4 Colorful Sensory Bins to Prep for Back to School

This is part of our 2020 Back to (Virtual) School series. You can find our other posts here.

As school starts I will have a 1st grader and an 18 month-old at home. Until we can send my younger son back to daycare, I’m prepping an at home pre pre-k experience for him to make sure that his days have some enrichment (and that I might be able to get a little bit of work done).

Below you will find supplies and links to four sensory boxes. My plan is to rotate one of these boxes in each week. I have two containers, so I will make two of them ahead of time and redo them mid-month.

The supply list is broken down by box below with things you probably already have and things you may need to buy. Take a look at each sensory activity and then you can finalize what supplies you need to order. (As always, some of these boxes contain small pieces, so please use your own judgement of what will be right for your child – and always monitor their sensory play!)

You can jump down to the four boxes and come back and review supplies later.

Supplies for all 4 boxes

Large sensory bin containers

If you already have a plastic bin or sensory table at home, you can make any size work for these bins. I like to use a bin that has a lid so that I can make them in advance and store them. These two bins are good options:

  • Sweater Box (15-5/8″ x 13-1/8″ x 6-3/4″ h)
  • Modular Storage Box (16. 25″ x 13″ x 6. 125″) – this is for a 4-pack, so you can prep an entire month in advance!

PomPoms in Water Box

  • Things you probably already have at home:
    • Scoops – any sort of scoops or small bins will work, provide a variety
  • Things to buy:
    • Regular pompoms – you may already have some at home, but this 2000 piece bundle will give you more than enough for this and other activities
    • Metallic pompoms – you don’t need these, but I think the textural difference adds to the experience
    • Giant pompoms – these were the most versatile for water play

Apple Picking Bin

  • Things you probably already have at home:
    • Toilet paper tubes
    • Extra pieces of cardboard (to help create the apple trees)
  • Things to buy:
    • Green pompoms: Size 1 Size 2 – I like using two different sizes to help with variety, you don’t have to
    • Red pompoms – this pack has three different sizes, if you change pompoms or velcro dots, just make sure you are buying things that work together size-wise (red pompoms are the “apples” that will get placed on the trees)
    • (Optional) Pom Pom Blend – if you are using a large bin, you will need more pompoms. This Christmas blend gives you the red + green together, you can pick out the white (or not)
    • (Optional) Yellow popoms – I like adding yellow for a little color variety, but this isn’t needed (you can also pull a few from an existing pompom pack that you have)
    • Green construction paper OR green felt
    • Circular velcro dots – make sure these dots and the size of the red pompoms you are using match up
    • Large plastic tweezers

Rainbow Rice Transfer Zone

  • Things you probably already have at home:
    • White vinegar – you’ll need 1tbsp per color
    • Food coloring
    • Plastic bags – quart size works well
    • Assorted cups, jars and containers in different sizes
  • Things to buy:
    • Rice – you may already have some, this is for a 5lb bag (you need a lot to fill a bin)
    • Funnels – you can use anything you have around the house, but I like the variety of sizes and the fun colors of this set!

Edible Water Beads Marble Stand

  • Things you probably already have at home:
    • Water
    • (Optional) Food coloring
  • Things to buy:
    • Quick cook tapioca pearls – this is for a good amount since we want to fill the bin for play
    • (Optional) Marble run – you may have one at home to use or you can choose not to include this (I just think it looks like so much fun!). This large block option is a great activity itself.

This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases. (This does not change the price that you pay at all!) Regardless, all product recommendations are my own opinions.

Ideal Age Range:

Ideal age is 1 – 3. Know your child and adapt as needed, some things are harder for really little kids and some things will lose the interest of older kids. (Always reach out in the comments if you need suggestions on how to adapt activities!)

Mess Factor:

Medium. The mess level depends on where you set this up for play. There is definitely the potential of getting little sensory items all over the place, but they shouldn’t leave a lasting mess.

Prep Time:

Varies per box. Ranges from 2 – 20 minutes.

How to Prep:

Back to School rushes have slowed shipping and pick up of a lot of organization supplies, so I would recommend ordering everything you need now (especially bins).

Below you can see the posts that inspired all of the bins that I am going to be making. Given the shipping challenges mentioned above, we are still working on making ours for the starts of the school year. We will update this post with pictures and play notes over the next few weeks.

Let us know what questions or comments you have below!

