grass.
  4. Using the pom poms, googly eyes, and foam make little birds using a glue gun to stick everything together. If you can find little toy birds I would definitely use those, but we couldn’t find any so we made our own. C insisted on making them all characters from Rio 2 (her current favorite movie).
  5. Put the birds into the cups. Give your child the clothespin and tell them to use it to pick up the worms and feed the birdies by dropping them into the paper cups. You could make this a color matching activity by color-coding the birds and worms (feed the pink bird all the pink worms, the green bird all the green ones, etc.) but I wasn’t that on top of things. 

C did the activity as directed for a while, but then it changed into some sort of elaborate imaginary game that involved the birds building new nests and escaping from the bad guys who wanted to trap them. Whatever, it kept her attention and she was definitely using her imagination. 😉

Garden Sensory Bin (Indoor)

  • dried beans (I used pinto. You probably only need a couple of pounds. I bought WAY too many, so if you need beans just ask :))
  • Small cups or pots (I found these mini flower pots in the Target dollar spot)
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Flower stickers (I got these foam ones at Walmart)
  • Small scoop or shovel
  • silk leaves/flowers
  • wooden birdhouse/paint (optional, I found this one in the craft aisle at Walmart. Have your child paint the birdhouse ahead of time. C threw a fit when I told her she couldn’t put the birdhouse in the bin until the paint was dry)
  1. Pour the beans into the bottom of the bin.
  2. place the pots down into the beans. Show your child how to scoop the beans to fill the pots and plant the flowers. You could also make labels for the flower types out of popsicle sticks.
C insisted all the birds needed to live in the garden too, in the birdhouse. I do have to watch this one carefully since the beans tend to jump out onto the floor and I don’t want T to get a hold of one, but if you don’t have a crawling baby just make picking up the beans part of the activity at the end. 🙂 

I’m so excited to try more sensory bin ideas. I’ve seen some messy ones (a garden using potting soil, an ocean themed one with water) that I will definitely be trying once it’s warm enough to play outside. Have you tried sensory bins with your kiddos? Any favorites you want to share?

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