Homemade Bean Bucket “I Spy” Game

by | Holidays and Celebrations, Parenting

Like so manyfamilies I know, I live in an area where we don’t have adequate resources for help for our kids.  It’s not that we haven’t looked. They just simply don’t exist!  I know this might sound strange, but this predicament has actually turned out to be a blessing rather than a curse.  It’s forced me to get creative, do a lot of research and experimenting, figure a whole lot of things out, and learn new skills I never would have even imagined had we had the luxury of relying on someone else to “fix” things. It’s also brought me to where I am today and doing what I love…which is helping other families find their way out of chaos.

In the process of all of this, I’ve also come to wholeheartedly believe that the most important healing happens at home and we parents really are the best therapists our kids will ever have. That doesn’t mean others aren’t needed or important…they are! But a therapist will never replace the influence or responsibility of a parent, especially when it comes to healing their hurt kids.

We are very fortunate to have what we call a “healing room” in our house. Long story short, it’s an entire room dedicated to working through big feelings, engaging in healing activities, and housing all the therapeutic tools we’ve collected over the years. Much of what we do in there still look like some kind of play, but we’ve purposely created a space that will grow with us and includes readily accessible activities that are appropriate for people of all ages…including snarky teens and stuffy old adults who think they’re too old or too busy for it.  If you need a reminder of why play is important for people of all ages, check out my post on The Benefits of Play.

The bean box

I learned about the humble bean bucket from a couple of  friends who have successfully used a version of it it as a sensory and calming tool for their kids with autism.  It’s really quite simple and easy to make.  All that’s needed is a plastic bin (with a lid) available from any discount retailer or grocery store. Then fill it about 1/3 full of dry beans.  We opted to use 3 different varieties of beans in our just because we could and my kids liked the way it looks when the beans are mixed. Plus, they’re older now and it makes the game a little more challenging (which also means they engage in it longer!) Can’t stand the thought of beans? Try pony beads instead! 


My bucket is approximately 12” square by approximately 6″ tall.  This is a good size.  It’s big enough to dig in and run your hands through, but not too heavy to move around. The sides are also tall enough to keep the beans from escaping during play, which is very important when it’s time to clean up. While some of my friends just use this type of thing as a sensory bin and let their kids dig in it and run their hands through it, I couldn’t get my kids interested in that at all. We needed to jazz it up, make a game out of it, and give them a reason to use this tool.

Bean Bucket “I Spy”

I tried several different variations of this game before I finally found the one that works.  First and foremost, I knew right from the start that what many of my friends who have kids with other needs do, and what often shows up on Pinterest when looking for sensory bins, is a flat out no-go at our house. We actually learned that lesson within the first few weeks our kids were home.  We can’t have any animals, people, vehicles, or anything that can interact with each other or be personified in our bin. Those are strictly sand tray toys. Why? Because whether we want them to or not, our kids will use them as such and then it becomes a whole different animal that needs very different rules and a whole lot more supervision.

This game needed to be something the kids can do on their own and entice them to get their hands in there and experience the therapeutic and calming benefits of running their hands through the beans. For my first round, I gathered whatever random trinkets I could find.  I opted for things like paper clips, small screws, coins, seashell beads, little pieces of pipe cleaner, small craft pom poms, plastic googly eyes, buttons, eraser caps, twine, and stuff like that. Obviously we don’t have toddlers in our home so choking hazards weren’t even an issues. 

Once we got going and discovered the kids were responding to it, I did purchase a few trinkets.  I found some little Christmas light bulb beads in the sewing section (by the decorative buttons and other sewing notions) and a “Grandma’s Grab Bag” of random plastic buttons in the scrapbooking section of the local craft store.  The “Grandma’s Grab Bag” has been the most fun.  That was a treasure hunt in and of itself.  It’s a whole mish-mash of very unique and fun decorative buttons.  We found some bananas, a princess, a train, a race car, a cowboy, a pencil, words that have been spelled out, hearts, stars, sparkly stuff…and the list goes on.  Since they were all plastic buttons, I used a pair of my jewelry pliers/wire cutters to snip off the shank on the back.  That way they lay flat once they’re found and other stuff doesn’t get caught in the shanks. For some of themed buttons, the shank is used to hold two different pieces together.  If they came apart, I just dabbed a little clear fingernail polish between them and stuck them back together.  Worked like a charm!

Adding in a little “therapeutic benefit”

Then I got a little more creative and added some therapeutic elements to it.  That’s just how we roll at our house.  Almost everything we do has some kind of therapeutic overtone and we weave those therapeutic elements in wherever we can.  There’s such a thing as “unschooling”. I suppose you could call what we do “untherapy.”

I once again went to the craft store and found some flat little 1” wood disks.  Then I went to my computer and found all kinds of different emotion faces and also some pictures of positive coping tools and things they can do to feel better about themselves and keep peace in our home.  The emotion faces are only one sided.  The tool pictures are double sided…a picture on one side, the name of the tool on the other.  I reduced all the images to the size that would fit on the button, and then cut them out. Don’t do that!  If you’re going to take on a project, spend the few extra bucks and buy a small circle punch that’s just smaller than the disks.  It’s worth it!

I just printed my images out on regular paper and decoupaged them onto the disks.  Definitely don’t do that either! It was super time consuming and messy and the disks took forever to dry and still sometimes stick together.  If I were to do it again, I’d use sticker paper or large permanent mailing labels! It would be SO much easier. If you want to protect or seal the images so they’re more durable, place a small piece of clear packing tape sticky side up on the table and then press your circles printed side down into the sticky side of the tape. Then cut them out, remove the sticker packing, and stick them to the disks. It would be SOO much easier. Ahhh, the things we learn in hind sight and wish we would have done!

