Feeling the Cold: Winter Themed Sensory and Creative Play Ideas for Toddlers and Young Children
Founder of @inspiremyplay, Early Years teacher for 11 years and mummy to three gorgeous girls. I'm passionate about about the benefits of play in early childhood.
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Are you searching for fun and engaging winter-themed sensory and creative play ideas for your little ones? Look no further! This blog post is filled with easy and interactive activities that are perfect for preschoolers and young children at home or in an early years setting. From exploring winter through touch, sound, and sight, to incorporating winter themes into sensory play, these activities provide opportunities for play-based learning with the aim to support your child’s development. Get ready to have some winter fun with your little ones with these amazing sensory and creative play ideas.
This is such a magical experience to do with little ones! If you get a cold morning then it is well worth bracing the weather to blow bubbles and watch them freeze together! This works well when it’s about -2, -3C so as we have cold snap this week why not save this activity to try!
Check out our blog post to find out how to do it.
Please supervise carefully. Pom-poms are a potential choking hazard to small children.
Snowflake Bubble Foam
Winter Chickpea Sensory Bin
It’s no secret that dried chickpeas are one of our favourite sensory play materials! They are so satisfying to scoop and pour (for grown-ups too!) and are a bit easier to contain than rice and other grains. They also last forever to re-use over and over. You don’t have to colour them, but it makes a fun change and it’s so easy to do!
To colour dried chickpeas all you need is a bag or jar, a squirt of ready-mix tempera paint and a lined tray to lay them on to dry. You can find our step by step guide here. The chickpeas dry super quick, but if you’re in a hurry you can put them in the oven on a low heat to dry out for 5 minutes. These winter style ones will be perfect for all our seasonal play. Throw in some bowls and scoops and a poppet is great fun to fill with chickpeas too! You can buy our nesting bowl set here.
Arctic Small World
Thanks to @minimundos_demimundo on Instagram for sharing this polar inspired small world in the PlayTRAY. There’s so much to explore with this one! Save this list of bases to try sometime :
- Water with blue food colouring
- Dyed blue salt,
- Shaving foam,
- Oobleck (water & cornflour)
- Baking soda+water (add vinegar for a fizzy reaction!)
Freezing some water in a shallow tray makes a great canvas for some process art. You can paint on the ice with regular paint, paint sticks, watercolours or dilute some food colouring and drip the colour on using droppers. Each will achieve a slightly different effect. This is a brilliant one for encouraging kids to explore and experiment and a great opportunity for some colour mixing theory too.
Iceberg Sensory Bin
I realise this small world isn’t geographically accurate but when your 2 year-old insists we need polar bears what can you do? I wanted to share this particular set-up to show tray play doesn’t always have to be messy! My girls had just as much fun making up little stories with this set up. To make the sea we used a batch of dyed dry pasta I used food colouring for this batch but you can find more info and alternative options on a blog post I wrote here. The iceberg is a bit of packaging painted white and I used a bit of felt for the snow. The mountains are triangles of plywood with the tops painted with acrylic paint.
Fill containers of different shapes and sizes with water and leave outside on a cold night to freeze. Use the ice like building blocks to create a castle, using shaving foam as cement! To decorate the castles we used droppers to squeeze coloured water over it and also used paintbrushes to paint the ice. This is a messy activity but incredibly fun! If you can, wrap up warm and do it outside. Also, having a bowl of water to clean hands is also handy.
Shaving Foam Arctic Small World
Whenever the freezer needs clearing of frost I can’t help but want to set up a small world with it! A quick squirt of shaving foam in the bottom of our playTRAY with a tiny bit of blue food colouring swirled in made the sea and then the frost/ice was laid on top. It inevitably gets a bit messy, but actually shaving foam is pretty easy to clean up. A bowl of water nearby to wash hands is useful and children often enjoy the opportunity to do some washing up! The mountains are a quick DIY using plywood and acrylic paint. The majority of our animal figures are from Schleich, which I highly recommend.
For a low mess, easy option for pretend snow try cotton-wool balls!
These are really fun to set up with construction vehicles. My littlest loved loading them up and moving them around the tray and clearing the road of snow.
Don’t throw your Christmas cards away just yet! Why not recycle them into some DIY puzzles? Make these as simple or challenging as you like to suit your own child. Or increase the challenge gradually by cutting the pieces in half each time they complete it. Obviously this isn’t just limited to Christmas cards but is a great way of reusing them! The benefits of puzzles are numerous... problem solving, reasoning about shapes, fine motor skills and concentration to make a few. And best of all this activity takes minutes to set up and is totally free.
My kids love a small world farm and so I thought I’d make them a wintery version in the PlayTRAY! I also wanted to show you a few quick ways to make fake snow but you could just choose one and use it for the entire tray. Icing sugar and desiccated coconut are super easy ways to make pretend snow. Mixing equal parts shaving foam and baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) is another way we love. You can also switch the shaving foam for white hair conditioner and that works well too (and smells lovely!). We made our frozen elements by sticking the PlayTRAY segments in the freezer. The frozen mud can be made using chocolate pudding mix or by mixing 1 cup of flour, 1/4 cup of cocoa and and 1 cup of water, before putting into the freezer for a few hours. This slowly thawed throughout the day to make a fun, messy place to play!
Ice Skating Penguins
To make skating penguins, fill a muffin tray with water and cover with tinfoil. Snap some craft sticks in half and carefully push them through the tinfoil so they are standing upright in the water. Place in the freezer overnight. In the meantime print and cut out the penguins. If you have a laminator, laminating them will give them better protection from the water. Once the water is frozen, remove the tinfoil and tape the penguins to the sticks. Remove them for the muffin tin and you are ready to play! They will glide easily over the glossy surface of the PlayTRAY lid
These dancing penguins are available to download for free on our printables page here. An alternative method would be to freeze animal figures directly in the ice.
