Sensory activities for 1 year olds are so much fun! Boost your child’s educational and physical development through hands-on play at home.
Every mom has the best intentions—we just don’t always have the best follow-through. Because I’d find myself getting excited about a sensory activity with my 1 year old, only to forget about it the next day. Or we’d actually do an activity, but then not do another one for several weeks.
It doesn’t help when the activities you find online all seem so complicated. “They’re just 1-year-olds!” I’d cry after scrolling through the photos. As much as I wanted to nurture my baby’s brain development, I had no inclination to turn my home into a preschool.
And I assumed so many things that didn’t turn out to be true (“He’ll just put everything in his mouth!” or “I don’t want to deal with the mess”).
Sensory activities for 1 year olds
Thankfully I learned that I could still provide my son (and later, his twin brothers) with plenty of mess-free sensory activities for 1 year olds. All without the guilt, stress, or a zillion boxes of craft supplies.
I wanted to share with you typical activities we’d do—activities so simple, you can work with what you have around the house. Supply your 1 year old with basic materials and let her go at it. You’d be surprised at how many household items can work with sensory play.
It’s also tempting to make kids follow the steps exactly, but there truly isn’t a “right” way to play. If she has other plans different from what you had in mind, follow her lead. Allow her to explore in her own way, even if it’s not picture-worthy or anything close to what she’s “supposed” to learn.
And another thing: Don’t feel pressured to pack your day with activities galore. In fact, pick one activity per day. This isn’t a bucket list or a schedule to adhere to, but ideas to draw on for the times you need inspiration.
Take a look at these sensory activities for 1 year olds, perfect for your growing toddler to engage her senses:
1. Squeeze water out of a sponge
Delight your 1 year old with simple water play: squeezing water with sponges! Fill a large tub or bowl halfway with water and place a sponge inside. Show him how to dip the sponge inside, lift it up, and squeeze the water out.
He’ll love squeezing the water out of the sponges and letting the water drip back into the bowl. And you’ll both likely get your clothes and surrounding area wet, so try this activity outdoors or in an area with easy clean-up.
Free printables: Want more ideas to do with your little one? Grab your printable calendar of fun and simple play activities! Check them off as you go along, or use the blank template to add your own ideas. You’ll also get my newsletters, which parents say they LOVE:
“Every time I have looked for activities for toddlers, the activities were too advanced for a one year old because they were geared towards 2 and 3 year olds. These activities are perfect for that ‘in between’ age! Thank you for putting this together! It’s reassuring to see that some of the stuff we have been doing is age appropriate and there are other ideas that can stem off of those ” -Jacqueline Corey
2. Play with a water table
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Convert your sand table into a water table! Fill it with water and add small items, both those that float and sink. Many water tables like these come with fun things to do with the water. But even if you simply have a large tub of water, this will be plenty fun for your little one to explore.
Roll his sleeves or wear short-sleeve tops to avoid wet clothes, and do this outside so that extra splashes don’t mean messy clean-ups. Have towels ready, and always monitor him around water!
3. Create sudsy bubbles
Another twist to playing with a water table is to add bubbles! Bubble bath soap works great—just add a few drops and fill with water. In fact, a simple way to incorporate this sensory activity is during bath time. Add in a few minutes of play time with bubbles, and include a few bath toys for extra fun.
4. Finger paint
Using washable finger paint (I don’t get anything other than Crayola products at our house), show your 1 year old how to dip his fingers and “paint.” This is a fun way to also develop his fine motor skills.
Strip him down to his diapers to avoid painted clothes (or get an apron like this), and plop him into the high chair. Set two or three small jars of finger paint along with a blank sheet of paper on the tray, so he can explore the different colors. Be ready with a few more blank sheets to replace his finished paintings.
5. Paint with feet
Want to take finger painting to the next level? Paint with feet! Now your 1 year old gets to experience painting not just with his hands, but with the soles of his feet as well. My twins liked to “tap dance” as they not only experienced paint on their feet, but heard the sounds of their steps.
Lay out a large cardboard box or tape kraft paper like this to the ground. Then, squirt finger paint on different plates so he can dip his feet into them. You might want to dress him in shorts or diapers for easier clean-up.
And of course, set this up on hardwood floors or outdoors where a simple wipe or hosing can take care of the mess.
6. Soap paint
Like finger painting, soap painting is a fun activity during bath time. Soap paints like these are colored and can be used equally to paint on the side of the tub as well as soap to wash with. The colors aren’t as bold as regular finger paint, but your toddler can still have fun making art and mixing colors.
7. Play with shaving cream in the bathtub
Another fun texture to play with is shaving cream. Squeeze shaving cream into a medium-size bowl and place your toddler in the bathtub. Encourage him to dip his hands into the shaving cream and play with its textures. Show him how to apply it to the sides of the tub and the floor.
Once you’re done, simply rinse him off in the tub!
