Category Archives: Sensory Play Ideas

Art at the Start and Dundee Science Centre

All this week Art at the Start, DCA and Dundee Science Centre have teamed up to do science and art activities, all themed on art and looking. You can find them all on the science centre’s home learning portal here

You’ll find some colour theory, optical illusions, remembering games and more. There are also links to older ones activities that connect with previous exhibitions at DCA.

Lights and Shadows

This week we are making art from light and shadows. This activity is very easy, needs only things you will have at home and makes no mess. It is also a really nice direct way for little ones to see how their actions have immediate effects; as they move about, their shadows move. This is a way to help them learn that they can take actions which do the things they want and that they have control over events or actions, what we call ‘self efficacy’ and ‘agency’. Both of these can help build their sense of self. This game is also nice for relationships as you can make up stories together and have each others shadows interact. For babies the high contrast of black and white is engaging. As always this activity is designed to be done together so don’t leave unsupervised children with lights.

you need:

  • some white fabric like a sheet or a table cloth spread out between 2 chairs so there is a space where you can go behind the sheet.
  • a spotlight, table lamp or torch aimed at the sheet
  • a darkened room
  • hands for making puppets and maybe some toys that will cast good shadows or card fro your recycling to cut out your own.

Start by shining the light onto the front of the sheet and then you can sit in front and show wee ones how they can use their hands to cast shadows onto the fabric. You can play about at trying to make your hands look like animals. The easiest is to use your fingers to make some kind of beak or mouth and then your puppets can talk to each other. Or just see what different effects you can create together.  Show them how putting their hands nearer or further from the light can change the size of the shadow. Babies especially will be happy to just look at the high contrast visuals they are getting from the shadows whereas toddlers and pre-schoolers might want to develop more of a story or ‘show’.

Once wee ones understand how it is working you could move the light behind the sheet to make it into more of a puppet theatre if you like.  You could take turns showing each other an idea or get siblings involved in putting together a story for you to watch. Our pre-school aged tester really liked to have his ‘show’ filmed on a phone so he could then watch it back but sometimes you might prefer to just stay in the moment and focus on the game together.

You might like to add to your range of puppets. What about making some extra features from card to hold in their hands like we make an extra snake tongue here. Or you can add in some of their own toys to hold up and see what they create as a shadow. We are using play mobile figures and trees here. If you want to be really fancy you can use sticky tape to tape some toys to chop sticks so there is a handle to hold and it’s easier for them to keep their own shadow out of the way.

There are lots of different possibilities so have fun experimenting and seeing what engages little ones’ imaginations.

Footprint trails

When painting with wee ones we seem to make a lot of footprints. This is great as they like the feel of the paint on their feet and it’s also a quick way for them to see their impact in the world through mark making when they stamp down their print. It’s also nice to keep prints to see how they are growing. If you are looking for something else to do with all those footprints then try this trail idea to turn them into a game.


You need:

  • Paper
  • Paint (or you could draw round feet in pen and cut out instead)
  • scissors
  • covered floor


Start by painting wee ones feet or having them step into a tray of paint and then pressing their feet down onto paper. It’s a good idea to have an old towel ready to wipe off on or a bowl of water ready so it doesn’t get spread through your house. You can make as many footprints as you can, the more you have the better.

Once they have dried you can now cut out the footprints. If you have toddlers or pre-schoolers they could help you with this but it’s also fun to do it secretly after bed time so you can set up the trail as a surprise. If you don’t have enough footprints you can also cut round some to create extra. Once you have a big handful lay them out round your house or garden as a trail for them to follow. At the end you might want to hide a toy animal or have a little treat to find.

Children will enjoy recognising that it’s their own prints which have made the trail. You can play at having them jump from print to print or you can space them out a bit further so they have to hunt. If you ask them to do the trail backwards after they’ve found the end then you can keep the prints for another day. We’ve done this trail every day this week so far in different places as it was very popular. I had to stop leaving jaffa cakes at the end and switch to cuddly toys!


