Teaching and learning

10 Sensory Activities for Virtual Learning with Toddlers

Hop on a video call for some simple sensory fun.
April 29, 2020
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Many elementary and secondary schools are gradually taking more of their learning online. Working remotely with toddlers might seem more challenging, but with a few tweaks, you can do it too. It all starts with the right activities.

Particularly for the 0-3 age group, the best way to keep the little ones’ attention is with sensory play activities. The trick to making your remote lessons especially impactful lies in enlisting the help of the parents. These lessons do offer parents a breather, but they still need to be present in the background. Explain to parents that adult supervision is always essential — just being present in the room will do.

The importance of present parents

Parental support will is also important for the setup process. This is quite simple — it might entail popping an ice tray of water into the freezer the day before, or cutting flower shapes out of cloth. Just a few minutes of a parent’s time can set you up for a wonderful remote lesson.

Many of these activities involve water, bubbles and other elements that can lead to messy play. As you prepare to lead these activities, be sure to explain to parents when they might need to set aside an area for wet or messy play. Communication is key!  

1. Bubbles and blocks

Ideal for age 10-18 months
Source: Redtri

*In a nutshell *
Frothy foamy bubbles and brightly coloured DUPLO blocks: Two favourites brought together in one sensory activity. This sensory activity will entertain the little ones, and the parents will enjoy watching their child learn and explore.

What you’ll need

  • DUPLO blocks
  • A large container
  • Child-safe (non-toxic) bubble bath
  • Warm water
  • A picnic blanket

How you do it
Start by asking parents to clear a space indoors, or lay a blanket on the grass outdoors. There will be some splashing and mess. Have mom or dad pour warm water into the container and add the bubble mixture. Have them splash the water around to form lots of bubbles. Next, ask them to add the DUPLO blocks to the water.

Make a similar set up when you connect for the video call, and guide the little one by demonstrating how to reach into the water and touch the foam, or reach for DUPLO pieces.

2. Exploring touch and sound with velcro

Ideal for ages 18-24 months
Source: Mamma Pappa Bubba

In a nutshell
A mess-free activity that is easily done via a video classroom with younger children, especially ages 12-24 months. It’s a popular choice because you can choose to make the lesson a very guided one with instructions, or as part of a free-play game.

What you will need:

  • A roll of velcro
  • Tape
  • A wooden (or plastic) cutting board
  • Felt cutouts or soft toys

How you do it
Ask the parents if they can act as support people in the background of your lesson. This involves cutting the roll of velcro into strips and taping them to the cutting board to create a velcro surface. Ask the mom or dad to also cut a number of felt shapes, at least 3 or 4 shapes in each colour (3 or 4 colours).

Make this a guided activity by asking the child to find all cutouts that are yellow, or blue, or any other colour, and stick them on the board. Or, you could ask them to identify similar shapes instead. Work on their ability to follow instructions and recognise colours or shapes.

3. Sponge bombs

Ideal for ages 10-24 months
Source: Inner Child Fun

In a nutshell
Perfect for the warmer weather! This homebound activity is all about discovering shapes, colours, and textures. It engages tactile senses with the spongy wet squishy-squeezy shapes, visual senses with bright colours, and it introduces some gentle and safe water play.

What you will need:

  • Ordinary household sponges
  • Hair elastics
  • Scissors
  • Buckets of water
  • A place to splash and play outside

How you do it
Ask the parents to help you by cutting the household sponges into strips — you’ll need about eight. Then, ask the parents to bundle them together with an elastic band.

This activity uses water, so make sure the device you’re using for the video call is in a safe place. Demonstrate with your sponges how to squeeze the water out, how the sponges can stretch, and how dry they feel after you have squeezed the water out.

4. Edible fun with super seeds

Ideal for ages 9-15 months
Source: Fun at Home with Kids

In a nutshell
Squishy squelchy seeds that are safe to swallow and great to touch? This activity is loads of fun for tiny tots, aged 9-15 months. There are a number of seeds you can use for this activity too — the fun stays the same.

What you need:

  • Mini water beads or seeds — basil, chia or flax seeds work best
  • Water
  • Food colouring
  • A safe and comfortable space to play and get messy

How you do it
Have the mom or dad soak the seeds in water 5 minutes before your lesson begins, in 3 (or more) separate bowls. Add a few drops of food colouring to each bowl, making different bowls of coloured seeds. Then, combine all the seeds into one large container and guide the little ones as they grab, squish, smear, and taste the slimy beads. This is a great way to work on fine motor skills as they try to pinch and grab the squishy seeds.

5. Rice and ice colour mixing

Ideal for ages 1-2 years
Source: Learning 4 Kids

In a nutshell
It rolls off the tongue like a treat, and that’s just where the fun begins. Along with the sensory play, there is also an opportunity for learning about primary colour and colour mixing. Enjoy the sensory exploration in this activity, the nitty-grittiness of the rice combined with the cold slipperiness of the ice gives little ones a range of textures to explore.

