In the UK, schools are out for summer break at the end of July. For a whole six weeks.
And that isn’t including the eleven weeks prior to that where schools were (and for the most part still) closed for most children. That is a long slog for finding things to keep your little feet entertained.
Most people can’t spend all summer spending vast amounts of money on entertainment. Over the years, we have learned some excellent hacks and ways of entertaining our daughters in the garden. Generally, it has been free play sensory bins that they will spend the most time playing with and coming back to again and again. Use weather-appropriate things in them, like ice and cold water – both free from the tap – and these can be used in multiple ways. That’s a win if you ask me.
Over the last five years, we have experimented and done different versions of cheap summer sensory bins for preschoolers. Some we abandon while others we continue to come back to. So I’m sharing our inside know-how on cheap summer sensory bins for preschoolers!
Citrus Water Play
This one is such a simple but effective sensory bin to make for your preschoolers; your older kiddos might even join in for a part of the play. Simply slice up a variety of citrus fruit and fill up a tub with cold water. Squeeze a little juice from one or some of them into the water to make it fragrant. Add some spoons, a citrus squeezer, pincher tweezers, and scoops into the bin. Let them explore all the textures and colors. And make sure to encourage them to have a taste!
Two of the items I could not do without in my craft cupboard is Wilton’s gel food colouring and a variety of silicone muffin/ice trays. They are both useful and versatile; they can be used in so many different activities. You’ll see this in the next three ideas! Silicone trays are much easier if you are dealing with ice as you can peel them straight off. There are a few variations you can do with ice painting, all of which are equally effective. You can use silicone tubes for ice lollies, normal silicone ice trays, or trays with added popsicle sticks to them to make them easier to hold.
How To: Simply add food colour and water and pop them in the freezer. If you are using popsicle sticks, make sure to leave them for a couple of hours so they form a thin film of ice on the top before you put the sticks in. This will help them stand upright for the rest of the freezing process. TIP: when you get them out to paint with, let them melt a little before starting. You won’t have to wait around for the food colouring to melt.
This is such a fun and cheap summer sensory bin for preschoolers and siblings. I love it because every time we have done it together, it has been an entirely free activity! We combine it with going on a nature walk with our dog. We take a basket and keep an eye out for different coloured flowers or seeds that we could use to put into our ice trays. In the past, we have used: daisies, dandelions (both in seed form and flower form), bluebells, marigolds, daffodils, buttercups, just to name a few. Make sure you know what you are picking and that they aren’t poisonous or a skin irritant.
How To: Pop your flowers in some ice trays and stick them in the freezer on a separate shelf from everything else. When they are ready to come out, play them on a tray or pop them in the garden with some warm water, pipettes, or tweezers. Make it even more fun by placing some warm food coloured water to use to melt the ice. It will add a more visually stimulating side to the play as they see the ice turn a different colour!
Fossil Resin Insects
Fossil Resin Insects is one of the best educational sensory bins you can do. It is a winner for dinosaur crazy boys and girls. If they love anything dinosaur or fossil related (who doesn’t?), this one is for you. It is likely you will already have some plastic dinosaur toys, so you are already halfway there to making a cheap summer sensory bin for preschoolers and older children. All you will need for this one is some orange food colouring (we use Wilton’s gel food colouring), water, small plastic dinosaur/insect toys, and an ice mold big enough for them to fit in.
How To: Place a dinosaur or insect into an ice compartment. Mix some water with a dab of orange food colouring. The colour needs to be a rich orange but not so dark as to not be able to see the toys. Fill each ice compartment with the water, and don’t worry too much if your plastic toys start to float a little. Now place in the freezer until completely frozen. When they are ready to be ‘decanted,’ place them all in a tub or tray outside with a toy hammer and a bowl of warm water with a pipette. Now watch them have some fun getting them out! Join this with a book about fossils or a short educational video about them. It will really bring out this sensory bin and make it really exciting for them.
Petal Water Play
This is a really sweet sensory bin that has so many potential varieties. I actually first did this as a bathing activity on Valentine’s Day two years ago. We were deep in the middle of a deployment, and my eldest was struggling badly. So I would try and think of unexpected and fun surprises for my children. On Valentine’s Day, I decided to add some fun to bath time before bed. I scattered the bath with rose petals and full rose heads, popped some rose oil essence in, placed heart sponges in the water, put heart chocolates and glasses of milk around the sides, and lit candles all around the bathroom.
Was it successful? My eldest still talks about it all the time and regularly asks if we can do it again! This is only one way of doing a Petal Water Play sensory bin. We have done different versions over the years, and each one is different.
How To: It works just as well to use wilting flowers from a bunch of flowers or wildflowers in a tub of water. Add jars to make flower potions in or little bottles of essence for them to smell and add to the water too. This is another great addition to our cheap summer sensory bins for preschoolers.
Giant Waterbead Painting
Have you experienced water beads with your preschoolers yet? You haven’t?! Well, you need to rectify this quick! I have introduced these beads to so many parents, and they have never been disappointed. You will want to join in too. Back when I was a child of the 80s and 90s, lots of people used them at the bottom of vases. But their uses have grown more fun since then.
Water beads tend to come in a plastic container, and they will look like teeny tiny beads. The magic happens when you put them into the water and leave them there for anywhere between 12-48 hours. The normal-sized ones will grow to the size of a marble. However…. if you buy the giant ones, they get EVEN BIGGER. They are amazing! Once expanded, they are very bouncy and feel like hard jelly. Squeeze too hard and they’ll break; drop them on the kitchen floor and they will bounce even more than a bouncy ball. We have added them into water play, paddling pools, baths (this was a disaster, wouldn’t advise it!), and last year, I realized you could also have fun painting with them.
How To: Simply put a piece of paper in the sink (if you are mess adverse, a baking tray outside is fine)and squirt some paint on the paper. Get your child to bounce the giant water bead in the sink and roll them about. They make some great pieces of artwork!
I know, I know, it’s girlie – but it’s summer! Where there are water, sun, and sand, there are naturally merpeople. Everyone knows that!
We love mermaids over here. My daughters have a number of mermaid Barbies and plenty of play sand. So one really hot day, I decided to find a way for them to play with them. Enter the Mermaid Lagoon tuff tray.
How To: I made a large sandy beach, added blue water with glitter and sequins in it (it is a mermaid lagoon after all), put some shells in the sand, and got the Barbies. Success is as easy as that. If your preschoolers and children like imaginative play, this summer sensory bin is a match made in heaven. They will be playing for hours with it. Just be prepared for sandy and glitter-covered children by the end of the day!