Parents Have A Love-Hate Relationship With Sensory Bins, And This Is Why

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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Pinterest thinks your children will grow up stunted without sensory tables. They are the answer, apparently, to all things: burning excess energy, practicing fine motor skills, learning letters, using the imagination, satisfying sensory-seekers.

As soon as your kid can drool, you’re supposed to find some kind of bin or bowl-like object from your kitchen, fill it with beans/pasta/rice, and give him a spoon and a measuring cup. The resulting “sensory bin,” or “mommy wants a break” bin, will keep him busy for at least five consecutive minutes, just enough time to chug a cup of coffee that isn’t room temperature.

The promised benefits are lofty, but most of the time, you will pay the price. Oh, you will pay. I’ve done sensory bins with everything from slime to rice to salt, and they all have two things in common. Kids go wild for them. And in the process, they make an enormous mess. Because that’s the part that Pinterest doesn’t tell you. You can sensory bin the shit out of your kids…then you can clean the shit out of your house, because whatever you sensoried will be all over it and your kids.

Trust me. I have ooblek permanently stuck to my ceiling.

I did sensory bins all the damn time when my oldest was small, because I didn’t care about cleaning up, I only had one kid and he liked being tied to my back while I engaged in mundane household chores. One winter, when it was too cold to play outside and he was climbing the walls, I got a brilliant fucking idea.

First, I dyed some rice, because this was a thing I had time for back then. Next I bought another metric shit ton of rice. I dragged the baby pool into the kitchen and I poured. And poured. And poured. I filled the thing with sand toys and invited all my son’s baby friends to come over. The playdate was a roaring success; the kids played for hours, though they inevitably started throwing rice at each other. The moms were thrilled because, hey, they didn’t have to clean this shit up. We eventually moved the pool into my son’s room for a few days to keep him busy.

He is seven now, and I still find dyed bits of rice beneath furniture.

We moms have strong opinions on sensory bins, though most of us have used them at one point or another because we’re gluttons for punishment apparently.

“If you can’t get messy outside, then you need to get messy inside,” said Jane, 36, who is all-in on the sensory bin idea.

Wisely, though, Kristi, 40, says, “It depends on the material and the kid.” She’s right; my oldest would inevitably get bored with cups and spoons and tracing and begin flinging. Hence the ooblek on the ceiling. My youngest son, however, can be given a sensory bin full of plastic sea animals and salt, then be trusted to play with it, alone, without tossing or throwing and only mild spillage.

Kristi says her oldest son was like that. “He was always careful and the messes were no big deal … We’ve done beans, water beads, kinetic sand, kinetic rock, oobleck, shaving cream, pasta, rice, real sand, pebbles, shells…I mean, lots. Sensory bins were an obsession for a long time.” On the other hand, her younger son, like my oldest, is a mess-maker.

“I have to limit what we use and make sure I’m in a pretty good mood before we start because he doesn’t give AF and will start slinging beans or slime or whatever,” Kristi said.

Other moms were not so down with the mess. Dana, 37, has done rice and water beads with her two kids, making sure to put down towels to help with the clean-up. “I only let them play with them when I’m in the right mental state … For me, I need to let them have fun, within reason, and I need to be okay with cleaning the floor afterwards.”

She says she only did the water beads once, but got frustrated with them rolling all over the place.

For lots of moms, the effort just isn’t worth it.

“All that … shit that ends up on your floor and then the landfill (i.e. water beads, sticky foam pellets, etc.) is not worth the energy,” said Jessica, 37. And word of warning according Jill, 49: “Don’t do couscous unless you want to find it underneath the couch FOREVER! It rolls everywhere.”

For some moms, sensory bins are strictly an outdoor activity. Sa’iyda, 31, said firmly, “Sand is an outdoor activity unless it’s kinetic sand.”

I beg to differ, however. My local children’s museum used to have a giant sensory bin of kinetic sand, and the mess, both on the floor and the children, was epic.

Jessica uses sensory stuff with water no problem, and uses sand — as long as it stays outside. Sa’iyda, said, “We did some sensory stuff with dried pasta and that can get messy, but then doing a bin with rocks or buttons isn’t nearly as messy, you just have to sweep up.”

Jill actually liked the water beads, and also shaving cream. Sarah, 36, a public school teacher, lists the things she hasn’t been scolded for by the janitors: “Rice, a variety of beans, lug nuts, plastic melt beads, and kinetic sand that matches the carpet.” Janitors — bless them — must not mind sweeping up random crap, and have a high tolerance for mess.

And that seems to be the key for sensory bins. The higher your tolerance for mess, the more sensory your kid can get. If you’re cool with rolling water beads, or rolling couscous, or rice that lurks under your couch for years, your kids will be diving into slime and packing peanuts. But if, like Dana, you need to be in the right headspace to cope with the ensuing aftermath of a sensory bin — and let’s be honest, people, there is always an aftermath to a sensory bin — your kids are less likely to get handed a squirt bottle, some dish soap, and a bin full of water.

It also depends on the kid. If she’s a thrower, do not give her ooblek. Trust me. But if he’s neater about it, you can hand him a bin full of salt and leave the damn room. But whatever it is, whatever you stick in it, your kids will love it. And before the whirlwind of yelling and tears and cleanup, you will have a blessed few minutes to drink your coffee in peace. And really, that’s all we ever wanted in the first place.

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