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Sensory play for babies: 15 DIY activities to boost your baby's development

Sensory play for babies is a key way in which motor skills are developed, they can also be fun (and not too messy!). Here are some sensory play ideas from Mumsnet users.

By Natasha Gregson | Last updated Dec 4, 2023

Baby playing with dad

In their first three years of life, babies will grow immensely. As they develop they will take in lots of information about the world around them, often through play with a selection of the best baby toys. Many babies are naturally curious. From the moment they are born, they start to explore their surroundings through the five senses. Sensory play is any type of play that stimulates these senses.

Sensory play is beneficial for the development of many important skills your baby will need to learn. Much sensory play can be as simple as exposure: continuously talking to your baby as you go about your day will help them to start developing their language skills. Even if they are too young to talk, they will still absorb it.

So many day-to-day activities can be incorporated into sensory play, and really it’s about getting your baby used to their environment. Showing them how to manipulate items, playing with rattles, and having a bouncer with a toy bar for them to reach towards are all things that can help stimulate your child’s senses and get them curious about how things work.

What is sensory play?

Sensory play is broadly defined as any type of play which involves the use of the five senses: touch, taste, sound, smell, sight. Activities that involve movement can also be considered sensory play.

Sensory play for babies at three months might look different to sensory play for a one-year-old, however. For the youngest babies, rattles and crinkly books might be a good start to get them engaging with sound and texture. For one-year-olds, blowing bubbles might be the thing that grabs their attention. The good news is, there are loads of different things to choose from and enhancing playtime with some of the best sensory toys for babies can encourage their development too.

Benefits of sensory play

Baby playing with pasta and cup

The benefits of sensory activities for babies are manifold. Sensory play offers an opportunity for engagement with the world outside that helps your baby learn. Active play promotes brain development which creates connections, expanding your baby’s ability to complete complex tasks.

Safe sensory activity promotes language development and encourages social interaction.  This interactivity can be really helpful in promoting mindfulness skills, which can be great for when your baby is anxious or upset.

Sensory play is also great for building observational skills as well as problem solving through experimentation.

The skills developed by sensory play are: 

  • Fine motor skills

  • Gross motor skills

  • Social skills

  • Observational skills

  • Problem solving

  • Coordination

  • Language

  • Cognitive growth

Sensory play is essential for babies, but you must ensure any play is fully supervised and age-appropriate for your child.

When is the best time to start sensory play with my child?

Sensory play can happen as soon as you take your baby home. Your baby will instinctively recognise your voice and smell. You can incorporate sensory play into everyday activities just by talking to them and keeping them close.

The best way to introduce sensory play is to provide the opportunity for stimulating moments in your day. Don’t worry about setting aside time at first. When you’re changing them or washing them you can talk to them, or at other times gently stroke different textures against their skin (think blankets, towels, baby wipes etc).

0-12 months

Tummy time is a great time for sensory play for babies 0-3 months because it encourages them to explore with touch. You can arrange the best tummy time toys around your baby in a circle in order to promote reaching in different directions.

Narrating your day is also useful for giving your baby auditory input. It’s super easy to do, just talk about what you’re doing as you’re doing it. This will help form the connections in the brain for language development.

Noisy toys such as rattles or maracas are great for infants. They help develop gross motor skills as well as building muscles.

Bold black and white images can stimulate the development of optic nerves for newborns. Focusing on showing these to your baby can help train your baby’s vision, and high-contrast colours and patterns are a great way to capture their attention, leading to visual stimulation.

Many parents opt for baby play mats and activity gyms at this age too, as they are excellent tools for promoting sensory development. Play mats typically feature bright colours, patterns, and textures that can capture a baby's attention and help develop their visual perception. Activity gyms often include hanging toys, such as mobiles or mirrors, that can encourage babies to reach, grab and develop their motor skills.

1-2 years

A one-year-old will enjoy things like squeezing water from a sponge. Fill a bowl halfway with water and put a sponge. Show your baby how to dip the sponge in and squeeze the water out - this will teach them about cause and effect. You can also introduce some of the best bath toys into their routine too - learning can happen anywhere, it doesn't just have to be in their playpen!