What you need:

  • Two ice trays of ice cubes, one coloured blue and one yellow
  • Food colouring
  • Rice
  • A large container

How you do it
Start this activity by reading the story Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni to explain the primary colours. Next, kindly ask the parents if they will prepare the ice cubes. The ice cubes should have a few drops of blue paint or dye added into one tray, and yellow into the other.

Instruct the children on mixing the ice cubes together in the tub with the rice, and emphasise with great excitement when you see a third colour appearing when the blue and the green mix. This helps children to discover the colour wheel and how to make new colours using primary colours.

6. Sticky sensory art project

Ideal for ages 2-3 years
Source: Hands On As We Grow

In a nutshell
Ideal for three-year-olds who love to get creative. This activity is also ideal if you want to have a lesson without asking too much of the parents in terms of preparation, participation, and clean up.

What you need:

  • Sticky plastic sheeting
  • Tape
  • Pom-poms, felt cutouts (any shapes), paper cutouts (any shapes), tissue paper, bits of raw pasta and other child-safe items that won’t pose choking hazards
  • An open space in the house

How you do it
The preparation is super simple. Parents can support the lesson by placing the sticky plastic on the floor, sticky side up. Use the tape to stick it down to the ground. Voila! You can start your lesson by asking the children to hold up their pom-poms and cutouts and the other bits and pieces they have.

Ask them to create a scene with what they have by sticking it to the plastic. You will probably find that the stickiness of the plastic is a sensory experience on its own. Alongside this, have the children describe how the different items feel: Tissue paper makes a crinkly noise, the pasta feels hard, the felt cutouts are soft. This activity explores stickiness, colours, and soft felt. It gives the little ones the opportunity to take charge of the sticking.

7. DIY light table

Ideal for ages 2-3 years
Source: How We Learn

In a nutshell
The aim of this activity is to emphasise how light and illumination can brighten colours. Making this DIY lightbox stimulates the visual senses — Plus, it’s something parents can hold on to and enjoy with their children long after the lesson has ended.

What you need:

  • A transparent lunchbox (the bigger the better)
  • Some fairy lights
  • White paint
  • Aluminium foil
  • Glass jewels or your preferred non-choke jewels

How you do it
Explain to the parents how valuable their help will be in preparing the DIY lightbox ahead of time by lining the inside of the container with tin foil (held onto the container with tape). Secure the fairy lights inside, also using the tape. Next, ask parents to coat the underside of the lunch box lid with white paint.

When you turn on the fairy lights and put the lid on, you can lead the children through activities where they place their glass object on the lid and explore the illumination effect.

8. Taste tests

Ideal for ages 2-3 years
Source: Preschool Steam

In a nutshell
With parental help, a video call, and a blindfold, you can have a hilariously fun taste test game while you introduce the official names for different tastes, like salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. Many little ones refer to salty as sour until they learn that there is a name for a salty taste.

What you need:

  • Something sweet
  • Something salty
  • Something sour
  • Something bitter
  • Something savoury

How you do it
Invite the parents to have a food from each of the above taste groups ready, but out of sight. Start your lesson by talking about the tongue, take turns to show each other your tongue and talk about taste and the different types of tastes that exist.

Ask the child to join you for a fun guessing game, they can taste something delicious and tell you if it’s sweet, sour, savoury, bitter, or salty. If the child resists the blindfold, that’s okay too. A blindfold can be more fun when there are siblings around to join in.

9. Arctic animal sensory tub

Ideal for ages 2-3 years
Source: No Time for Flashcards

In a nutshell

It’s icy, slippery and wet – the perfect sensory play. Plus, you can introduce the idea of animals and their natural habitats by discussing arctic animals and how they are adapted to live in such cold conditions.

What you need:

  • A large chunk of frozen ice
  • A tub that fits in your freezer
  • A smaller container that fits in that tub
  • Water
  • Arctic toy animals

How you do it
Invite the parents to observe the activity (just for fun) and if they can help you with the preparations: Fill your tub ¼ of the way with water and place the smaller, empty container in it. Then, freeze it. Start the activity with a story about animals and their homes – birds live in the trees, people live in houses, and fish live in water.

Talk about the arctic and how it’s very cold for people, but it’s home for many animals. At this point, the tub can be brought onto the scene. Talk about the cold and how it feels on the skin.

10. Pom pom water bin

Ideal for ages 2-3 years
Source: Busy Toddler

In a nutshell
Pom poms can get soaked, scooped and mixed about, and dried again to be reused. This activity invites sensory play to get fluffy, and full of invention.

What you need:

  • Storage bin
  • Two dishwashing bins, one with water (and a single drop of blue food dye for fun).
  • Pom pom balls
  • Ladles, spoons, and other items for scooping or grabbing

How you do it
The two containers fit into the larger storage bin. Ask the parents to add water to one, and pom-poms to the other. Leave part of the activity for free play and part of it guided. For the sensory elements, have the children explore the sensation of the water. Compare the soft fluffiness of the dry pom-poms with the soggy wet pom-poms at the end. Then, allow them to scoop and play as they want.

The big ideas

download pdf
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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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