Playing the game

I created a simple card with 30 small squares on it. Each square lists a trinket to be found and how many of that item there are (i.e. there might be one doll shoe or 3 buttons).  I ended up creating 6 different cards so the kids can hunt for different treasures all the time…and because I ended up with so many different emotion faces and coping tools. ūüôā I had to do something with them!

I have blank versions of these cards available for download here. They’re free for you to use. Just be nice when you do use them and don’t rework them or republish them and claim this idea as your own.  These are blank templates.  You can either hand write in the items that need to be found for your set or print the words on sticker labels and stick those to the card. I printed my cards on white cardstock and put them in heavy weight sheet protectors. Don’t laminate them, though. You’ll see why in a minute.

The little trinkets that go with that card are stored in freezer weight ziplock bags with the corresponding card number on them. When it’s time to play the game, dump all the trinkets from the bag into the bean bucket and grab the corresponding card. Mix all the trinkets into the beans and then have fun finding all of them! Simple as that. It’s more challenging than it sounds and it involves a lot of hunting and digging and running hands through the beans…all of which are very calming and centering. 

The only rules we have at our house are that the beans have to stay in the bucket (and the person playing has to clean up any that spill) and if they start a game, they have to finish it and get all the trinkets out of the beans. That way it’s ready for the next person to play.

When you’re done with a game and you’ve found all the trinkets, the easiest way to clean up is to slide all the trinkets into the middle of the card, pick up the card and hold it in a U shape (but don’t crease it…and this is also why I didn’t laminate my cards…lamination makes them too stiff to do this), and simply slide all the trinkets back into their bag.  The best part is that everything then stores neatly inside the bucket and stays all together until you’re ready to play again.


Tips and Variations

This game might sound like kids’ stuff, but it can very easily be made too hard even for adults to successfully complete.  At that point it becomes frustrating rather than fun.  So, tempting as it might be to make it challenging enough for older kids, be careful not to make it too hard.  From experience we learned that trinkets (especially smaller ones) need to not be the same color as your beans.  If you add stuff that’s smaller than the beans (I have a couple of really tiny silver butterfly beads in one of mine) make sure they are really shiny and a markedly different color than the beans.  Otherwise, they will be almost impossible for anyone to find.  We had a little speckled seashell we’d added to one of our first cards and it took us two weeks to find…and that was with all of us playing with the beans several different time, including me. Needless to say, that card was changed and that seashell never went back in.

30-40 items max is all you want on a card.  If you put multiples of some items (like 2 googly eyes or 3 pom poms) that all fit in the same square on the card, be sure to count the items separately and only do maybe 3 or 4 squares max of multiple items.  Any more items that that, even if they’re fairly easy to find, will take too long to complete.  It should take your child no more than about 10 minutes to find everything.  If it takes longer than that, it’s too hard.  If it takes less than about 7-8 minutes, though, it’s too easy and you won’t get the therapeutic, sensory calming benefit of playing in the beans…unless, that is, that your kids will do it on their own without the motivation of having to find stuff. 

It ultimately worked best for us to mix a few emotions or coping tools trinkets with other random ones rather than having all of them on one card.  It was too hard and too overwhelming otherwise.  For emotion faces, look beyond happy, sad, and mad.  Many of our kids struggle to identify various emotions. This is a great way for them to learn. Some of ours include proud, scared, temper tantrum, hurt, ashamed (OH, that’s SUCH a good one to have in there), guilty, embarrassed, annoyed, raging.  Some of our coping tools are things like “be obedient”, “I am safe!” “Keep hands to self” “Use kind words” and that kind of stuff.

Some other fun variations of this game could be “Alphabet Soup” in which they have to find letter beads or something similar and spell out specific words such as “love” “faith” “hope” “family”.  For older kids, it’s also fun to use themed trinkets.  If they’re into sports, use sports themed trinkets.  If they’re into animals, or music, or the beach, or whatever, use themes of whatever they are interested in.  Themed trinkets are easy enough to find in the scrapbook sections of almost anywhere.  For younger kids who can’t read yet (but are old enough not to choke on the trinkets), take pictures of what they need to find and mount those onto the squares so they can match the item the find to its picture.

It’s also a lot of fun to use pictures of family members as trinkets. It’s a great way to reinforce attachment, and teach who the most important people in their life really are. Even angry kids still have a great time finding their people…even if they don’t think they like them.

Most importantly, no mater how you do it, have fun with it! This has been a great tool for getting us all to not only play together, but to play COOPERATIVELY together.  It’s not at all uncommon for one kid to start a card and soon have at least one sibling or parent helping them find all the trinkets. It just happens. Our bean bucket has become a people magnet….because it’s fun!

I Hope you enjoy it too! Be sure to come back and leave a comment after yours is finished. I’d love to hear how it turns out.


Hi! I’m Diana. I'm a wife, a mom to 3 awesome, but challenging kids, and I'm a certified parent and family coach. I have a passion for helping moms of tough kids climb out of the trenches of chaos and learn to live again. I specialize in working with moms of children affected by early childhood trauma (aka developmental trauma) and struggle with issues such as RAD, PTSD, OCD, ODD, mood disorders, FASD, ADHD, learning disabilities, and other forms of mental illness. This journey doesn't have to destroy you. I found my way out and would love to help you do the same. Sign up for a free Parent Empowerment Session and let's make it happen!

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