Are you lucky enough to have a ball pit at your disposal? Maybe one at your clinic, school, or neighborhood fun park? A ball pit does not have to simply be a place to blow off some steam. There are great ball pit activities out there that work on critical skills while your learner is having fun. Follow along with this post to find out some great ball pit activities, plus some ideas to create a ball pit on a budget. I probably cannot help with your space restrictions, but a ball pit does not have to be enormous to have some great effects.
Imagine being submerged in the balls, which provide a deep-pressure sensation and a sense of calm. Gross motor and fine motor skills, sensory-motor skills, social interactions, speech and language development, and symbolic play are just some of the domains you can work on while in the ball pit. The calming effect of swimming in a ball pit can be a self-regulation strategy, too.
Ball pits are a great occupational therapy tool and you can incorporate OT goals into ball pit play in many ways.
Ball Pit Activities and my win for OT
Before jumping right into ball pit activities, I want to share my “OT win” with you. I work in a school system, so you understand the rules are high and the budget is low. Imagine if I asked for a $2,500 ball pit? Can you hear the administration laughing and shaking their heads from there? I won a grant to provide some sensory equipment for our school therapy gym and wanted a ball pit but did not want to blow my $1500 budget on one piece of equipment. I ordered a (Amazon affiliate links) cool enclosed mini trampoline, and a few hundred ball pit balls to go inside.
Because it is enclosed in a net, I do not have to worry about kids falling out, or balls going everywhere. There are less expensive ways to create a ball pit (read below), but this feels like a big victory for the OT/PT room in our K-2 school.
Different types of ball pits
Of course, there are your traditional ten-thousand-dollar ball pits found at larger clinics and play areas. These are the gold standard of ball pits, and the possible activities in them are endless. Options include:
- Clinic ball pit frames
- Budget ball pit options (see below)
- Soft play ball pits- soft foam pits
- Inflatable ball pits
- Foldable ball pits
- Ball play pens
- Toddler ball pit tent
Two of the clinics I work at had huge ball pits connected to a climbing frame and pirate ship. Picture something like a giant pit found in therapy clinics with cushioned foam walls that would hold foam blocks.
My kiddos could jump off the platform into a huge pit of balls, then swim to the other side. I tried to get the boss to add a zip line into the ball pit (like this one), but they were worried about safety. Here is a zipline kit on Amazon. Be sure to install correctly.
There are also options for indoor slides that can be incorporated into a ball pit. There are endless ideas if you have a great budget and a big space.
While not every home or clinic can have a giant, padded clinic ball pit, there are many options available.
budget Ball Pit Options
Cheap ball pit options include (Amazon affiliate links listed below):
- Large ball pit with a slide going into it – These can be found in sensory play spaces for kids. However, you can make this as an inexpensive version using a large blow up pool. Add a large 5 foot slide with climbing rope web for added vestibular input. Instead of just playing in the balls, your learners can climb then crash into them!
- Blow up ball pit – Little Tykes has this blow-up version of a slide/ball pit combination. It probably looks better than it is, but feel free to check it out
- Inflatable pool ball pit– This option is nice for the home or smaller intervention space. Head to the dollar store and grab a blow-up kiddie pool. Fill it with balls and you have a small portable ball pit. You can also use a baby pool indoors with this option.
- Sensory bin with cut up pool noodles– We used an (Amazon affiliate link) under-the-bed storage unit. This ball pit option is on the smaller size, making it nice for toddlers.
- Pack n Play or laundry basket (Amazon affiliate links)– small toddlers will enjoy ball play in a small enclosure.
- Foam pit (Amazon affiliate link)- These ball pits are an inexpensive option.
- Foldable tent– These options are nice because you can buy an inexpensive foldable tent, pop it open, and fill it with balls. The balls stay in the tent for the most part and you can fold up the tent to store it.
- Play Space Jungle Gym with Tunnel– These are inexpensive ways to add crawling, slides, and small spaces for sensory input and can be used indoors or outside.
- Trampoline ball pit– A trampoline ball pit can come in any size, depending on the number of ball pit balls you add. There are foldable options, indoor trampolines, or mini trampolines. The trampoline ball pits have mesh walls to hold in the ball pit balls.
- Rentable ball pits – if you need a pit just for a few days, there are rentable options. I am not sure if you can purchase these as well, but they probably come with a big price tag.
ball pit balls
Once you have a ball pit container, next you fill it up with ball pit balls, or other sensory options.
You can fill your ball pit with most anything soft. You do not have to stick to balls to make a fun pit.
Think outside of the box (or ball pit!). Some ideas include shredded paper, foam cubes, pool noodle bits, small stuffed animals, pillow stuffing, pillows, bean bags (be sure to check out our upcoming bean bag activity post). I saw a post about a woman who filled hers with aquarium and pea gravel. That just sounds dangerous AND uncomfortable. We went to a fair and they had a pit made of feed corn. It was neat.
