Sensory Exploration from the Kitchen Cabinets

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by Louise Roy, Learning Center Facilitator, Shanghai

by Louise Roy, Learning Center Facilitator, Shanghai

I think we’ve all heard of the benefits of sensory play, especially for children with special educational needs. Sensory play is basically any activity that stimulates your young child’s senses of touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing. Sensory activities facilitate exploration and naturally encourage children to use scientific processes while they play and create, by investigating and exploring the materials at hand. But let’s face it, when buying expensive toys or kits the costs quickly add up, and as parents and educators we are also often concerned with the unknown toxicity of children’s products.However, the ingredients for many ideas are already right there in your home. Do It Yourself (DIY) activities can be much more affordable, and are made of known ingredients (a definite plus for your peace of mind).

The first DIY to try is a staple in our household: homemade playdough! Playdough is very simple to make, and lasts for months if stored in an airtight container. My favourite recipe (incidentally also the recipe my own mum has been making for 40 years- thanks mum!) is as follows:



  • 2 cups of white flour
  • 2 cups of colored water
  • 1 Tablespoon of cooking oil
  • 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar
  • 1 cup of salt



  • Place all of the ingredients in a large pan (I find a wok works beautifully to evenly and thoroughly heat the dough).
  • Cook slowly on medium-high and stir continuously until the playdough thickens, darkens slightly in colour and loses its pasty consistency.


There are recipes out there which do not use cream of tartar, however this is one of the key ingredients because it preserves the playdough, and in my opinion is worth tracking down. You can usually find small jars of it at supermarkets selling imported products, or you can get giant tins of it on Taobao too.

If you only want one coloured playdough you can add a few drops of food colouring to the water before mixing. If you prefer to make several colours from one batch then cook first and allow the playdough to cool, then drop food colouring into the playdough and knead it until it is mixed through (pro-tip: wear gloves if you have an important meeting the next day!).

Once you have your playdough made you can step up the sensory experience by adding glitter, sequins, coffee grounds, sand, pasta, beans, or beads (watch for choking hazards with little ones). Playdough is also a great excuse to crack out the essential oils: it smells wonderful with a few drops added to the dough!


Another great experiment my kids adore is something we call:


“FIZZY RAINBOW TRAY”!  (ages 3 and up)

It involves, you guessed it, making a fizzy rainbow in a tray. For this you will need baking soda (bicarbonate soda), food colouring, white vinegar, a tray or deep sided plate, and pipettes (needle-less syringes or eye droppers from old medicine bottles do the trick too). For extra safety, this is one of those experiments which would benefit from safety goggles (or swim goggles!).


Method: Spread a 1-inch layer of baking soda in the tray, and liberally sprinkle it with drops of different coloured food colouring. Give your kids a cup of white vinegar and a pipette and have them drop the vinegar in the tray- it will begin to fizz and create beautiful rainbows in a previously predominantly white tray. Magical!




I’m always amazed how long little ones can play with a box of rice. You can buy special sand or water play tables which can be used for rice play, however a good sturdy plastic storage box with a lid works just as well (Carrefour or B&Q).


Fill with a few inches deep of uncooked rice, and give them different sized measuring cups for filling and pouring.


Make the rice even more fun by colouring it first: place one cup of vinegar (or you can use rubbing alcohol- it’s harder to find, but will leave less odour) to 1 cup of rice in a large Ziploc bag and add as much food colouring as you want to create the desired vibrancy. Have your kids help you shake and ‘schmoosh’ the bag around until the rice is evenly coated. Lay the rice out on a tray lined with baking paper until it is dry.


Rice play is loads of fun, but here are a few tips to avoid an all day clean up process: Ideally, play outside! If inside, lay down a large sheet or blanket under the rice box, or put the box inside an empty inflatable toddler pool! If possible, set the box up to play in the corner of a room, with the kids facing the corner- any over-exuberant shakes will hit the wall and go no further!


These are just a few ideas, but once you start looking around your cabinets (and online) for ideas you’ll see that there are many ways to make sensory play activities for your children, right there waiting in your home!