8. Paint with yogurt
Grab a tub of plain yogurt and scoop a few spoonfuls into small bowls. Then, add a few drops of food coloring into each bowl to create colored yogurt. Use a paintbrush to dip into the yogurt and paint!
Like regular paint, painting with yogurt allows him to mix and paint, perhaps on his high chair tray or a cookie sheet. If he happens to lick his fingers, no worries—it’s edible.
9. Explore dry rice or beans in large containers
To create sensory bins, use large, shallow storage containers like these and a bag of dry rice or beans. Fill the tub with dry rice, along with cups and spoons to scoop. Show your 1 year old different ways to scoop, like scooping spoonfuls into cups.
You can also include different textures and items like shovels, bowls, sifters, and even little toys—anything he can play with and explore!
I suggest doing this activity on hard surfaces, like hardwood or tile floors or outdoors, where a quick sweep is all it takes to clean. And, like all of these activities, monitoring him is a must to prevent him from eating things he shouldn’t.
10. Touch sand box with dry pasta or cornmeal
An alternative to dry rice in a tub is dry pasta or cornmeal in a sand box. This is perfect if your 1 year old can already stand and hold himself upright. Simply fill a box with small dry pasta (like elbow pasta) and include small toys to play with.
Cornmeal also works well, because the texture is soft and fine like sand. And of course, if you have access to sand, that can also make for a perfect addition. If you use cornmeal or sand, you can even show her how to pour water in some areas to make clumpy textures.
11. Make cornstarch paste
Like mud and soil, cornstarch paste is a fun activity to try at home. First, give your 1 year old a chance to play with dry cornstarch, similar to how he’d play with sand or dry pasta. Then, add water to turn it into a new texture. Allow him to sculpt and mold the paste now that it holds together with water.
12. Roam in the yard
One of the best sensory activities for 1 year olds? Simply let them roam in the yard. Nature and the outdoors are a must. The good news is that it’s not complicated, usually readily available, and crazy fun for your toddler.
We didn’t have a yard when my kids were this age, but we lived across the street from a park. They’d collect pinecones to take home, pick flowers, crawl on the grass, and touch the barks of trees. The outdoors is the perfect, all around sensory activity for just about everyone.
13. Gather piles of leaves
The park by our apartment had tons of trees with even more leaves they’d drop to the ground, making for a perfect sensory activity. My kids and I would gather them in a pile, exploring the different types. Some leaves were hard and crunchy, while others were still smooth and pliable.
Get creative with leaves: after you gather them in a pile, toss them high in the air and try to catch them. Crumble the hard ones into smaller pieces, or tear them in half.
14. Play in mud and soil
Have access to an empty area with soil? Turn it into muddy areas for your 1 year old to play with. Pour lots of water in the area, and let your little one get messy and play. Bring toys to play with, or simply encourage her to experiment and explore.
If you don’t have easy access to mud, no worries: Fill a 12″ pot with soil to play with. You might even combine gardening tasks by having her play with and sift the soil before planting seeds to grow.
15. Rip paper
Put that junk mail to good use and show your 1 year old how to rip paper. The sounds and textures make for fantastic and simple sensory experiences using materials you likely have.
Don’t have junk mail? Newspapers, magazines, colored construction paper, and old wrapping paper work just as well. Consider it his practice for opening presents!
16. Fill a tissue box
Don’t recycle your empty tissue boxes just yet! Instead, fill them with small, sensory items for your toddler to pull out. Offer him a box, shaking it so he can hear and guess what’s inside.
A few ideas to put inside:
- Old buttons
- Ribbons and shoelaces
- Small wooden blocks
- Foam shapes
- Crumpled paper
- Small spoons
- Herbs and flowers
- Empty Easter eggs with a bead inside
- Clipped grass
- Cotton balls
- Dry tea bags
17. Carve a pumpkin
Carving a pumpkin (or baking a pie) is the perfect fall sensory activity for toddlers. Once you’ve slit a hole on the top of the pumpkin, encourage your 1 year old to scoop the insides of the pumpkin and place the seeds in a large bowl. Then, once the pumpkin is hollow, show him how to wash the seeds in water.
18. Pop bubble wrap
Save bubble wrap you get in the mail, especially large ones. These are perfect for your toddler to pop, either with his hands or feet. He’ll love the sounds the popping makes (if he can’t pop them himself, you can still do it for him).
We’ve all gotten stuck in that rut. For me, I’d feel like all we did was read books and play with the toys my toddler had. Sometimes, having a list of simple sensory activities for 1 year olds—things you can do around the home—is enough inspiration to actually do them.
Hopefully this list has given you a few ideas—and fewer excuses—to follow through.
Get more tips:
- Need Outdoor Activities to Do with Your 1 Year Old? Start Here.
- Easy Arts and Crafts for 1 Year Olds (No Complicated Instructions!)
- 31 Things to Do with a 1 Year Old
- Why Too Many Toys Can Be Bad for Kids
- Toddler Beach Essentials for Stress-Free Family Fun
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