Here are some ideas to fill a ball pit:
- Plastic play balls- You’ll need more than you might think! The plastic play balls can create a single layer in the ball pit, but if you want to sink down into the ball pit, you’ll need more. You can purchase commercial ball pit balls in bulk to fil the ball pit. Here is a set of (Amazon affiliate link) 1500 plastic play balls.
- Foam cubes– Many gymnastic studios have pits full of foam cubes. Check out local furniture makers to see if they have extra chunks of foam sitting around.
- Pool noodles – cut up pool noodles to fill your ball pit. This is an inexpensive way to fill a ball pit. Here’s an Amazon affiliate link for a set of 20 pool noodles that can be cut into small pieces.
- Soft play balls
- Shredded paper
- Pool noodles cut into small pieces
- Stuffed animals
- Pillow stuffing
- Bean bags
Ball pit activities
Once you have found/bought/begged for the perfect ball pit, you might need some fun ideas of what to do in there besides jumping around having fun. Make time for that too, because fun is part of a kid’s occupation.
- Seek and find- See if your learners can find items you throw into the ball pit. This could be puzzle pieces, stuffed animals, action figures, or weighted balls.
- Obstacle course- Use your ball pit as part of a larger occupational therapy obstacle course. Learners must wade through the balls to get to the next obstacle. I like having kids carry weighted balls through the obstacle course for a heavier workout.
- Sorting- Ask your kids to find as many of one color as they carry and fill their basket. This could be a solo or race activity. You can come up with many color sorting activities using colorful plastic ball pit balls.
- Ball toss- Add a basket or basketball net to encourage target practice.
- Add language- Have learners yell out the colors as they toss the balls, or count a certain number of balls. Work on expressive language and receptive language.
- Heavy work– Wading through the ball pit provides resistance. Have your learners move objects from one end to the other while wading through the ball pit.
- The fort game- Use a sheet or other item to divide your pit in half. Set a timer. Learners throw their balls to the other side. At the end of the time, the side with the least balls wins.
- Catch and throw- Use a cut off milk jug or bucket to catch and throw the balls in the pit while trying to remain standing/sitting/lying down. Here’s a tutorial to make a milk jug catch game.
- Explore different positions- Learners can work on crawling, rolling, walking, running, or swimming through the ball pit. How fun would it be to make “snow angels” in the ball pit?
- Jumping in- Set up a slide or tall item next to the ball pit. Learners jump off the item, or slide into the pit. This adds to the proprioception and vestibular input.
- Add a ball tube using a PVC pipe- Get a large PVC pipe to put in or around your ball pit. Little children love the cause-and-effect game of putting items in and watching them come out. This is a great way to work on hand eye coordination by dropping the plastic ball pit balls into the tube and then catching them at the bottom. Here’s an idea.
Ball pit activities to explore sensory skills
Your sensory seeker often loves being submerged in the ball pit. The sensory avoider, not so much. To the body and all its’ sensory systems, a ball pit hits many of them.
- Tactile– Touching and feeling the balls
- Auditory Processing– the sound of the balls rustling together
- Proprioception– Balls have a weight to them that provides a hug type of feeling which is often calming to the sensory system
- Vestibular– The vestibular system is activated as you roll around in the ball pit
- Sight– If your pit is full of colorful balls, imagine the amount of visual input this provides. Our pit has “macaroon” colored balls to be softer on the eyes. I find it much more calming than the traditional red, yellow, and blue varieties
- Smell and taste- These are not the typical sensations you would expect in a ball pit, but everyone explores in different ways
As you can see, the sensory seeker loves this type of activity for all the systems the ball pit alerts. For the avoider, or person who experiences too much, this can be a nightmare. Imagine all those sensory receptors triggered at once! It can be a intervention that actually leads to sensory dysregulation for some individuals.
Tactile can feel like light unexpected touch, the weight of the balls can feel suffocating, the rustling of the balls can seem like nails on a chalkboard, and it is easy for someone to lose their position in space (proprioception), when their feet are not touching the ground. Body awareness can impact daily activities and the ball pit can be a tool to support needs in this area.
Read about tactile defensiveness and how to support this challenge that might impact daily functional tasks.
Cleaning the ball pit balls
There are several ways to clean the ball pit balls. The classic way is to put them in bags and hose them off. How about filling up your hot tub with them for a rinse? Or the washing machine?
I saw a post idea in which clinic owners filled the back of their pick-up truck and sent it through the car wash! Not sure if the people were inside the truck, or with the balls, but a fun and smart idea just the same.
ball pits in occupational therapy
There are so many ways to support occupational therapy goals using the ball pit as an intervention tool!
After researching this, I am jealous of the places that have amazing budgets to build or buy great playgrounds with ball pits for their sensory gyms, or neighborhood play palaces. Forget about all the germs and gross stuff floating around these ball pits and jump right in!
Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.