Sensory Bins or Small Worlds

Sensory Play for Different Needs

sensory bins and small worlds same or different


Same, Different, or Similar?

I love both sensory bins and small worlds. They are some of my favorite ways to play and are so visually appealing! I have begun to notice the slight differences and similarities between the two types of play! My son will play with a small world once and for a short amount of time. Most likely he won’t play with it again. He will however, play with a simple sensory bin many times and for long periods of time both with me and independently now! Sometimes I forget that simple is what he needs because I assume he needs something more. Or do I need something more? Let’s take a look at small world and sensory bins and see if we can’t define the similarities and differences a little more to better help create something suited for your child and his or her needs!

Sensory Play Goes Pinterest Crazy!

If you take a look on Pinterest these days or any kids activities website you will see all kinds of sensory play. Sensory bins, small worlds, recipes for sensory play, sensory play doughs and so much more! I would like to talk a bit about sensory bins and small worlds. Are they the same? Are they different? Do they have different functions? Can’t they be both? Please remember that this is written from personal experiences only and doesn’t represent everyone’s thoughts on this kind of play. My son is diagnosed with Aspergers, sensor Processing Disorder and ADHD. We use sensory bins all the time and always have at least one set up for any time play. If you would like to read more about connecting with your child through sensory play, click here for my post about how and why we started sensory bins at home.

connecting through sensory play

What is a sensory bin?

A sensory bin is typically a bin of any size from shoebox size to under the bed storage size. It will contain a filler like rice, corn, beans, sand, oats, corn and the list can go on and on! The fillers do not have to be food related at all. Often, scoops and bowls will be added. What is the function of a sensory bin? The basic function of a sensory bin is to expose a child to different textures and sensations and to see how the nervous system reacts. Is it a good or bad feeling? How does it feel on the hands? How does it feel internally? A sensory bin is not meant to illicit negative feelings at all but of course some fillers will not feel good to some children and you will learn what feels good to your child and what does not. Do not push a filler that doesn’t feel good. If it is tried and the outcome is not positive, do not make them continue to play with it. Sensory bins are meant to help engage the nervous system in a positive way for your child! It should be fun, calming or soothing for your child!

sensory bins sensory sunday

What is a small world?

A small world is generally a themed sensory bin or sensory play set up. It is made up of many elements to create pretend play and there is often a preconceived idea about what type of play will occur (though not always, nor am I saying that negatively at all). A small world is a wonderful way to explore and create pretend play with a theme in my mind. They often contain scenes using small toys and sensory bin elements such  as common fillers like rice, beans, sand and more. These sensory play materials also help enhance the three-dimensional quality of a small world and make it more engaging for a child and give it a sensory feel. What is the function of a small world? The basic function of a small world is to invite a child to explore a theme through sensory play and hands on play. A child may even help you set up and create the small world. A small world has a vision and is really a little world will all the little elements of that world. A small world may also not contain enough of the sensory filler for a child to get the full experience of the filler on the nervous system. They are definitely hands on play!

themed sensory small world sensory

Aren’t sensory bins and small worlds the same thing?

Well there isn’t a truly clear answer to this but here are my thoughts. I believe there is a fine line between the two types of play. Although the names are often used together, I do think they are a bit different. Sensory bins are for experiencing materials through the nervous system. Running your hands through them, sifting them, feeling them, squishing them and more. There is not set them other than to explore the filler itself. There is no preconceived theme for the child to participate in too. For my son, simply playing with a filler is more desirable and he attends to it for a long time. Although a small world may have the same type of sensory elements, he does not care to engage with the theme and thus does not play with the sensory elements either. Or, he will take all the themed pieces out and make it a simple sensory bin. Hands-on play and sensory play do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Where does the line get fuzzy between small worlds and sensory bins?

I would say the line starts to blur the more you try to give it a play theme that is specific, contains many additional elements and is expected to use lots of pretend play. I don’t think throwing a bucket, shovel and some trucks makes it a small world or even hiding little items to find. The intent to use the sensory filler as it is still readily available to the child. I am pretty sure I have used the word interchangeably on some posts too!

Can’t sensory bins and small worlds be used the same way?

Can’t my sensory bin have a theme and can’t my small world be a sensory bin? Well sure it can. There aren’t any hard and fast rules about this. It is entirely dependent on your child and if he or she is getting from the sensory bin or small world what he or she needs. My son needs a simple sensory bin to engage in completely. As I said before, too many additional things even if there is a good quantity of filler puts him off. Therefore, he is not getting what he needs. Also if you have too many textures going on it might confuse your child and make him pull away from something he may otherwise prefer it was simpler. If you are afraid your child won’t be stimulated enough with a simple sensory bin, try it and see. Sensory bins and small worlds contain a lot of trial and error! What feels good, what is engaging and what is fun can differ from child to child, theme to theme and filler to filler. My son in particular is partial to certain types of fillers and not so much to others.

Which is better or which do I try?

Well, what’s your goal? Neither is better or worse for your child. Simple as that. What does your child need right now? Sensory processing is complex and if you have a child who has sensory processing needs, simple sensory bins might be a great place to start without overloading their nervous system with too many play demands. A child who enjoys a great deal of imaginative play, who is a good independent player, who likes small details and doesn’t need a whole lot of extra sensory processing help during play might enjoy small worlds.  Keep in mind, there exists a possibility of  a combo of the two! You can try a  very simple theme with lots of filler to play around with for those children somewhere in between the two!

How do I start?

Try some different bins filled with various fillers, scoops and containers. How does your child react? Change it up, throw in some trinkets and make a sensory search out of it. Still good? Make a holiday or season theme but keep it loose. Good? Keep going and see what your child enjoys and be patient and back up if you went to far! Your goal is play that is engaging and a child who is happy and attentive to the sensory bin. You might be excited to make a pretty theme with all sorts of great little things, but it might not be what your child needs right now!

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  1. I had really been noticing that too after I wrote the post on craft sand. It was supposed to be a dragon themed bin, but he wanted everything taken out. Once everything was removed, he was very hands on with it!

  2. Great post! I love how you helped explained what’s behind all the hype. Sensory Bins and Small World Play are such great ways for children to explore, create, play, and get a better understanding of themselves.

  3. I can’t believe I haven’t commented on this yet! I’ve referred a variety of people to it! 🙂 Spot-on explanation! It’s always interesting to see which will appeal more to kiddos — sensory or storytelling! My preschool students change their minds depending on the week. Thanks again!!

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