Some parents also create a sensory basket or a sensory station to give children the opportunity to explore in a safe way. Fill a clean bin or a bowl with rice, blocks, pasta - add dish soap bubbles and drop in toys. Your toddler will love digging through and discovering items. Always supervise this and make sure not to include anything that could pose a choking hazard.

2-3 years

Two to three-year-olds might enjoy playing with flour. You can help them make dough out of flour and water. They’ll love feeling the different textures and watching science in action as the flour becomes dough!

At this age try engaging them with art and craft activities that allow them to create, experiment and explore different colours, shapes and patterns.

Another great option for this age is playing with musical instruments such as drums, xylophones, and tambourines, which can help them develop their auditory perception and coordination. Encourage them to get dancing to music too – now they have more freedom of movement they will love moving around and this can create a special bonding moment for you both.

Sensory play activities for babies: 15 DIY ideas to try at home

Mother talking to baby

1. Play with a torch in a dark room

Dim the lights or turn them off and shine the torch in different directions. See if your baby follows the light around the room. This can be a fun and engaging way to introduce them to new colours, patterns and movements as they watch the light beam dancing on the walls and objects in their surroundings.

What Mumsnet users say

“My son is four with ASD and LD. He loves playing with torches.” cwtch4967

2. Bang on upturned saucepans

Make a racket and encourage your baby to experiment with different sounds by hitting different saucepans. This is good for developing motor skills and also stimulates hearing through musical play.

3. Scrunch up tissue paper, tin foil, or bubble wrap 

Your baby will love the different sounds and textures of each material. This is also a hands-on opportunity for them to strengthen their fine motor skills as they grasp and manipulate the material.

What Mumsnet users say

“Almost anything can be a sensory toy, but I’d start with something like: foil emergency blanket, rainmaker, a Brio rattle, a glitter wand, a small child-safe mirror, a maraca.” SBAM

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4. Spark their imagination with kinetic sand

Kinetic sand is play sand that is soft and crumbly in texture, but holds its shape when squeezed or pressed. It allows babies to explore their senses, develops fine motor skills and gets them thinking imaginatively. There is the initial cost of the sand to factor in (you can pick up sets for three years plus from £8), but there will be tons of DIY play activities they can try with it.

What Mumsnet users say

“Having worked in childcare and having four of my own I’d say kinetic sand is better than play dough. It can easily be swept up, compared to play dough that gets stuck in the carpet!” Kanaloa

5. Show them their reflection in a mirror

It may not strike you initially as one of the best toys for newborns, but an impressively simple yet effective play tool for young babies is a mirror – it helps them to develop self-awareness, language and emotional skills, along with being a good tummy time aid.

What Mumsnet users say

“Ours [baby sensory class] was lots of blowing bubbles, mirrors, ribbon sticks.” thecraftyfox

6. Use a rattle (or make your own with pasta or rice!)

Pasta in bowl

Rattles are a great sensory activity for babies. Not only are they noisy, but they will also help build motor skills and muscle strength with all that rattling. You can either buy a rattle or make your own by putting pasta or rice in a plastic bottle and shaking it. Easy peasy!

What Mumsnet users say

“[My three-month-old] will lay on her activity mat looking in the mirror and at the rattle toy for ages.” Sunshinesusan33

7. Make rainbow rice

A great sensory activity for a slightly older baby. Use food colouring to colour different portions of rice. Mix the colours together in a ziplock bag and leave dry on a tray. Once dry, your baby will love playing with it. You can also make edible rainbow rice.

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8. Reuse the Christmas tinsel! 

Your supply of tinsel is more than likely stored away in a cupboard somewhere until next December. However, it can make for great sensory stimulation for babies, as the noise and texture can captivate little ones. It can also provide visual stimulation for babies as it reflects light and moves in different ways.

What Mumsnet users say

“You could also use tinsel and shake it or stroke your baby's skin with it.” VanillaLatteAndCake

9. Use silk scarves, fabrics and feathers

Lay your baby on a play mat and brush their skin with a silk scarf. They’ll love grasping it too and feeling its texture, and you can use it for a game of peek-a-boo.  Feathers are also great for another soft, tactile option.

