Ball Pit: A Dream for Sensory Play
Who didn’t love a good ball pit as a kid? Does anyone remember (or perhaps even still have) a McDonald’s PlayPlace? I had a birthday party at one when I was 7 and it was AMAZING. Looking back on it, probably not nearly as great as some of the options available today (hello laser tag and trampoline parks) but at the time it was sort of a big deal for kids that lived in rural communities.
Aside from the climbing areas and the slides, I adored the ball pit. So when I first opened Spark last year, I knew I would need a ball pit at some point.
4 Pillars: Communication: Below you will find affiliate links, by clicking on one of these and making a purchase, Spark Therapies receives a small percentage as a commission at no additional cost to you. The commissions earned from these posts are used to fund more projects to improve the clinic, community programs like art and improvisation and/or help cover therapy services for kids who need them if their family cannot afford the cost.
Why a Ball Pit?
In short: Ball Pits are a great therapy tool! The visual, auditory and tactile sensory stimuli and the proprioceptive feedback builds confidence and strengthens motor skills during occupational therapy. Using balls of multiple colors can help with visual sensory stimulus and they can be used to build early speech skills like color identification, counting and more. If properly padded and filled with crush-resistant balls, they can be great for deep pressure and vestibular activities (kids love to throw themselves into a sea of colors).
Activities and games can also be created based on the child’s age and goals. For example, one game we play a lot is a sort of tiny basketball. A therapist can ask the child to find a red ball and then a blue ball and shoot them into a hoop. Doing this works on color identification (as I mentioned before), receptive language, multi-step directions, and the fine motor skills of finding and grasping the ball, motor planning to throw the ball into the hoop, and so on.
To sum it up: They are fun, great for sensory and body awareness therapies, and I had this deep personal bias that it would just be so gosh darn fun to have one, even if just a temporary one to pull out as needed.
Do you want one in your kid’s play or sensory room (of maybe even in their bedroom)? Read on to see how I put one together to try out in our space.
Shopping around online for options yielded disappointing results. Everything was either too small or too expensive. Specialized providers for therapy typically charge $800+ for just the foam surround, not including a soft base, crash mat, or the actual balls for the pit. Tack on all of these things and the cost of a durable commercial option seemed intimidating, especially when I knew I wanted to spend more on other things at the time that just couldn’t be DIY’d (like the therapy swings and specialty equipment).
I wasn’t even sure if our clients would like a ball pit, so spending $2,000+ on one that was the wrong size or that might go unused seemed like a less than ideal option at the time.
What I really wanted was to trial a ball pit in the space, see how our kiddos liked it, see how our therapists liked it, make a final decision on where it should go, and then put in a more permanent one.
Renting one seemed like a waste in case we did love it and there aren’t really any decent providers around for this. So I did what any
stubborn reasonable person would do, I brainstormed how to get what I wanted even when everything else pointed against it.
I decided we would “make” our own.
Below is a list of what I needed, eventually used and where I bought them (some affiliate links may be present), what they cost, and how it worked out for us. Let’s do this!
- It needed to be cost-effective
- Easy to clean
- Possibly temporary
- It needed to fit into the weird space between the right climbing tower and the art station
After a bit of researching and spending an unhealthy amount of time on Pinterest, assorted blogs and Amazon, I finally found everything I needed to put this bad boy together.
My shopping list:
- A soft base
- A way to keep the balls in
- The balls (of course!)
- Extras (inflatable toys, things to search for in the pit, etc)
All About That Base.
We started with a base, I wanted something thick, soft, and something that could be used elsewhere in case this experiment didn’t work out. I settled on a futon mattress. We got ours on sale at a local store for $80 and I decided that I can always repurpose it as a landing mat, crash pad, or another soft therapy tool. Here is a similar one to ours in thickness from Amazon for a little over $100 (you can click directly on the image to see their listing):
You could also use an inflatable mattress, pillows, a really thick comforter, etc. Whatever you have around the house on hand. Just make sure it is soft enough to provide some support. The floors of our sensory gym are padded in foam to protect little feet, hands, knees, shoulders, elbows, etc. but your floor at home might be tile, hardwood, and so on. Think about how hard your kiddo will be playing and pick your base from there. In our case, the “pit” we chose has no padding on the bottom, so making sure everyone is safe and comfortable is a priority!
Pool Ball Pit.
Now on to the sides, I needed something that would hold everything in. It still had to be accessible to the smaller kiddos we treat without being too small. It needed to be able to either be used elsewhere or stored (again in case the ball pit idea was a flop).
I decided that an inflatable pool would fit the bill as they come in a wide range of colors and sizes, can be stored, used for water or sand therapy later on, etc. I selected this one off of Amazon (affiliate link):It cost us $37.99 and measures in at 90x 58 inches which was a perfect size for the space beside one of our climbing towers/rope tree and the wall. If it ever gets a hole in it or gets damaged, I am not heartbroken, after all it cost less than $40 and it easily replaced. We blow ours up with the tiny electric air pump that we use on all of our inflatable therapy tools (peanuts and yoga and therapy balls). It is the same kind used for camping/air mattresses and works like a charm (as long as TJ doesn’t misplace it!). It is tough to blow up without this, so I definitely recommend picking one up if you don’t have one!
Okay, so the options for filling this bad boy are pretty limitless.
You could put:
- Stuffies(we probably have enough fidgets and beanie babies to make this happen to be honest)
- Foam, sand, or water for sensory play and exploration (or, you know, just as a pool)
- Foam blocks (see below)
- Balls (my current choice!)
- A crash pad
We chose balls for our ball pit and after a lot of searching high and low, I found myself with more criteria:
We knew we would need a LOT to fill up the pool we bought enough to really have fun in it and we knew we wanted ones that were less likely to break when handled roughly.
I finally settled on these ones (again from Amazon, I admit I have a problem):
I really like these ones because they are BPA and Phthalate free and they are crush proof, which has held up true so far for us and we’ve been using these for about 4 months daily.
The total cost of the balls in our case was roughly $150. They clean easily with disinfectant and the pool makes it even easier to simply fill up, wash, drain, rinse, repeat.
We also picked up some fun multicolored inflatable dice from Target that are great for working on early numbers, additions, colors, and just fun to throw around! We have a great game for these that I’ll post soon!
Our total for everything was around $290 but if you used materials from home for the base and if you wanted a smaller pit, you could easily do this in your home for less than $200! That’s 1/10 the cost of the premade ones and it can be used for so many other things!
Honestly, this is one of the easier/less involved things we’ve put together around the clinic but it is one of our most used by kids older and younger. We love it and the kiddos love it which can only mean one thing: I need to finally decide where a ball pit should live permanently and build one in!