By Shira Boss
Zero Cost Kids
Need a gift for a 2 or 3 year old?
Want it to be affordable, unique, and loved by both the parents and the child? (Maybe it’s even for your own child!)
If I had known about this before having children, I would have skipped all the Melissa and Doug puzzles and sets and given this homemade gift to everyone I know with a 2 year old or 3 year old. It is THE BEST toy or gift for a toddler or preschooler.
This miraculous toy:
- Engages them
- Grows their brain
- Develops gross motor skills
- Develops fine motor skills
- Supports their imagination
- Expands their vocabulary
- Gives them amazing sensory input
- Focuses their attention
Plus it’s affordable! And it couldn’t be simpler. Absolutely anyone can make it.
It’s A RICE BIN.
That’s a kind of “sensory bin,” which is just any container filled with stuff kids can get their hands in and play with.
I stumbled on our first sensory bin when on a whim I poured some bowtie pasta (uncooked) into a metal mixing bowl, added a large wooden spoon and handed it to our then 18-month-old boy.
Wow was that a hit!
Sure, he dumped the pasta on the floor…but then he picked it all up again. (I’ve since learned to give any sensory bin alongside one or two empty containers for transferring.) He stirred it, swirled it, piled it…grabbed it, crunched it…and yeah, he might have thrown a bit or two.
Then I came across the miraculous benefits of sensory bins, which is why you often see a sensory bin set up in preschool classrooms.
A classic is the rice bin. It’s a very basic material, and you’ll see for yourself how amazing it feels to play in a heap of rice!
The only downside is, it can be seen as wasting food. I’m sensitive to that issue, however, our rice bin is almost 2 years old and still going strong. Plus it replaces a lot of other, less beneficial toys, which helps the environment and conserves resources in so many ways.
Make a rice bin!
Here’s what you need to put together a rice bin for the toddler in your life:
- A container with a lid. We use a storage container that’s 18 inches by 24 inches by 6 inches deep, but smaller is certainly okay too. It shouldn’t be too deep – the kids need to be able to sit next to it and reach in.
- Filler. The amount depends on the container and your budget. For the container we use, I put in 20 pounds of rice. We lose a bit every time we play with the bin, but there’s still plenty after almost 2 years.
- Accessories. A scoop or two and a small bowl are plenty. Individual measuring cups are fabulous.
The toy that grows with the child
Part of the magic of the rice bin is that it grows with the child. A bin of plain rice and a scoop (or even no accessories at all!) will engage a 2 year old, guaranteed.
You’ll most likely want to run your own fingers through the rice, too! It’s very soothing.
As the child gets older, it’s so easy to expand this toy by adding different accessories. Set it up with:
- a sifter
- a funnel
- measuring cups
- a paper coffee cup and lid
- a play tea set
- a bucket and shovel
- an empty paper towel tube or toilet paper tube
- plastic or wooden animals
- small construction trucks (dump truck, bulldozer…)
Add color or scent
You can also scent the rice with some essential oil, e.g. lavender, or color it.
We took some rice out of our big rice bin and dyed it blue (using some blue food dye and vinegar) to make a much smaller “water” bin for small plastic fish (once our boy was past the choking hazard stage).
Other sensory bin fillers
Instead of rice, another almost guaranteed hit is beans (but not kidney beans, which can be harmful if swallowed raw).
Alongside our rice bin, we have a black bean bin. I used 10 pounds of black beans, and store them in a shoebox-sized container. You can use all the same accessories, but the look, sound and feel of the beans gives a different experience.
We’ve also made sensory bins from:
- cotton balls (quiet, and they can’t throw them too far!)
- unpopped popcorn (a mini bin, in a small tray, for farm animals!)
- water and ice (don’t try to give that one as a gift, though! haha)
- corkscrew pasta (uncooked)
- spaghetti (cooked)
- flour (messy but the kids adore the texture)
- decaffeinated ground coffee (can be messy, so that’s for an older child)
- birdseed (we took that one to the park! No clean up!)
We had an unsuccessful experience with shredded paper. It was dusty and nearly impossible to clean up once the boys threw it around. These things happen, live and learn!
Basic is best
Our favorites by far are the rice, the black beans, and the popcorn. Our sons would play with those pretty much all day, every day if we let them! One of those would be my choice for a gift.
Whatever accessories you add, keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm the child with too much stuff. As usual, simple and affordable is best. They’ll make their own fun!
For parents who haven’t yet thought to put together a sensory bin, I think they’d be happy for their child to get one as a gift.
You can do this!