What Mumsnet users say

“Floaty scarves are good for peek-a-boo if you have one.” Toottootdrivers

“We have a feather, some musical rattles, silver foil for scrunching up and music via YouTube (nursery rhymes). Basic but fun!” Clickncollect

10. Soothe them with a rainmaker

Creating the calming sound of rain is a lovely therapeutic activity and a great sensory play idea for babies. You can either buy one or make one yourself with a cardboard tube, sealed at both ends with tape, filled with rice and a scrunched up piece of tin foil inside to produce the rain noise.

What Mumsnet users say

“A plastic rainmaker, ours loved theirs, as did I.” MammaWeasel

11. Captivate them with some bubbles

Baby looking at bubbles

Catching bubbles is a great tactile and sensory activity. You can pick up bubble sets relatively cheaply (or even pick up a bubble machine if your budget stretches), or you can make your own solution with one part washing up liquid to six parts water, and make a DIY wand out of a pipe cleaner.

What Mumsnet users say

“My daughter has been fascinated with bubbles since her sensory class at six weeks. Now at seven months she tries to catch the bubbles.” Greybutterfly

12. Fill up freezer bags with different textures 

Sensory bags are flat and easy to store once you’ve made them. Make them by filling a ziplock bag with shower gel, beads or rice and seal them. It's worth making sure your baby's nails are kept neat and short before with some baby nail clippers, so they don't accidentally pierce the bags.

What Mumsnet users say

“Obviously needs close supervision as they are plastic bags, but [mine] did enjoy them (for quite some time - they were still sometimes getting used when she was 12 months plus).” 110APiccadilly

13. Make a treasure basket

This is typically a basket filled with a selection of materials and items to touch and feel. These items are carefully selected to provide a range of textures, shapes, and sounds for babies to explore and discover. Treasure baskets can be used to help babies develop their fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and sensory awareness.

What Mumsnet users say

“You could start up a basket and then add to it as they get older. If they’re newborn you could also get black and white things/ patterns etc.” Mummy2C

14. Get messy in the kitchen

When your child is old enough, you can get busy making ‘gloop’ (a combination of flour, water, and food colouring) in the kitchen. It’s a great rainy day activity, as they can get involved with making it, and then play with the texture and colours of it.

What Mumsnet users say

“My youngest loves making gloop. We make different colours each time.” Disneymum1993

15. Sing songs 

Research has shown that singing to your baby has a huge impact on their brain development, and it has been proven that it soothes both you and the baby. Singing can also help to expose babies to the rhythms and sounds of speech, which can assist in the development of their own speech and language skills. It can be done with simple nursery rhymes or lullabies, with the melody and rhythm providing a sense of security and comfort.

What Mumsnet users say

“Hand puppets (could just be a sock, at two months!) for you to use, to sing along to songs etc.” Bestzebbie

Are sensory classes good for babies?

Baby playing instrument

Sensory classes are specially designed sessions to encourage your child with practical ways of engaging in fun sensory activity. The activities are designed to enhance and promote your baby’s sensory development. You may engage in the following activities: sound tubes for auditory enhancement, playing in the sandbox, taste test activities, puffball sorting, beading, playing with water, playing with frozen toys to help teach the difference between hot and cold, or painting.

Sensory classes give your baby a sense of routine, they also help establish self-awareness, giving them stimulation and also giving you a chance to socialise with your baby.

If you can afford them, they are a fun and helpful activity to build into your day. But the reality of sensory classes is that a lot of the activities can be replicated at home. So your baby won’t miss out majorly from not attending them.

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About the author

Natasha Gregson is an Affiliate Content Editor at Mumsnet, with a focus on product reviews and round-ups.

After a three-year stint on Gransnet's editorial team, Natasha joined Mumsnet in 2021, and has since carved out a specialism in all things home, lifestyle and baby. Her work has also featured in national publications including The i Paper and Stylist Magazine.