Babies and toddlers learn through hands-on experience. Whether they’re digging in the mud or scooping up water, they’re learning all about the world around them. Sensory experiences give kids a chance to work on budding fine-motor skills, strengthen hand-eye coordination, and explore their imagination! Summer is a perfect time to give toddlers sensory play fun.

Set up an outdoor sensory spot using a baking sheet or a plastic tub and let your little one dig in. Here you’ll find twelve awesome summer sensory play ideas from mess-free options to extra-affordable ways to keep your little one engaged.

photo: Teaching Littles

1. Frozen in Ice
Ice is very nice in the summer. As the weather heats up, sensory play with ice cubes lets your little one cool off. Your kiddo can explore chilly textures of brightly colored ice cubes as they melt in the warm sun. Prep for this sensory fun the night before by adding a few drips of food coloring into water in an ice cube tray. To add a little something extra, freeze small plastic toys in ice. Dump the ice on a baking sheet or in a plastic tub and let your little explore. Find lots more ideas for twists on ice cube sensory play at Teaching Littles. Feeling the changing texture, working hard to pick up slippery ice cubes, and noticing the bright colors engages several different senses. Plus, because the weather is warm, you don’t have to worry about little fingers getting too chilly. It’s an easy prep, easy clean summer sensory activity.

2. Make a Splash: No Water Needed
A plastic baby pool is a summer classic, but you don’t have to fill it with just water. Add a few scoops of plain dry oats or cornmeal. Both are perfect for scooping up and dumping out, which is the stuff of toddler dreams. Plus, they’re edible so you don’t have to worry if a few pieces end up in your little one’s mouth. Add anything you’d throw in a sandbox, from plastic shovels to pint-size dump trucks. By pouring it all in the baby pool, you keep the mess, and the kid, contained.

photo: Jonathan Sanchez via Unsplash

3. Shaving Cream + Food Coloring
Finger painting gets an upgrade when you add a drop of food coloring to shaving cream. Note: If your little one puts everything in his/her mouth, skip this activity until he/she has outgrown it. Take out a baking sheet or tray, fill it with shaving cream, and drop in a few different colors. As kids put their hands in the shaving cream and explore, the colors will swirl and mix together. Fill up a tub with water to rinse off your baby afterward!

4. Paint the Rainbow
Rainbows are a summertime staple. You can make your own sensory, edible, rainbow-bright activity at home! Simply take plain yogurt, plop it on a baking sheet by the spoonful, and use food coloring to make each spoonful a different color. When you have the whole spectrum of colors, let your little one explore the gloopy, baby-safe finger paint. If you’d like to up your finger-painting game, make paints out of Skittles! Check out the step-by-step instructions on the Teach Preschool blog.

photo: Lubomirkin via Unsplash

5. Plain Old Water
The easiest summer sensory activity for babies and toddlers? Water! Fill a plastic tub with water and add colanders, plastic cups, measuring cups, or spoons. If pouring and scooping water has gotten old, add plastic animals, cars, or things that float (think big wooden craft sticks, sponges or rubber duckies). You can even drip in a little food coloring if you’re feeling extra fancy. Whether it’s a small bowl of water or a full baby pool, water is a sure-fire summer sensory play hit.

6. Shredded Paper
Empty out your paper shredder in a bin and hide a few items inside the tangle of paper, like plastic toys or blocks. It makes a perfect medium for a tiny treasure hunt. For additional textures, add torn up tissue paper or soft, squishy balls. Give it a summer-y spin with plastic animals you’ve visited at the zoo.

photo: Julietta Watson via Unsplash

7. Jello Playdough
Safe-to-eat homemade playdough (I Heart Naptime has a good recipe) offers squishy sensory play in every season. To give playdough a summertime twist, mix in Jello powder. It makes the playdough smell fruity and delicious; plus, the bright jewel tones are eye-catching. Growing a Jeweled Rose has a step-by-step recipe. Consider adding summery plastic cookie cutters like these flowers and a toddler-size rolling pin.

8. Scent Sensation
Incorporating scent adds an exciting dimension to sensory play. Get old spice bottles or plastic bottles with holes in the lids and fill them with summery scents, like torn up mint leaves, rose petals or sliced lemons. In addition to looking at the beautiful colors of the items inside the jars, your little one can sniff out some favorite smells. With smelly goodies safely locked in containers, you can include items that aren’t edible but have a unique and interesting scent.

photo: Hello Wonderful

9. Mud Pies
Mud pies are a summer classic for a reason: It’s fun to mix up cool mud, squish it between chubby fingers, and get good and dirty. These mud dinosaur eggs from Hello Wonderful add a new twist on muddy sensory play. Either hide small plastic dinosaurs in mud eggs for your child to unearth, or get your little one involved in hiding the dinos. Find all the how-tos at Hello Wonderful.

10. Sand Dough
Bring the beach to your backyard with sand-filled sensory play. Whether you have a classic sandbox ready for digging and castle-building or a small tub full of sand, summer sensory play isn’t complete without it. We also love this sand dough recipe from Picklebums. It combines the best elements of squishy playdough with gritty sand for a unique take on sensory play.

photo: Little Lifelong Learners

11. Summery Sensory Bottles
Looking for a completely mess-free sensory option? These nature sensory bottles mesmerize little ones. Little Lifelong Learners suggests starting with a nature walk, during which you can gather interesting flowers, feathers, grass or leaves. Fill plastic bottles with the items, and let your little one shake them, study them, and spin them around. Get tips on how to make your own at Little Lifelong Learners.

12. Ziploc Bag Sensory Fun
Mermaids unite! A sensory party in a bag, full of glittery blue mermaid things, will go over swimmingly with minimal mess. We love this sensory play-in-a-bag idea from The Chaos and The Clutter, because it can be pulled out whenever your little one needs an extra dose of fun. Like the sensory bottles, it keeps everything locked away so kids have all the joy of squishy textures without the mess. Gather up a Ziplock bag, glitter, and other ingredients and you can make your own sea-inspired sensory bag.

—Oz Spies

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