There are so many various items that can be used for sensory without breaking the bank! If food waste is a concern, just consider meal times sensory play because it is an exploration of food especially for the new self feeders.
Beans/dried legumes – chickpeas, lentils. Easy and reusable material that can be used indoors but can be tricky at clean up.
Cheerios/cereal – an edible material best any time. Add a party mix of toddler treats with shovels, buckets and anything to scoop and sort. Good the way it is.
Cooked rice or rice depending on age – Can be dyed but only for kids who aren’t mouthing everything. Uncooked rice not to be mixed with anything edible. You may have a child trying to eat it when they shouldn’t as it confuses them. Cooked rice has to be cooked with less water and long grain so that it’s not sticky unless it’s mealtime.
Cooked pasta for 18 months and dried for 18 months +. A good rule of thumb is how often are they mouthing things? Are they teething? When are you doing the activity? Snack time/meal time or how long has it been since they ate?
Jello/gelatin – I am personally not a huge fan of Jello. The sugar content, artificial colouring and flavouring doesn’t make a great snack especially if they’re teething everything. Avoid add adding toys or inedible items to them for toddlers. It might be fun to ‘dig’ and find but use canned fruit or fuit cups instead unless your little doesn’t mouth everything! They’re already soft and sweet and you don’t have to worry too much about them being choking hazards but they should be used with kids 16 months and up as a recommendation.
As an alternative, gelatin powder can be added to anything and you don’t have to use it all at once! Add it to milk, juice (with added water), beet juice or even water! These can all be eaten and they can all be diluted so that you’re not using a full cup of anything! If you prefer Jello, I always like to add twice the amount of recommended water to dilute it. It will still have a slight flavour, just not as strong and not as firm. Another alternative is cornstarch. Use it if you want a more ‘pudding’ like texture!
Soapy water, shaving cream, whipped cream – can be done in a bathtub but might get a bit slippery. Make sure you have a mat!
Flour – any type of flour can work! Be careful because it can be hard to clean! Salt and sugar can be used but remember, kids will try it!
Shredded paper – If you have a shredder, great! But if not, just let the kids rip up or cut up paper. Be warned of paper cuts! As you know, paper cuts don’t sting immediately nor are they visible but you can also get the tissue paper that’s used a fillers in Easter baskets as an alternative.
Wood chips/leaves – Collect them from parks or in neighbourhoods. Don’t worry, people won’t miss them!
Cornstarch/cornmeal/corn kernals – Dry or add water to cornstarch, it’s an experiment! Cornmeal or corn flour is good as is! Let your child drive a truck through and look at the tracks. Write out numbers and letters with them, treat it like sand!
It will get messy, but that’s ok!
When it comes to toddlers or younger, you want to stick with something edible. Don’t mix edible with raw. Don’t add anything smaller than the diameter of a toilet roll. If you want to go budget friendly, stick with things you have, don’t go out just to buy something for an activity. I don’t like wasting food for sensory so try to keep as much as you can so that it can be reused for another activity or use a bit at a time. You don’t have to fill a bin completely with the material if you know you’re going to throw it out after one activity.
Stick with edible for toddlers as they will or may put items in their mouth as soon as you take your eyes off them.
They may get messy and may not look like their playing, especially 10 month olds, but it’s their way of exploring. You can call any activity sensory for them especially at meal times. Puree vegetables such as carrots or spinach, add that to cooked rice and you have a sensory activity there.
What is a sensory activity? Something with texture, something they can explore with all senses – smell, taste, touch, listen and see – using the 5 senses. What that means is everything is sensory at that stage. You don’t have to be elaborate or go all out. Check out what you have at home. What you can do.
Smell activities – use a cotton ball and add a spice or extract and put it in a container. Make sure it’s sealed and has holes so that the smell can escape. Stay simple! These can last quite a long time!
Again, don’t spend too much time for set up, whatever you have, put in a small container and you’re good to go! Why? Because you never know how long a child will spend doing an activity. Some can spend an hour while some, 5-10 minutes! As long as you’re able to reuse it if they are only entertained for 5-10 minutes! Otherwise you’ll have to hope that they will be interested within the same day.
Dollar stores are ideal places or items in bulk are perfect places because it doesn’t cost much nor will it be a huge loss because you can mix and match various materials at a low cost.