Winter Woodland Play Dough
One of mine & the girls favourite play dough invitations! I made this white play dough using our usual recipe and a generous amount of white icing colouring. Alongside the play dough, I put out some natural loose parts and some little trees. As well as making small worlds this is a lovely one for exploring patterns with the loose parts and making tracks in the play dough with the animals (swipe through to see pics) If you would like more info on our top small world resources check out our blog post about it. Making play dough is one of the activities in our FREE Beginners’ Guide to Sensory Play. You can download it by clicking the button below:
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We have tried a lot of different ways of making artificial snow and this is by far our favourite! It’s so simple to make combining roughly equal amounts of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) and shaving foam. It has a great texture and is cool to touch initially, just like snow! If your snow loses it’s ability to form snowballs over time you can revive it by adding a squirt more shaving foam. To fill the PlayTRAY base I used 4 cups of bicarbonate of soda and roughly 4 cups of shaving foam. In the U.K. it is pretty hard to get large bags of bicarbonate of soda in the supermarket but you can pick up KG bags of the stuff cheaply on Amazon (it’s also great for fizzy experiments so worth having a stash in the cupboard).
A little twist on the classic nebula jar, we made some Northern Lights jars and it was so much fun!
To make the forest scene I cut a piece of
Snow Subtraction Cloud Pom Pom Push
I made this one as a visual way to explore subtraction with one of my little ones. The idea was to lay out the pom-poms on the holes and then push through the amount she was subtracting before counting how many were left. I made the cloud into a mini whiteboard with a piece of contact paper/ sticky back plastic over the top and then she was able to record her answer using a chalk pen before wiping it off. For those not ready for subtraction this is still just fun to use as a pom-pom push-it’s a great activity for strengthening little fingers (and they certainly needed it at first with some of these holes!). You could also use this for counting backwards or 1:1 correspondence-say the next number each time you push one through the hole.
Winter Light Panel Play
Do you own a light panel? This has been a fantastic addition to our play room For this activity I set out a collection of translucent loose parts to make snowflakes.
Winter Sensory Bag
This winter sensory bag is great for practising a bit of letter formation. Using a sensory approach like this should help children internalise how to form the letter more quickly as well as being more fun and appealing than pen and paper! To make the sensory bag I used hair straighteners to seal three sides of a laminating pouch, added some hair gel, food colouring and some snowflake sequins. I then sealed the final side of the laminating pouch. If you don’t have a laminating pouch or hair straighteners you can easily use a ziplock bag instead. We used ours on a light panel which worked really well but any surface with a contrasting colour would do.
Frozen Penguin Eggs
Children love to rescue anything frozen! One of the great positives about this activity as it takes the children a long time to do!
Here's how to prepare them:
1. Blow up some balloons and let the air out again to stretch them.
2. Place your penguins inside the balloons. This can be a bit tricky but with a bit of patience you can actually get quite large animals inside.
3. Place the balloon over a tap and fill with water.
4. Tie the balloon up and place it in the freezer.
Once they are frozen snip off the top of your balloon and it should be easy to peel off.
I made a bit of oobleck to put in the bottom of our tray (2 cups of cornflour, 2 cups of water and a drop of food colouring). It’s not necessary but added another sensory element to it and the girls enjoyed playing with the penguins in it afterwards.
I gave them spray bottles full with warm water and a little toy hammer to prize open their eggs. The beauty of this is definitely how long it takes- we got a good hours play out of this 😁
Fork Painted Polar Bears
Painting with something other than a paintbrush is good fun and fork printing makes great-looking fur! We first made these last year and the girls loved it so much!
Feed the Penguin Phonics
This DIY game is perfect for practicing letter sounds and words! In this game, I hid the fish with letter sounds written on in a tray of cloud dough- it could easily be rice or anything else- this is just what I already had available to use. This idea was to search through the cloud dough to find the correct sound and then feed it to the penguin. You could easily switch this for words or for little ones posting poms-poms is also lots of fun! To catch the letters as they were fed to the penguin I attached a cardboard box to the back. I also made a hole for his tummy so they could see the contents!
This penguin cut out and the fish are available to download here.
Bead & Button Snowflakes
This is such a calming & mindful process, plus the results are so beautiful! These look lovely hung up on a tree or in a window. All you need are some pipe cleaners to form the snowflake shape and a selection of buttons or beads to thread on. It’s such a great work out for little hands! 🖐
Frozen Play Dough and Wooden People
I painted these little Elsa & Anna pegs for the girls to use in their play. I’m definitely not a peg painting expert but it wasn’t that hard to get something resembling the characters by using the right colours! And I think these would make a gorgeous DIY gift. You can check out the blog post here for the full details.
Place little penguins (or other objects) into a tray or cake tin with water and a bit of food colouring and pop them into the freezer. Once frozen use warm water and a dropper, a spray bottle (because this is always a hit!) to help melt the ice. You can also use a spoon for chipping away at the ice and some tweezers for removing the penguins. I’ve found over the years that this type of activity is usually a winner. It can always be re-frozen and taken out again.
Secret Ice Painting
Have you tried this before? A little bit of table salt brushed around a cookie cutter or stencil creates a hidden picture on ice, ready to be discovered! We used watered down ready mix paint to reveal the hearts in the ice. You could switch this up for all sorts of themes! You need to be ready to do this activity straight away after prepping before the salt dissolves the ice too much. Either pop a tray of water in the freezer or leave it outside on a cold night to freeze over.
Arctic Small World Backdrop
Try an arctic backdrop for enhancing your small world set ups. We made this particular scene using a cardboard box. To make the icebergs, cut out circles of cardboard that get increasingly smaller. Glue them together and invite the kids to paint them white.