How to Make an Ocean Sensory Bin with Water Beads – My kids LOVE this water beads sensory bin! Learn how to prep water beads + how we play with them + how to create your own sensory bin.
Have you ever tried playing with water beads? They’re the craziest thing! Using them feels like a fun science experiment–you put teeny tiny beads in water, then leave them to “grow.” The swell to MANY times their original size as they absorb water and you end up with what feels like a bunch of slippery, squishy bouncy balls.
My kids think they’re SO interesting and fun. I love that they engage everyone in sensory play (so good for little minds!) and keep everyone busy for ages! All in all, water bead sensory bins are a low-mess activity that doesn’t cost much and naturally has LOTS of different ways to play built-in.
Here’s what to know about playing with water beads + how we play with them + how to turn them into an ocean sensory bin!
WHAT ARE WATER BEADS + HOW DO THEY WORK?
WATER BEADS ARE MADE FROM a water-absorbing polymer that expands when placed in water. They were actually created to help water/hydrate plants, but they make an awesome tactile/sensory tool. Our occupational therapist introduced us to them when Sophie was 3, and we’ve loved them ever since!
WATER BEADS ARE NOT EDIBLE, but they’re also non-toxic and biodegradable, so you don’t need to worry about having your children play with them (so long as you’re supervising to make sure they stay out of mouths!). If your child is still putting things in their mouths, you may prefer to use these edible water beads made from tapioca pearls.
THEY GROW FROM PEPPERCORN SIZE TO MARBLE SIZE when placed in water for several hours, and once fully hydrated, they can be scooped, stirred, swished, and squished to your heart’s content. (Perfect for a fun ocean sensory bin!)
THEY MAKE A GREAT SENSORY BIN FILLER (read why sensory play is so great here), and can keep kids engaged for ages!
**THEY SHOULD BE USED WITH SUPERVISION** Since they’re so small, water beads should be used under the supervision of an adult, especially when playing with small children.
HERE’S WHAT WE PUT IN OUR OCEAN SENSORY BIN
It’s easy to put together an ocean sensory bin! All you need is…
A BIN (PREFERABLY WITH A LID). I use a plastic storage container with a lid like this or this (helps contain the mess & keep the water beads a little more fresh). For a smaller set-up, you could use a gallon-size bowl with a lid.
WATER BEADS. For an ocean sensory bin, I love picking water beads with water-like colors. I love THIS BLEND so much for looking like ocean water. My kids love it!
MINI OCEAN FIGURINES. THESE OCEAN ANIMALS were a bargain and came with lots of ocean animals. It was easy to add more or swap out for different ones to keep things interesting. Similar options can be found HERE, HERE, or HERE.
OPTIONAL: A little plastic tablecloth to put underneath everything to help catch and contain any mess. You can reuse the same one for ages!
MORE WAYS TO PLAY WITH WATER BEADS
Besides our ocean sensory bin, there are LOTS of ways to play with water beads. Here are a few of our favorites from over the years…
- ADD FIGURINES TO CREATE A THEME. We usually add a theme by putting in little figurines. You can go with ocean animals, this coral reef set, dinosaurs, dragons, and more!
- USE SCOOPERS OR TONGS. Little scoopers like THIS or a pair of tongs are fantastic for diving in, especially if your child might be hesitant or could use the fine motor practice. We did this a lot in occupational therapy!
- SPOON THEM INTO CUPS, MUFFIN TINS, BOWLS, ETC. It’s fun to measure, pour, mix & stir!
- PUT THEM IN A PLASTIC BAG OR BALLOON. You can put them in a bag alone or with a bit of water and cover the seal with duct tape. (Great for kids with extreme texture sensitivity or little ones who might be tempted to put them in their mouths.) Or, you can put a few in a balloon and tie it off for a sort of stress ball effect.
- ADD ANOTHER SENSORY ELEMENT, like shaving cream. It’s such a weird sensation!
- SHAKE THEM IN A WATER BOTTLE. Put some in a water bottle with plain or colored water and let your child shake it up to watch the beads float and sink.
- SMASH THEM with your hands, a hammer, the back of a cup, etc. It’s fun! We often do this the day we plan to toss them.
- DO AN EXPERIMENT with different amounts of water to hydrate them, see how long they take to shrink out of water, etc. Kids are so great at coming up with ideas!
- SORT BY COLOR OR COUNT. Work on counting, adding or subtracting, sorting by color, etc!
FAQ + THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT WATER BEADS
WHERE TO BUY WATER BEADS. Amazon is our go-to. They’re pretty affordable, available in lots of colors (rainbow! ocean colors! single colors!), and the shipping is usually quick & easy.
- AMAZON – Sensory Jungle is my favorite brand. (Run by a mom of children with sensory challenges!) Try the OCEAN COLORS or this MULTICOLOR SET.
- MICHAEL’S – Find them pre-soaked at Michael’s online (or in stores in the floral area)
- LAKESHORE LEARNING – Available in RAINBOW OR CLEAR
- WALMART – Available in LOTS of colors–RAINBOW, AQUA, and so much more.
- DOLLAR TREE – Sometimes available in limited colors. , in limited colors at places like Dollar Tree, or in larger volumes at Lakeshore Learning.
HOW TO HYDRATE WATER BEADS. Our package directions suggest 1 gallon of water per Tbsp. of dry water beads, but I’ve found that we still end up with LOTS of extra water. I usually go with about 2 quarts (8 cups) of water per tablespoon of dry water beads. I put 2 Tbsp. of beads + 1 gallon of water in our bin.
HOW LONG TO WATER BEADS TAKE TO HYDRATE. We’ve found they need at least 4-5 hours to make some decent progress, but I usually soak them overnight before playing with them the next day. Our package directions say 24 hours, but I’ve found that 8-12 usually does the trick for us.
DO YOU DRAIN EXTRA WATER FROM WATER BEADS AFTER THEY PLUMP UP? It’s up to you, but I usually do. My kids play longer and better when there isn’t a bunch of extra water in the bin, so I typically drain any extra water after the beads seem fully hydrated.
HOW LONG DO WATER BEADS LAST?
- BEFORE YOU GET THEM WET, dry water beads will keep for years without any trouble.
- ONCE YOU’VE GOTTEN THEM WET, water beads will easily keep for a week or so. Because they’re wet, water beads can grow mold over time, so I usually keep ours out for about a week before tossing them. We haven’t ever had mold on ours in that time, but I know some folks keep theirs a couple of weeks until they start seeing mold. It’s up to you! (If they start to smell bad, it’s probably time to toss them)