Sensory Table Play Ideas – Wonderful and Engaging Play Time

sensory table with rainbow rice | the fairy glitch mother

Would you like to have more creative play at home? Have you seen a lot of sensory play on Instagram and don’t know where to start? If you allow me, I believe your playtime will change if you add a sensory table at home. I know it will because it did for us. We got the ikea sensory table and it has opened a world of possibilities at home. We are so happy with it.

So, our table is the Flisat table from Ikea. I bought it when my son was two, and my daughter was already five, and how I wish I had bought it earlier. My feeling is that my daughter has missed out on it, and although she has had the chance to play with it (and loved it), I know it would have been great for her to have it before. I can’t change the past, but I can share with you our story and hopefully help you by doing so. 

My son has been enjoying it since the day we put it together, and it has been fantastic. There are so many things you can do with it, and the best thing is that it gives you – the parent – more peace of mind as you have a designated space for all that play that you would not like happening anywhere else.

*Disclosure: I only recommend products I would use myself, and all opinions expressed here are our own. This post may contain affiliate links that at no additional cost to you; when you buy through the links, we may earn a small commission. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Thanks! 

Our sensory play table

We got the Flisat table from Ikea, and it has been excellent. It was straightforward to put together (I even had little helpers wanting to join in), and we built it in under 30 minutes. It was simple, believe me. He was happy being able to tighten real screws (it was the first time he actually did).

The table has two big holes that you can fill in with bins. One spot fits either one large bin or two small ones. Each is great for different types of play and fillers. They can have lids as well if you wish. And on top, you can cover them with the tabletop. I usually combine different types of bins on both sides.

Benefits of having a sensory table

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So, here are some of the benefits of having a sensory table:

  • Sensory play enabler and invitation
  • Designated space
  • Helps develop fine motor skills
  • Social invitation that invites children to connect emotionally and share
  • It can be relaxing
  • Helps develop child’s creativity
  • Improve cognitive skills: counting, organising, matching
  • It’s a fantastic scenario to learn around

Given some thought, aside from everything they learn and helps them develop, I believe the most important thing about having a play table is my peace of mind. I had always wanted to try all those sensory play activities that look so cool online, but truth be told, I did not want to risk doing it in my own house. I could only picture mess and chaos everywhere. 

So having a designated space for it (although it will get messy – especially at first), the risk is located and better controlled, and I am getting better at it. (I do not lose my mind if something spills, I have a towel and a vacuum always at hand).

Essential tips that have worked for me:

  • Place the table on a surface that you feel comfortable with the activity. If we play with liquids and food coloring, we play in the kitchen with tile floors. If we are playing with beans or dried pasta, I don’t mind if it is on the living room carpet as it is easy to pick up. (But you’ll never see them making slime in the living room 😅 – that would give me a heart attack for sure.)
  • Have a kitchen towel, paper towels, broom, or a vacuum nearby just in case. Yes, things will spill and go outside. At first, it will happen a lot, and they will get better at it little by little. When it happens, we take these as an opportunity to clean up after their mess. It shouldn’t be mommy’s job to be the only one cleaning after them. So I taught them how to do it, and now, they even clean up without telling me. I see something has spilled and I see my son taking the kitchen towel and drying the floor (allow me my proud mommy moment, please 😅😂❤️).

Yes, they are common sense, but sometimes even these tiny things are huge mental blockers, and they have helped me overcome those fears.

Things that you can do with your table:

sensory table - arctic play | the fairy glitch mother

So what do we do with our table? Let me show you 😉

Sensory play

Sensory play is considered any type of activity that encourages and stimulates a child’s senses of touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, and other activities that also engage movement and balance. It usually involves touching, sorting, pouring, grabbing, and interacting with materials in different ways.

Children explore primarily with their hands, which will help them build on their fine motor skills that will later be used for writing, tying shoelaces, dialing phones, fastening buckles, and buttoning clothes. But they also explore the world with other senses. Smelling flowers and leaves, tasting water with citric fruits, listening to beans drop like they were rain, and experimenting with how colors are created. Any activity will stimulate all the senses but some might encourage one sense above the rest. It is a festival for the senses.

Here are some of our setups that I hope will spark some inspiration and will help you see that this type of play doesn’t have to be extra complicated.

Some filler ideas:

  • Rice (you can play with it plain, but you can also color it – have a look here to see how).
  • Pasta
  • Beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Water
  • Scarves
  • Wooden loose parts
  • Cotton
  • Rocks
  • Leafs
  • Water beads
  • Salt
  • Sand 
  • Kinetic Sand
  • Oobleck
  • Mud
  • Cereals – crunched, or not
  • Shredded paper
  • Artificial snow
  • Sticks
  • Petals
  • Ice 
  • Shaving foam
  • Pom poms
  • Hay
  • Grass
  • Pine needles and cones
  • Packing peanuts (don’t buy these, just use them if they come in a delivery 😉 )
  • Paper clips, or metal bits 
  • Shredded coconut
  • … You can honestly use anything that you can imagine 😉

Nice tools to have around:

  • Cups
  • Jugs
  • Spoons
  • Pincers
  • Dropplets
  • Magnetic wand

And here are some pictures for inspiration 😉

Small worlds

Small world play is fantastic for little ones. It is an invitation to let their imaginations fly and build their mini universes with their own rules, structures, and characters. In addition, small world play is fantastic to engage in role-play activities, and it supports the development of personal, social, and emotional skills.

