This became a big issue in my ASD classroom with many of my students struggling with PICA and poor impulse control. Many of the sensory tubs suggested by colleagues, simply weren’t suitable. I had to remove the indoor sandplay tray, because I had students eating handfuls of sand.
I wanted to provide my students with lots of sensory play, since my students relied on their senses to explore their environment, and make sense of the world and engage in tasks.
Therefore, I have created a list of taste-safe messy play materials, and alternatives to many inedible sensory exploration materials. The great thing about sensory play is that your imagination is the limit! Mix together a few of the materials or add colour!
Plain milk can be a great sensory liquid because you can blow detergent-free bubbles in it! My students with limited impulse control often drank the water with detergent rather than blow bubbles into it – taste-safe alternative Milk!! Note: if you add food colouring into the milk, bubbles do not form as easily, and do not last as long.
Taste-safe alternative to: bubble mixture, water and soap / detergent
Themes – Colours, Weather – clouds, Farms – cows and milk.
Oats are a great sensory material because they have a natural scent and are so versatile. You can add spices for extra smells, or dye them any colour. For instructions on dying oats, ‘andnextcomesl‘ provides clear steps and great pics!
Taste-safe alternative to: sand, shells
Themes – Colours, Farms, Nursery rhymes (Goldilocks and the 3 bears), Summer (alternative to beach sand).
Popcorn both popped and unpopped (corn kernels) are cheap and found easily in most supermarkets. Get the kids involved in popping the corn kernels – this is a true sensory experience as the kids watch, listen and smell as the kernels change!
Taste-safe alternative to: cotton balls, sand, pebbles.
Themes – Colours (rainbow popcorn), Weather – clouds, Farm (corn kernels), in the community (movie theatre)
Pasta is such a versatile sensory material. It can be used raw or cooked. If you want to dye the pasta, Happyhooligans have easy to follow steps, that doesn’t use rubbing alcohol. Mix up the shapes and types of pasta, and it could be extended to a sorting activity.
Taste-safe alternative to: beads, plastic shapes, shells.
Themes – Colours, Food (comparing cooked and raw), Shapes.
Cheerios or any hoop cereals (Fruit Loops) are a great material to incorporate some fine motor beading skills and patterning.
Taste-safe alternative to: beads, plastic shapes
Themes: Colours, Food, Shapes – circles.
Jelly has to be one of the best messy play materials. It is a fascinating material as it moves and wobbles, light passes through the colourful shapes, and it tastes and smells so good! Again, don’t let the kids miss the opportunity to help you make it, the hardest part is asking them to wait patiently as the jelly sets.
Taste-safe alternative to: inedible slime recipes, water beads.
Themes – Colours, Food, Under the sea / Oceans (blue jelly), Monsters (green jelly slime).
Tapioca was my go to ingredient when I needed an alternative to water beads. They are super easy to cook up. Simply pour a handful of the beads into a pot of boiling water. Continue to stir until the beads are clear. Then drain the excess water and rinse under cold water. To colour, you can either add the food colouring to the boiling water, or once the beads have been strained and rinsed. Give the tapioca time to absorb the colour if adding after cooking, then rinse off any excess colouring.
I have used small tapioca pearls (often found in the dessert / pudding section of the supermarket), however, large tapioca pearls are often available in oriental food stores.
Taste-safe alternative to: Water beads
Milk can be a great material to play and create with colour. I used food colouring, and the kids were fascinated by the marbling effects they could create.
To expand on this marbling effect, try adding a drop of detergent to see how the dye mixes and changes. This YouTube video shows the effect quite nicely – https://youtu.be/rqQSlEViNpk .
Taste-safe alternative to: marbling inks
Themes – Colours, Food,
Spaghetti seems to be a favourite sensory material for my kids. I think its the movement and feeling of the spaghetti slipping through their fingers. It can also be used raw or cooked. You can dye the spaghetti almost any colour you want.
Taste-safe alternative to: string, wool, ribbons.
Themes – Colours, Food (comparing cooked and raw)
Adding ice cubes to water play can provide an extra sensory experience. Kids can explore mathematical and science concepts including temperature, floating and sinking, melting from solid to liquid, and capacity.
Taste-safe alternative to: water beads, stones.
Themes – Colour, Winter, Weather, Under the Sea
Whipped cream can provide a real 3D aspect to sensory play. Depending on your student’s abilities, they may be able to assist with whipping the cream with a hand beater, or whisk. Add a few different colours and some paintbrushes, and let your kids paint away!
Taste-safe alternative to: shaving cream and foam, slime.
Themes – Colours, Weather – snow / clouds, Food
Coco pops or any ‘chocolate’ flavoured cereal can be a great alternative to dirt, soil, or pebbles. When it is used dry it has a great crunchy texture, and when mixed with water it makes great pretend ‘mud’ (as the brown colouring mixes into the water).
Taste-safe alternative to: dirt, soil, pebbles, mud.
Themes – Colours, Food (cereals), Plants (soil, dirt, mud alternative), Animals (add pigs or farm animals to play in the mud).
One of the most used sensory bin fillers – due to it being so cheap, easy to use and easy to tidy. Don’t forget add some colour! Again – Happyhooligans provide super instructions on dying rice. When you add water, most of the rice will sink to the bottom, and can therefore be used as a great ‘ocean floor’.
Taste-safe alternative to: dirt, soil, pebbles, sand, rocks, plastic beads, confetti.
Themes- Outer space (black), Night sky (black), Colours (rainbow), Summer (yellow), Beach (yellow), Under the sea / ocean (yellow or blue), soil (brown).
Ice cubes can be a great summer sensory experience because the kids can experience the cold temperature, and observe as the ice cube melts from solid to liquid. By adding food colouring to the cubes kids can play with the mixing of colours as they melt, or lay down plain fabric and allow kids to paint with ice cubes.
Taste-safe alternative to: paint cubes,
Themes – Colour, Summer, Food, Weather – rainbows
Water is a great sensory material for kids to explore with. Try expanding students experiences by adding a few drops of food colouring, changing temperature (warm and cold water), providing a range of toys, objects and materials students can add to the water.
Themes – Colours, Under the Sea, Transport (boats, submarines, ferries), Animals (fish).
I am obsessed with finding new and interesting sensory materials and activities. Best place for ideas – Pinterest of course! Check out my taste-safe sensory activities board here.