PomPom Water Sensory Bin

We go nuts for pompoms in my house (myself included…) so I know that this will be a big hit for an early September sensory bin. (It is still sweltering hot in Southern California right now!) It is simple yet very fun activity that I was inspired to do by Happy Toddler Play Time.


UPDATE: This was a HUGE hit for our first week of back to school sensory play! I added two different size containers, a large funnel and a slotted spoon for him to play with. My toddler played with this for over an hour, and then my 6 year old got into the action and had them both sitting inside the bin before we went inside!

As I put this together, I realized that you need less pom poms than you think. So save some for other projects. The large pompoms are the best for water play – they hold a lot of water so they squish nicely. (They can also become water bombs when your older children start throwing them around…) Check out these fun photos:

Apple Picking Sensory Bin

I’m a transplant to the west coast, so I still miss fall and winter weather – so I usually do ALL the fall activities to try and trick my brain that the seasons are changing. This typically includes apple picking in 100+ degree temperatures (ha ha!). So I was immediately drawn to this sensory bin by Mrs. Plemon’s Kindergarten, it may be the only apple picking experience we get this September.

We LOVE this picking apples sensory bin. Great for tot school, preschool, or even kindergarten!

Rainbow Rice Transfer Station

My 18 month-old is NUTS for transferring things right now. Though I know that this rice is going to end up ALL over, I absolutely love this ideas from Busy Toddler. I haven’t finalized it yet, but I may try to work on primary + secondary colors and mix our food coloring to get more fall colors since want to use this in late September. (Check back for our pics!)

RAINBOW RICE SENSORY BIN ACTIVITY: A toddler playing with rainbow rice in a quick and easy sensory bin activity from Busy Toddler using colored rice, funnels, and scoops for a simple life skills activity

UPDATE: My son really loved this sensory bin – he is obsessed with transferring things. I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on putting this together.

I ended up dying a 5lb bag and a 2lb bag of rice. It was overkill for my bin, I think the 5lb bag would have been enough. Different from the Busy Toddler directions, I dyed my rice in quart-sized plastic bags (I’m lazy). I divided the rice up and just added vinegar and food coloring. Try to fill bags 2/3 at most to leave room to shake – it take a while to distribute color. I wanted fall colors (see pictures below), but know that it will take A LOT of food coloring to get really vibrant colors. My bags had about 1lb of rice each and I used 20+ drops of food coloring and 1 tsp of vinegar in each (my colors are still muted). I shook up the bags and let the rice dry in the bags – this was fine, no color transfer issues.

Rice goes everywhere. This is fun and fine, just plan for it. I can’t stomach doing it inside, but it would be fairly easy to sweep up. We played outside and on a splat mat. Most of the rice stayed in that area and I could easily dump it back in to the bucket. (We do have pockets of rainbow rice on our lawn now…)

My son asked to play with this every day this week. At first I just offered funnels and bottles. After a day, I added an ice cube tray. On Friday, I buried some wooden letters. Small changes kept him very interested, and he typically played with this for at least 30 minute at a time.

Edible Water Beads Marble Stand

I’m combining inspiration from a few places for this last bin. ArtsyFartsyKims shared an edible water bead activity on their Instagram last week that was inspired by the edible water bead recipe made by Growing a Jeweled Rose (below). I found the image below of water beads and a marble run (it didn’t link to any page so I can’t attribute it to anyone). I am so excited to try this recipe for water beads (I’ve been nervous to give them to my 1 year old since I know he will eat them just to get a reaction out of me). I also think adding the marble run is SO fun – we have several sitting in closest here that he hasn’t been allowed to play with yet (see comment on eating things above).

Make taste-safe water beads for kids by following this easy recipe tutorial. #ediblewaterbeads #ediblewaterbeadshowtomake #tastesafewaterbeads #homemadewaterbeads #waterbeads #waterbeadactivities #waterbeadsideas #waterbeadssensory #tapiocapearlsrecipe #growingajeweledrose
Water beads with a marble run!

These are four ideas that can help you enhance toddler and pre-k development for at-home learning this September. Advanced prep won’t take you very long, and you can do 2-4 at a time to make it even easier on your. These will be great resources to turn to when the school days feel a little too long.

You can jump back to supplies to review what you need.

I would love to hear about the sensory bins you are putting together for your toddlers for back to school season. Leave us a comment below!

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