Colourful foam

This idea came from our friend Laura and my Art at the Start guinea pigs have been loving it! It’s a really nice way to get super messy with lots of lovely sensory experiences of foamy sloppiness for wee ones but it is still easy to clear up because it’s mostly soap.

You need:

  • water based, non-toxic paints (you could also use a drop of food colour but remember it stains if you’re letting wee ones help you mix)
  • something soapy – we used washing up liquid here but you’d be better to use your child’s normal bubbly bath as then you know it won’t irritate their skin and will be safe if they lick it
  • a blender

Just put a cup of water, a squirt of paint and a squirt of your chosen soap into a blender. Put the lid on and wizz it up. It will grow to fill the jug. Toddlers can help with the measuring and wizzing and will enjoy seeing the mixture instantly go from tiny to massive! With babies you can make it yourself in advance.

Now you can do a few different colours and pour them one at a time into a tray in a rainbow effect. Or you can let your wee one do it and end up with a crazy pattern like we did! You could make up a smaller amount of this foam and put it in a baking tray or shallow dish to play with from a high chair or we put several colours together into an under-bed storage tray to get right in. It is fun mixing the different colours up with your hands although this does often result in it ultimately turning mudgy beige! If you wanted to introduce some learning about colours why not try making just a couple of colours like yellow and red or yellow and blue so wee ones can see what new colour is made when they mix.

Sensory Baskets

This week is Infant Mental Health Awareness week so we are thinking of activities for our very youngest participants. We often do sensory trays at our sessions with a themed messy mixture in them like coloured rice or jelly volcanos. These are great fun but a simple sensory basket is also a nice way to help babies explore their world and all the interesting textures and colours. They are good for motor skills development as they encourage babies to reach out and try to grab things and they are good for language development and empathy if you can talk about the objects and what they feel like with your little one.

They are also really simple to throw together and can be ever changing. Look round the house for a variety of interestingly textured items and then put these into a basket or box, or just straight onto a high chair table or a floor mat and let your baby explore the different feelings. You don’t need too many as you don’t want it to be overwhelming. Anything big enough that they can’t swallow it which is safe for them to explore is good. They don’t have to be fancy objects; everything is interesting to them because it’s all new. Look how interesting this cauliflower is!

You can mix it up by grouping things together. Here are some ideas

  • different fruits and vegetables,
  • different textures like a spiky hairbrush, a fluffy feather, a shiny spoon and a rough stone
  • a basket of all the same colour, or different baskets for each colour for some colour sorting
  • kitchen things like a colander and a wooden spoon
  • natural things like a shell, a stone, a bit of branch and some leaves (making sure they’re safe if they get put in babies mouth)
  • things which make good noises like rustling paper, a bell and a shaker.

Icy sensory play

If it stays nice and sunny, little ones might enjoy some sensory exploration of different temperatures using ice. These need a little planning the day before to put things in the freezer but other than that no materials so it’s perfect for during lockdown. Here are a few different suggestions of ways you could add some ice into your play that might suit different ages of wee  ones. It is nice to expand the range of sensations that babies have by including this cold and slippery material. They might not be sure of the feeling at first so don’t force it, just give them time to try it, think about it and try it again. When they are unsure of something new babies also look to you for guidance on if its ok or not so you can reassure them by demonstrating and playing yourself.


This is a way to extend a sensory tray of water like we made last week here by adding an iceberg to your ocean. If you fill a food bag with water and put it in the freezer the night before you will be able to peel out the ice in a nice big shape that you can float in your water. You can dye that water blue with paint or food colouring too, if you like, and add some of your child’s toys so they can do some imaginary play in this small ocean world. This one is also good for babies as you can make sure the ice is big enough that it can’t cause any risk of being put in a mouth. When it starts to break up or get small you can just stop. It can also be fun to make the water a little warm so there is lots of contrast of temperature.