Experiments

The bins are great containers for all the experiments you can imagine (or, better say, all the experiments they can come up with). We love mixing materials, water, oil, food coloring, vinegar, bicarbonate soda, sprinkles, petals… you name it. Any ingredient in the kitchen is susceptible to going in 😉. 

You can use tools and containers you may have in your kitchen, but we love our learning resources sets. We have a science set and a measuring cup set and they are wonderful. We’ve had them around for almost 4 years and they are still going strong. Honestly, they are one of the best buys we’ve ever made.

Here are some pictures to see the things we do at home. Just give them a jug of water, color it, and a few ingredients, and you’ll have them entertained. Without a hypothesis to test and prove, this is just more sensory play 😅.

  • Fizzy shapes: you create the shapes by placing into a mold bicarbonate + water + food coloring and pop in the freezer for one hour. Then add vinegar with the dropplets and see them fizz and and create new colors.
  • Rescue animals from ice: in a cupcake tin, place plastic animals and pour colored water over them. Let them freeze over night, and rescue them by throwing warm water over them.
  • Experiment with measure liquids.
  • Color mixing with water and food coloring.
  • Observe what happens when you mix liquids with different densities (water & oil)

Oh! And this is a book that we use to inspire us with experiment ideas. This way they can browse through it and decide what they would like to test.

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Role play

My son loves to pretend he is a chef or a doctor. My daughter makes perfumes and is also a fashion designer. And many of these types of play happen at the table. 

Arts & crafts

It’s also the perfect place to store materials for crafts when you are working on one side of the table. Have the sheet of paper on the tabletop and have feathers, glue, stickers, markers, and all the lot in the small bins on the other side. This way, they won’t roll off the table 😉

It can also hold colored rice so you can create rice bottles, mosaics, or line art with rice.

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Where to buy sensory table, fillers, and complements

Sensory table

Our table is from Ikea, but you can also find many other tables around. If you are handy you can even make it yourself. Here are some DIY tutorials that I’ve found online.

Fillers

As you can see you can fill the bins with many things. Food, non-food, things you can find in nature, recycled. But here are the ones that I have bought that have been great:

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Water beads

Water beads have been an amazing discovery for us. I found this brand online that sells some sets of water beads paired with toys. One is filled with blue shades and sea animals, and the other is black and gray with astronauts and planets. They have both been great successes with my children and it is not messy. I highly recommend it.

  • Link to sea sensory kit here
  • Link to space sensory kit here

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Artificial Snow

For our arctic play one day I bought artificial instant snow. It comes as a powder and you just add water and watch it expand. It was non-toxic and fun. Although I must admit that both my son and I prefer water beads to the artificial snow, it’s just a matter of preference, but they are both great.

grapat toys | the fairy glitch mother

Grapat Loose Parts

Wooden loose parts from Grapat are some of my favourite things to include in sensory play (dry sensory play) or when creating miniwords. You have cups, and rings, and their mandala collection with tiny cones and water drops and so much more. Check out this blog post about Grapat Loose parts for more information and where you can buy them around the world.

food coloring | the fairy glitch mother

Food coloring

Food coloring is a must-have item in our home. I used to bake cookies and used them a lot. But with the children, we’ve done soooo many things with it. We’ve experimented with water, made slime, made oobleck, chalk paint, dye rice, volcanoes, painted with colored ice, made marbled paper, and decorated cupcakes. These are just a few things you can do with it. You must buy food coloring if you don’t have any.

gift 2 year old - kinetic sand | the fairy glitch mother

Kinetic Sand

We got our Kinetic Sand during the first wave of pandemic lockdown in 2020. I placed it in a tray on our balcony and was a lifesaver and we still have it there. He has played a lot with it this past year. He made cakes, buried his action figures, created race tracks and ice creams. The possibilities are endless and so much fun. Warning: It can get everywhere if your child is a bit messy. For less mess, we put it on their little kids table and play outside.

Tools

Of course you can use containers and utensils that you have in your kitchen. There is no need to buy anything new. But we do have these dedicated solely to their play and they love them.

3 year old boy birthday gift ideas - mix measurements | the fairy glitch mother

Mix & Measure set – Learning Resources

I am a big fan of Learning Resources. If you do not know the brand you should check it out. They have so many tools, resources, and games that make play a fantastic learning opportunity. We already had the Experiment set which we’ve used a lot and we plan on playing and experimenting with combining the sets.

Why is a sensory table a great idea?

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As I have said before, the most important thing for me was my own peace of mind. I knew that all these activities would be great for them and their development, but the idea of mess all around simply had me paralised. I thought, let them have this type of play at nursery or school.

Deciding there was a designated place for all this kind of play made me feel more at easy and happy to invite this kind of play at home. The children quickly understood that they could only do certain activities and experiment at the table and it has been wonderful.

They enjoy playing at the table because there is just so much to experiment and play with. Setups do not have to be complicated, you just need to put some things in there and let them discover and explore. They will surprise you and the table will surprise them.

Please let me know your thoughts and if you have any other tips or filler ideas that are great to try. We’d love to hear them!

Happy playing!

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like some other ideas with other open-ended toys in some of these posts 😉:

 | the fairy glitch mother

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Updated on: March 9, 2024

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