Getting Started with Sensory Bins: Everything You Need To Know

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Getting Started with Sensory Bins

Whether it’s a new job, a new caseload or a new school year, starting something different is the perfect time for pediatric therapists and other school-based therapists to take a look at creating and incorporating sensory bins in to their practices. Sensory bins are an effective, portable and low-cost way to engage students and bring them closer to reaching a variety of goals while having a good time. And luckily for school-based therapists, making them is creative and fun!

What exactly is a sensory bin, anyway?

At its basic level, a sensory bin is simply a container, filler and sensory objects. There is no wrong way to create a sensory bin, and with a little organization, bins can be easily changed out and freshened up as your students’ needs change.  For busy school-based therapists who travel between classrooms – or even between schools – plastic shoeboxes with latching lids are an ideal size…but any size that fits your needs will work.

Filler for Sensory BinA filler, you say? What type of filler?

Anything that little fingers can sift through safely can be used as filler. In addition to choosing based on your students’ ages and needs, you might also want to consider cost, and whether the material you choose is easily changeable or cleanable to help prevent the spread of germs.

I’m on a budget. Can this be done affordably?

A trip to the dollar store can fill your bins with cut-up straws, cotton balls, shredded paper, Easter grass and other disposable filler…for little money. Items like dried beans, rice and sand can usually be purchased in bulk at discount clubs or hardware stores. Though pricier, items such as decorative pebbles or marbles can be easily washed right in the bin, then poured into a strainer to rinse and dry.

What types of sensory objects can I use?

Sensory objects can simply be random things that make students smile, or can be based on themes such as seasons, animals, sports or current popular trends in your school. If your desk is as messy as mine is at the moment, you could probably unearth a variety of suitable objects in differing sizes, colors and textures to make an impromptu sensory bin that your students would find hilarious. But, not everyone has a fuzzy hedge hog, a rubber duck keychain, Legos, a plastic Easter egg and a variety of sizes of ear bud covers lurking among their office supplies. Once you get to know your students, your imagination can direct you through creating the perfect bins throughout the year.

How do these bins help your students to accomplish their goals?

Every school-based therapist is focused on engaging their students. Encouraging interaction through the use sensory bins accomplishes this with ease, by providing an immediate focus for both therapist and student. Who can resist a colorful box full of things to explore?

As a vocabulary starter…

School-based therapists – especially Speech-Language Pathologists, find that sensory bins provide a starting point for conversation, increasing students’ vocabulary and utterances. Talking about what the items are doing (for example, are the Lego men talking to each other?) works on pronoun use. Asking a student to find a particular object, then find another one, helps with following directions. Basic concepts can be reinforced by having a student find the smallest item. Having a student put one item next to another (put the zebra next to the monkey) works on prepositions.

For over-responsive tactile sensory systems…

…the bins encourage a level of curiosity that has students eager to experiment with what’s in the bin, gradually introducing them to varying textures in a way that’s fun and non-threatening. These students can become more comfortable with a variety of textures, and make navigating the world an easier thing to do. The decrease in texture sensitivity may also extend into other areas, such as helping students to become more willing to try new foods and decreasing picking eating.

Getting Started with Sensory Bins: Everything You Need To KnowFor under-responsive tactile sensory systems…

…sensory bins can provide the extra sensory input they are lacking. Since the materials for sensory bins are virtually unlimited, offering different bins and allowing these students to help think of ideas for new bins can keep things interesting and increasingly beneficial.

For physical and fine motor skills…

The introduction of tools such as measuring cups, ice cream scoops and tweezers allows students to work on physical and fine motor skills. Ask students to fill cups, pour from one cup to another, and use tweezers to pick up items helps to hone skills such as eye-hand coordination, pinscher grip, and hand strength. More specific requests such as “use the blue cup to pour the rice into the red cup” continue to build on listening skills and following directions, which are skills worth emphasizing for any students.

For emotional issues…

Many students come to speech therapy, occupational therapy, and other types of therapy with not ONLY the evaluation that fits the therapy, but emotional issues as well. Sensory bins can come into play to help ease emotions too.  For example, a student struggling with anxiety can find comfort in a sensory bin’s colors and textures, the simple act of sifting through the contents, or by putting the items in order. If a one-on-one therapy session becomes a safe place where a student tells you about a difficult situation he/she is encountering, you may be able to create a customized bin to help with the emotions the student is going through, to build up a student’s confidence, or just to make the student smile and let them know you’re listening and want to help.

Limited storage space? Here’s how to stay organized.

Considering the many types of and reasons for having sensory bins, the idea of keeping it all organized may seem overwhelming. If your storage space is limited, having only a few plastic bins that you circulate with different items can be a big space saver. Contents and fillers can be stored in gallon-sized storage bags that take up less space, while keeping everything visible and easy to access as you change your bins. Making a list of the bins you use most frequently speeds up deciding which fillers and items you want to put together. Your list should also include any books and other materials you have that you can use with the bin. When you’re putting together a bin, print out the list and tape it to the lid so that you can quickly gather your materials and do that last-minute check to be sure you have everything you need before you go.

Do you have any tips, tricks, or ideas for creating sensory bins? Share them below!

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