Sensory activities play an important role in the cognitive development of children. When children get the opportunity to explore their senses—sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch—they learn more about themselves and the world around them. As they use their senses, children develop memories and associations that will help them to solve problems and make decisions throughout the rest of their lives.
The crafts and activities we’ve rounded up here use a combination of the senses. While some crafts are preferred for being quick on time or mess-free in the making, these hands-on activities are delightfully squishy, slimy, and stretchy for play. Activate their imaginations by building miniature model worlds in small cardboard boxes or sculpting familiar objects out of homemade play dough, slime, or clay. Let them search for materials in nature that they can use in their art projects like leaves and stems for textured paintbrushes or inks that derive color from wildflowers and pantry items.
Crafts like kinetic sand or magnetic putty will prompt a conversation around scientific concepts like heat, color, and light. And who doesn’t like to play in the sand or play a game of sponge ball? Talk to your kids about shapes, colors, mathematics, and nature as they have fun creating and playing with these everyday objects. In fact, the entire family can participate in the gameplay for a quality social and learning experience. Let them experiment and see what they can come up with. (Maybe they can teach you some of the things they have learned.)
What’s more fun than playing with play dough? Making it from scratch. Kids will love mixing the ingredients and shaping them into a squishy, moldable medium. It’s the perfect activity for getting messy and having fun.
In the warmer months, this activity turns into a fun game for cooling off. Take kitchen sponges, cut them into rods, and tie them together into a squishy, textured ball that soaks up water. Then your kids are ready for a splashy game of tag.
Try kinetic sand: It feels different than play dough, but kids still love squishing it through their fingers. Build sandcastles, sculptures, and more. Food coloring can be used to create a rainbow of hues. (You can also make it thermochromic, which means the heat of your hands will change the color of the sand as you play with it.)
That ooey-gooey substance is always a classic crowdpleaser. This recipe uses kitchen ingredients, sans the laundry booster known as Borax, for a fluffy texture.
Kaleidoscopes dazzle the senses, and you can make this one with items you already have around the house. An empty paper roll, translucent beads in assorted colors, scrapbook paper, and a clear plastic lid from a disposable container provide the main materials for creating this colorful optical illusion-maker.
Little hands will have fun holding the pasta noodles, feeling the ridges and bumps, as they’re linked onto a string. You can talk about the different varieties as an educational bonus. Use alphabet soup noodles to spell out names for each child’s artwork.
Clay, leather cord, and beads: this craft has it all. And its simplicity means that younger and older kids alike will have fun rolling, folding, and stretching their pendants into shape. Once the pendants are baked in the oven with a parent’s help, the kids can wear their necklaces (and even make a piece of statement jewelry for Mom too).
Spend a day outside by searching for leaves and other plants that would make interesting brushes for a paint project. Clothespin becomes the paintbrush handles. Get out a canvas or some paper and washable tempera in a variety of colors, and see what your little ones come up with!
While parents will mix and heat the ingredients, kids can choose their favorite colors for ink. Outside in good weather, have your budding artists paint with their hands and feet on large pieces of butcher paper. Because they are non-toxic, kids will enjoy the opportunity to get a little messy.
Sidewalk Chalk Paint
It’s easy to make your own wash-off nontoxic pigments using just a few household items. This is a great hands-on activity to keep the kids happily occupied at your upcoming block party, barbecue, or any ordinary summer day.
Grab a few old T-shirts, tea towels, or fabric bags. Dip potatoes, blocks, and any other items you can salvage into the paint to create custom clothes and accessories. This can be an activity for the entire family that encourages creativity and conversation.
No-Bake Cookie Cottages
Sometimes, it’s fun to play with food. Cookie houses are a tasty treat. The frosting makes for an ideal “glue” to build the cookie house while candies and other small treats make wonderful embellishments. Let kids sneak a few bites of the sugary decorations in moderation.
Chances are, everything you need to make dappled eggs is already in your kitchen: dried grains or legumes, food dye, and eggs. All of the supplies shown here impart particularly impressive speckles, but feel free to test out any small dry spices or grains you have on hand.
Finally, a project that gives your kids permission to blow bubbles at the table. To create beautiful gift wrap out of white butcher paper, build up a froth of paint and water in a baking dish, then gently place the paper on top to create a print.
What’s cuter than baby animals? Pom-poms are great for creating small representations of your children’s favorite creatures. The soft and fluffy texture of pom-poms delights kids and adults alike. Your kids will have a blast playing with the adorable toy animals once the project is done.
Cool to the touch, ice cubes are the secret to our favorite new method of dyeing: It works like tie-dye to give any solid cotton fabric a watercolor wash.