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Bored babies? No way with sensory play


Irma puts down 7-week-old Mariana in her crib for a morning nap. On the carpeted floor, 6-month-old Emma is playing with stuffed cloth blocks.

Hearing a faint whimper, Irma turns to the next crib and observes that 4-month-old Joshua has lost interest in the mobile.

“Oh, Joshua, what are you trying to tell me?” Irma says, checking the baby’s diaper. “No, you’re not wet. Could you be hungry? Hmmm, I think it’s too early for your next feeding.”

“I know,” she says, scooping the baby into her arms. “How about some tummy time?”



Caring for babies requires lots of attention to physical needs, such as feeding, diapering, and napping. While tending to these needs, experienced caregivers talk to babies, actively listening and responding to their cries, coos, and gurgles. Given these responses, babies learn about themselves and their world.

But they also benefit from specific learning activities, such as sitting in a caregiver’s lap as she reads a book aloud, playing games such as pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo, and singing songs and rhymes such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” And because babies learn best through their senses, they can benefit greatly from activities that further engage their sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.

Ideally sensory activities form a regular part of babies’ daily schedule. Even the simplest activities can enhance learning. Just remember that infants have short attention spans and like to put everything in their mouths. As with all activities for children, the environment must be clean and safe.

Most of the activities below can take place indoors on a blanket spread on a floor or outdoors on the ground under a shady tree. Although each activity focuses on one sense, the reality is that two or more senses are involved—sight with touch, and sight with smell and taste, for example.

Taking pictures as baby participates in each activity gives caregivers something tangible to show to parents and explain what the baby is learning.


Sound: Bottle shakers
Babies can hear sounds in the womb—the mother’s stomach growling, her voice, and noises such as TV and radio. As newborns, they recognize their mother’s voice. Rattlers are a popular baby gift, and this do-it-yourself version also allows recycling those empty plastic water bottles. Use the instructions below to make one shaker, and repeat with different contents for additional shakers. Invite older children to decorate the bottles before filling them.


Here’s what you need:
clear plastic water bottle, with lid
sand or gravel, paperclips, buttons, wooden beads, bells, and other small items
clear plastic packing tape or glue


1. Wash the bottle and lid in hot, soapy water. Let dry.
2. Add sand or gravel to the bottle, leaving empty space for the contents to move and make noise.
3. Screw on the lid. Seal securely with glue or packing tape.
4. Encourage the baby to shake the bottle. Describe the sound you hear, using words like loud, soft, shaking, rattling, and jangling.
5. Point out visual characteristics of the contents such as color and size.


Touch: Texture board
At birth babies can feel the sensation of being held and cuddled, and skin-to-skin contact can be especially comforting. By about 4 months, babies can hold up their heads and be laid on the floor for tummy time. This activity helps refine the sense of touch by focusing on a variety of different textures.


Here’s what you need:
swatches of fabrics with different textures, such as flannel, satin, corduroy, wool, burlap, and fur
pieces of other materials such as sponge, cork, bubble wrap, leather, and tissue paper
large piece of cardboard, fiber board, or plywood, about 12 by 18 inches


1. Glue the materials on the board and let dry.
2. Encourage the baby to touch each piece and talk about how the different pieces look and feel. Use words such as soft, silky, smooth, and rough.


Sight: Finger paint
At birth babies can detect light and movement. Gradually they learn to see faces and by the end of a month can make eye contact. By 3 to 4 months, they can distinguish colors. This activity fosters color recognition as well as touch. Instead of using glossy white paper advertised for finger painting, let babies explore painting directly on a washable surface. Because it’s a messy activity, consider dressing babies in old washable play clothes or smocks.


Here’s what you need:
washable surface such as a plastic tray
finger paint in basic colors
cloth or paper towels
change of clothes


1. Spread newspaper on the floor or patio to make cleanup easier.
2. Place a dab of finger paint on the plastic tray and encourage exploration. Show the baby how to spread the paint around.
3. Gradually add other colors and name them: blue, red, yellow, and green.
4. Clean up with damp cloths or paper towels.

Variation: For a non-messy version, fill a plastic bag (zip or slide closure) with hair gel or shaving cream to a half-inch thickness. Add finger paints and small plastic objects just as water bottle lids and toy figures. Encourage the baby to press and squish the bag.


Sight and touch: Water play
Here’s another fun, messy activity. Water play always requires careful supervision because babies can drown in water as little as 1 inch deep. The low water level in this activity virtually removes that risk, but it’s critical to stay close by. Dress babies in old play clothes or simply a diaper.

Here’s what you need:
newspaper or plastic sheeting
towels to absorb water
shallow metal pan with a lip around the edges
plastic toys or items such as spoons, lids, and cups
change of clothes


1. Spread newspaper or plastic on the floor and cover with towels.
2. Pour a little water into the pan, about ½ inch deep.
3. Encourage the baby to explore the water. Talk about how the water looks and feels, using words such as wet, splash, and cool.
4. Add plastic items to expand interest.
5. After play time, dry the baby with a towel. Sanitize any items the baby has mouthed.

Variations: Add ice cubes for an experience of cold. Add scented extract such as vanilla or peppermint to include the sensory dimension of smell. Add a bit of detergent to the water and blow bubbles.


Smell: Spice balls
Smell is another sense that develops in the womb. Babies are drawn to the small of breast milk and for the first two months prefer the parent’s scent to that of anyone else. As we grow, we link smells with particular people, events, or things, so that when we encounter a smell again, it may immediately bring up a memory or mood.


Here’s what you need:
play dough
ground spices such as cinnamon, rosemary, cloves, cumin, anise
washable surface such as a plastic tray


1. Make one batch of play dough for each spice (see recipe below).
2. In kneading, add a spice and, if desired, food coloring. Roll into a ball.
3. Place the ball on the tray and invite the baby to explore. Name the spice as the child plays with a ball.

Variations: Use other scents such as lavender, rose water, lemon extract, and peppermint.


Play dough recipe
(one batch for each spice ball)
½ cup flour
½ cup water
2 tablespoons of salt
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
food coloring (optional)


Mix the first four ingredients in a saucepan and heat slowly, stirring constantly. After about 5 minutes, remove from heat. Place the mixture on waxed or parchment paper. Let cool and knead for a couple of minutes.


Taste: Sweet or salty
At birth babies are highly sensitive to different tastes, preferring Mom’s breast milk. Once babies transition away from milk-only feedings (6 months or later), they gradually learn to accept new tastes and textures.

Rather than plan specific tasting activities for tummy time and free play, caregivers can take advantage of ready-made tasting activities during meals and snack routines. For example, does baby prefer cereal plain or cereal with mashed banana? Using a non-transparent sippy cup, can baby tell the difference between water and milk by taste only? How is the taste of a saltine cracker (salty, crisp) different from watermelon slush (sweet, mushy)?

Meals and snacks also present opportunities for learning through sight (color, size, shape), touch/temperature (warm, cool), touch/texture (crunchy, slimy), and smell (onions, cookies).The options are almost endless.

For an overview, see “Developing baby’s 5 senses,” by Charlotte Latavala,