Sensory Toys for Kids You Can Make at Home (2024)

Our decoding and analysis of sensory stimuli are what define our reality. When we’re born, though, our senses aren’t fully developed—a newborn baby, for example, has blurred vision and mostly sees things in their peripheral (not central) fields of vision. Similarly, a newborn baby has yet to learn how to recognize auditory inputs for what, and where, they are. As we grow, we are presented with opportunities to hone these abilities until, as adults, we can unpack every situation, conversation, and interaction.

Sensory development happens differently for each of us. People with a sensory impairment, such as deafness, or with sensory processing disorder (SPD) will grow into their senses differently than those without these characteristics. A sensory impairment keeps stimuli from getting to the brain in the first place, while someone with SPD would get the stimuli but wouldn’t be able to analyze and integrate them in a constructive way.

In either of these cases, extra sensory support can go a long way. But sensory toys aren’t just for people with challenges—we all need varied sensory stimuli to nurture our development. As parents, caregivers, and educators, it’s important that we meet our children’s developmental needs where they’re at. Toys and aids can be invaluable tools in this regard.

A Complete Guide To Your Baby's Five Senses

Why Sensory Toys and Aids Are Beneficial

Many people can benefit from sensory toys and aids, especially people with SPD.

"[SPD is] a condition that affects how the brain receives and responds to any information that our brain receives from our senses, including sounds, sight, smell, taste or touch," says Steven Mahan, PsyD, of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. "[People with SPD] often describe feeling anxious or overwhelmed when their senses cannot fully process what is going on around them.” This can make social situations or loud, busy places unpleasant or, at times, downright painful to people with SPD.

Not only do most children benefit from sensory toys or aids for development, but children and adults with SPD can also benefit from them for regulation. In fact, far from being a luxury, these “toys” are an important part of daily life for many.

Unfortunately, they’re also on the expensive side and can, therefore, be inaccessible to people on a budget. Many experts agree that weighted blankets or lap pads, for example, are a great aid for sensory seekers as they help relieve anxiety and increase focus, respectively. But both of these items tend to be pricey, placing them out of reach for people who could otherwise be supported.

“There is a huge benefit to being able to make [sensory toys],” says Menucha Citron Ceder, founder of the crafting website Moms and Crafters. "You can tailor them to your child's needs. If you're well-equipped you might save, too.”

Not all aids or developmental toys can or should be homemade (it would be tough to make your own noise-canceling headphones), but there are a lot of great workarounds out there for thrifty parents and caregivers. Even with minimal craft know-how, these toys are great do-it-yourself options.

DIY Sensory Toys for Development

Sensory development is a huge field and a child’s needs will depend on their age and specific circ*mstances. It’s helpful to look at a list of developmental milestones in order to know which types of toys are appropriate.

For children up to the age of 1, it’s great to provide toys that engage various senses and pique their curiosity in different ways. It’s also important to make sure that toys are non-toxic and don’t present a choking hazard, as babies will be engaging in oral exploration. But it doesn't have to be complicated—fill a water bottle or bag with beads, little toys, and other trinkets (and make sure to seal it well); or glue different textured fabric to the sides of wooden blocks. These are just a few great examples of how to use simple materials to light up your child’s mind.

“Even for children without a specific diagnosis, sensory input can help with focus and concentration,” says Citron Ceder, “Every child has sensory needs, and giving them opportunities to fulfill them in different ways is an easy way to help them.

As babies become toddlers and older children, their abilities advance and they are increasingly able to engage in more complex sensory play. This means that you can introduce something like a DIY Sensory Wall (a wall covered with different textures for a child to explore) or a Sensory Bin (a bin filled with different textured materials and toys) into the mix. A toy like a Movement Cube (with instructions like ‘hop on one foot!’ on each side) can provide hours of fun while developing important gross motor skills.

Plus, they're all simple to put together. Cover a large piece of cardboard with different textures to make a sensory wall.Sensory bins are even easier—throw in whatever you have around the house! If you've got a spare wooden cube around, write on the sides to make your own movement cube. And the best part is you can get your child involved in construction if they're interested!

How Kids Benefit From Sensory Play

DIY Sensory Aids for Regulation

While sensory toys and activities can be great for any children, toys or aids for regulation have to be more specific, as they are aimed at settling a particular systemic reaction to a stimulus.

“I have seen success with sensory cushions placed on chairs, utilization of Z-vibesⓇ (an oral motor tool) for hyper/hypo-responsiveness in and around the mouth, and textured mats,” says Taylor Lauder, an occupational therapist with Springtide Child Development. Lauder says, however, that any sensory aids need to be customized to a child’s specific regulatory issues.

Someone with a tactile aversion might do well with a soft-bristled brush on their skin, while someone with tactile hyposensitivity might benefit from a weighted vest or even a trampoline. Sunglasses are great for hypersensitivity to light. A handheld fidget or a wobble cushion is a great asset for people who have trouble sitting still.

“Most therapeutic aids pride themselves on their ability to be used universally throughout life,” says Lauder, “but one factor to consider is social appropriateness. When children use a fidget cube in a classroom setting they are usually seen as age-appropriate, but an adult in an office may seem immature or juvenile. In that scenario, a fidget ring may be a better choice.”

It’s great that these options exist, but they aren’t always available or accessible. There are plenty of DIY options that work just as well.

Valerie, a homeschooling mom of five who shares tips via her YouTube channel Our Homeschool Castle, explains that she uses blackout curtains and layered blankets to make a sensory-friendly room for her daughter with a sensory processing disorder.

In lieu of an expensive weighted blanket, Valerie uses hand-me-down quilts. “We layer those on instead of the sensory blanket,” she says. "You can vary the weight depending on how many blankets you use, and you can find these quilts at the thrift store.” She also recommends tight gloves or socks to provide a more intense stimulus to a sensory-seeking young person.

If you’re looking for a homemade fidget, it can be as simple as stringing some beads on a paperclip, scooping some flour into a balloon, pouring some gel into a secured Ziploc bag, or repurposing a string of Mardi Gras beads. A sensory brush can be replaced by a hand-held broom from the dollar store (look for a soft one). For sensory seekers, a clothespin to fiddle with or clip on and off fingers can provide the input they’re craving, as long as it isn’t too tight.

A Word From Verywell

There is no single correct way in which one’s sensory system should operate. Indeed, there are a million kaleidoscopic realities we all encounter and unending ways to sense the world. With a little craft-forward ingenuity, there’s no reason why we can’t meet everyone’s sensory needs so we can all walk through the world with ease.

Sensory Toys for Kids You Can Make at Home (2024)
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