Ice excavation

Freeze some toys (sturdy ones) into an ice block by putting them into a Tupperware or freezer bag of water. The next day you can give them to toddlers on a tray or in the garden along with a toy hammer to excavate the toys from the ice. Or you could let them experiment by running hot water over them to free the toys.

Stained glass ice windows

These look really beautiful and it’s fun to watch them melt. Get wee ones involved the day before laying out the pattern and then they will enjoy revealing it the next day from the freezer. You need a mixture of leaves and flowers (if babies are still putting things in their mouth check these are edible flowers like marigolds or violas). You need water in a shallow Tupperware and show little ones how to put flowers or individual petals into the water in a pattern that they are happy with. Then just freeze it till the next day and reveal their masterpiece. Set it up somewhere so you can watch it melt and look at the light coming through the colours. In the winter this can be fun to do by leaving the water outside to freeze and you can go a whole day without your window even melting if it’s chilly enough outside.

Blue sea sensory trays

This is a really easy sensory tray, perfect for a hot day. It involves no planning at all but wee ones will enjoy getting to use their toys in the water and somehow the water being blue makes it just a little bit better than normal water!

For the tray we used a big, shallow, plastic storage tray like the kind that go under the bed. You could also use a small paddling pool, a tuff spot tray or a baking tin. If its see through the water will look better though. If you are in the house put it on top of a towel so the floor doesn’t get slippy.

Just add a little blue colouring to your water with either a splash of blue paint or some blue food colour, mix, add toys and play! Little ones usual toys might like to join in and if you can add some things for scooping and pouring even better. We are using shells here but you could also use plastic cups or measuring spoons. Encourage them to use their imagination.

In this tray we did for a DCA messy session about islands and hurricanes we added little islands foam shaving foam. If your wee one is big enough no to eat the foam this is a fun addition as they enjoy the islands mixing into the water and having to add more. We also added some paper boats in this one and wobbled the tray back and forth to make a storm.



Home made, safe to taste, paints

We are continuing our ideas for art supplies around the house with some home-made paints. These are good if you are stuck at home as you might have some of the ingredients already but they are great at any time with little ones because they are safe to taste, being made with ingredients from your kitchen.

Flour paint

This paint has a nice thick texture so it’s perfect for finger painting with little ones or using with stampers as we do here.

You need:

  • 1 cup of flour or cornflour, or a mixture (we used half and half, the more cornflour the more jelly like the paints are)
  • 3 cups cold water
  • Food colouring (this can be whatever you have, we used a mixture of liquid colours and pastes)
  • Teaspoon of salt (this is meant to help the water absorb but it works fine without if you don’t want to risk small babies eating the salt)

Mix the cup of flour with the 2 cups of the water in a pan and then slowly heat it on the hob stirring the whole time. It starts very runny and milky, then it will go a bit lumpy so don’t panic, it will gradually come together and start to be thick, smooth and a bit gelatinous. Take it off the heat and stir in the 3rd cup of cold water, more if you want runnier paint. Thick paint is better for babies though as they have more control over it.

Divide it between bowls, jars or paint pots then stir in a drop of food colouring into each. This part is likely to stain so be careful with wee ones. Once the paint was mixed it did not seem to stain our hands, although I would be careful on clothes.

For babies put a few blobs of colour onto paper and let them explore it on the floor, either lying on tummies or sitting up. For bigger ones they can try using stamps or brushes or finger painting. We took this paint to the bath tub and it was great for decorating the side of the bath and then washing off really easily.

These keep for several days in the fridge, longer if you added the salt.

Yogurt or pudding paint

If you want it to be even easier with little ones and don’t mind it being temporary try mixing a little food colouring into a babies usual yogurt, pudding or baby rice. You can then let them use this to explore and decorate onto paper, or onto a surface like their high chair tray table or a baking tray, or onto the bath like us.

