Toddler Sensory Play Ideas to Beat the Summer Heat

It’s hot outside and the kiddos are bored. Keep them cool and entertained with these six water-play activities.
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Updated July 20, 2021
Toddler doing sensory activity of stomping on water.
Image: Union Square Play

If you’re a parent to young children, you’ve probably heard about the importance of sensory play. Still, you may be wondering what exactly sensory play is and how it can benefit your kids’ development. Sensory play engages all of the senses. It teaches children how to be problem-solvers, scientists and explorers. It can be anything from digging in the dirt outside in your backyard to squishing playdough to experiencing the sensation of water in the bathtub.

As the co-founder of Union Square Play, founder of Mo’Mommies and an early childhood expert, I’ve seen firsthand how sensory activities can help toddlers learn through play. With summer in full swing, I’m sharing some sensory play ideas to help you and your littles beat the heat while having fun. (Remember to keep an eye on them throughout!)

Image: Union Square Play

Stomping on Water

So simple, yet so fun. This activity is particularly valuable because some children are hesitant to play with water and won’t immediately dive in. Make it approachable; fill a black tray with an inch or two of water. A child can dip their toes in first, and then eventually stomp and splash without feeling out of control like they might with larger water-play materials. It’s also fun for young children to observe the reflections in the trays. Our family has even used them in the rain!

Use Watering Cans and Spray Bottles

This is another option that won’t overwhelm children and parents with too much water. These containers also offer the added intrigue of “trickling” or “dripping” water. Water plants, spray surfaces, go on a “water walk” or bring them to the playground. Just keep refilling and watering whatever you see!

Image: Union Square Play

Set Up a Mini Car Wash

Mini car washes are such a fun way for your little ones to play in the water. There are so many different kinds of materials to use. You can wash small toy cars, ride-ons (a good use for these cumbersome toys if you have them!) or even real cars. Other great materials include bottle brushes, sponges, bubble bath (more foamy than soap), mini travel bottles for squirting, empty juice bottles to dump, watering cans and towels.

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Image: Union Square Play

Experiment With Color Tablets

Save and collect clear containers from your home (tupperware, water bottles, bread crumb containers, etc.) and fill with some water. Drop color tablets into each container, close the lid, shake and watch as the water changes color. Next, mix a few tablets with some water in a clear salad spinner; have your child guess what color it will make once they push down on the plunger and the colors merge! Add some bubble bath for an added layer or sensory fun.

Image: Union Square Play

Wash Fruits and Veggies

Children love to be involved in what are typically deemed “adult” activities. Meal prep is often something we don’t think to include our kids in, but it’s a task they can actually help with. It may take a bit longer to involve them, but I guarantee they’ll eat better because they were part of the process. Bring a bunch of fruit and veggies outside in large metal bowls, and have your child rinse, pour, dunk and transfer water between bowls.

Image: Union Square Play

Throw a Water BBQ

Who says your kids can’t have their own BBQ? Think about what you actually use at a barbecue. For instance, I love condiments, so I thought about using the metal condiment cups we have. Then I remembered to scour my fridge for expired condiment bottles; I emptied them to repurpose for play. Our dog bowl set reminded me of round barbecue grills, which often need coal in order to ignite, so I thought about using the black river stones. Almost every kitchen utensil is good to use for water play (tongs, small spatulas, oil brushes, colanders, etc.). Finally, we wrapped our wooden play hot dogs with aluminum foil. And just like that, we were “cooking!”

For more sensory play ideas, and to discover other ways to play with your little ones, check out Union Square Play’s Parenting+, a new online community built for parents trying to navigate the early years of parenthood.

About the expert:

Jennie Monness is the co-founder of Union Square Play. She began her career in early childhood 12 years ago after receiving her Master’s from Teachers College, Columbia University. Additionally, she taught as an adjunct professor for Touro College undergraduate students obtaining their degree in early childhood education. In 2018, Jennie launched Mo’ Mommies, a blog where she shares a decade’s worth of knowledge in early childhood education and applies it to educating and empowering parents.

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