Fruit and veg paints

These paints use the colours of fruit and vegetables to create thin paints that can be used like ink or watercolours.

You need:

  • Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables with strong colours. We used strawberries and redcurrants, blueberries and spinach. You could try carrots for orange, blackcurrants for purple, or turmeric cooked in water for yellow.

If the fruits and veggies are fresh cook them down in a little water to release the juices. If they are frozen just pour a little boiling water over them in a bowl to defrost them. Once cooked or defrosted mash them down using a fork. Toddlers and pre-schoolers might like to help with this step. If you were fancy you could do this step in a blender or a nutri-bullet but a fork is fine.

Then push them through a sieve into a paint pot or jam jar to get the paint.

We only make a little handful of fruit at a time so we don’t waste any but it keeps a few days in the fridge.

And a warning – if you have ever had a baby dribble blueberries down their clothes you will know that natural paint colours can still definitely stain clothing so wear old clothes or strip down to a nappy and cover your floor or table with newspaper or a cloth.




Here are our attempts at using the paints. They are quite runny so better for toddlers than tiny babies. They have quite a nice watercolour effect and make pastel shades. Blueberries were our most successful with the darkest colour and it was fun because it changed colour from pinkish to blueish after a minute in the air. Slightly magical paint!



Dinosaur themed sensory tray

This week in our Homestart art therapy group we decided to create a dinosaur swamp. Last week we had been a bit less messy making salt dough clay so we wanted to give wee ones  the chance to get good and sticky today. This sensory tray idea was very easy with a little planning the night before as it is all made from food stuffs.

You need:

  • Toy dinosaurs
  • Sugar free red jelly (mixed up the night before)
  • Frozen peas and broccoli, or other green veggies (taken out the freezer to defrost the night before)
  • A big tray like the tuff spot we used or an under-bed storage tray or you could make a smaller version in an oven tray or something similar.
  • It’s a good idea to put the whole thing down on top of a plastic table cloth or old sheet to catch the mess

We made up the tray using an old volcano model from a science kit sat in a pile of red jelly to make lava and then two bags of peas and a bag of broccoli to make trees. Then added the dinosaurs. There are several different textures for little ones to explore in this tray and lots of scope for imagination. You might encourage them to try and stomp on the peas with a dinosaur to squish them which is a very satisfying game! If grown ups get stuck in exploring then little ones will follow their lead. This is definitely adaptable to other resources as well. You could make some hills from other left overs like mash potato or swap in different animals. We’ve also done a similar tray before using spaghetti dyed green but peas are less work.

We took this activity a step further by then trying to paint using the dinosaur toys, dipping their feet in paint and stomping around on our paper.

Valentines themed sensory tray

We got a bit carried away with the pink at our group with Homestart Dundee this week. This sensory tray had lots of different textures to explore and it was nice to watch how the different ages of wee ones used it. Babies were just feeling the pink snow and the feathers while the toddlers were moulding cup cakes and scooping ice creams.

These trays were made using a dyed pink version of sensory cornflour snow. You need:

  • Corn flour- several boxes for a tray this bit but you can use a baking tray for a more manageable sixe
  • Oil – we used sunflour oil
  • Red or pink food colouring

Tip your cornflour into a tray and add half a cup of water with your food colouring mixed through (this will help it to mix through the flour). Then start gradually adding your oil and mixing thoroughly as you go. This takes quite a lot of mixing, rubbing any lumps between your fingers until it’s a nice soft snow like texture. You should be able to mould it into a hard packed ball but then crumble it back up into soft fluff again.

We then set up the tray to have lots of interesting bits and bobs. We gathered pom poms, cotton balls, feathers, cup cake cases, cookie cutters, toy ice cream cones, toy candles, red balls, spoons, pinchers, scoops, cups and bowls.

It is nice to leave little ones to lead the exploration because you never know what ideas they will come up with. And you can support them by playing along with any role play, “eating their icecreams” etc.

Here is our tray after the play was over!