Homemade Bean Bucket “I Spy” Game

by | Holidays and Celebrations, Parenting

Like so many families I know, I live in an area where we don’t have adequate resources or 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.

Simple DIY Bean Bucket Calm Down GameCritical healing happens at home!

In the process of figuring things out, I’ve also come to wholeheartedly believe that the most important healing happens at home. 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 looks 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.

One of the cheapest and easiest tools around!

I learned about the humble bean bucket from a couple of friends who have successfully used it as a sensory and calming tool for their kids with autism.  The bean bucket is literally what its name implies…a big bucket of dry beans that kids can play with and run their hands through.  All that’s needed is a plastic bin (with a lid) available from any discount retailer or grocery store. Fill it about 1/3 full of dry beans and you’re done!

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.

We opted to use 3 different varieties of beans (approximately 2 lbs each) in our bucket just because we could and my kids liked the way it looks when the beans are mixed together. Plus, as you’ll see below, we turned our bucket into a game. Now that my kids are older, the different colors make the game more challenging…which also means they engage with it longer and get more benefit out of it.

If you’re squirrely about using beans, you can make a similar bucket using plastic pony beads. However, if you turn it into a game as we have done, make sure the beads are all the same color or at least in the same color family, or the game will be impossibly hard and it won’t be fun for anyone.

Bean Bucket “I Spy”

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. We also had to do it in a way that works for us. 

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” would be a flat out no-go at our house. We accidentally learned that lesson within the first few weeks our kids were home (and before we knew what we were doing!).  We can’t have any animals, people, vehicles, or anything that can interact with each other or be personified in our bins. Those are strictly sand tray toys. Whether we want them to or not, our kids will use them to recreate and express trauma. Then it becomes a whole different animal with very different rules and requires a whole lot more supervision.

Our bean bucket game needed to be something the kids can do on their own. It also needed to entice (aka require) 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 from around the house.  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. We don’t have toddlers in our home so choking hazards aren’t a concern for us.

Creating the Game

Once we got going and knew the kids were responding to the game, I went to the craft store and purchased a few trinkets.  Some of my favorite finds include a string of little Christmas light bulb beads I found in the sewing section by the decorative buttons and other sewing notions and a “Grandma’s Grab Bag” of random plastic buttons I found in the scrapbooking section.  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 spelled out in crazy font, 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 on the table other stuff doesn’t get caught in the shanks. For some of the themed buttons, the shank is structural and used to hold different layers together.  If the piece came apart, I dabbed a little clear fingernail polish between them and stuck them back together.  Worked like a charm!

Easy Therapeutic I Spy GameAdding a Little “Therapeutic Benefit”

Pretty much everything we do at our house has some kind of therapeutic element to it and we weave therapeutic reminders in wherever we can. Our game was a great opportunity to do just that.

I went back 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.  I stuck a picture to one side and the words to the other. That way they can work for a variety of ages and developmental levels.

When I made these little gems, I reduced all the images to the size that would fit on the button, printed them, and then cut all of them out. Don’t do that!  If you’re going to take on a project like this, spend the few extra bucks and buy a small circle punch that’s just smaller than the disks.  It’s worth it!

I also printed my images on regular paper and decoupaged them onto the disks.  Holy buckets, Definitely don’t do that either! It was super time consuming and messy and the disks took forever to dry. Even now they 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 the printed image into the sticky side of the tape before cutting anything out. Then cut or punch the image, remove the sticker backing, and stick it to the disks. It would be SOO much easier than what I did. 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. But really, I ended up with so many because I had so many different emotion faces and coping tools that needed a home. 🙂 I had to do something with them!

 The trinkets that go with that card are stored in freezer weight zipper 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. Don’t be fooled by it’s simplicity, though. The game is 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). Second, 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 and gently fold it in a U shape (but don’t crease it). Then slide all the trinkets back into their bag. This slick trick is the reason I didn’t laminate my cards, by the way. Lamination makes them too stiff to do this. When it’s all said and done, everything stores neatly inside the bucket and stays all together until you’re ready to play again.

Make Your Own Game!

I have a blank version of my cards available for download here. This template is a fillable form. All you have to do is download it and save it to your own computer. Type whatever you want into the box at the top of each square (of your saved version, not the original download), and then print it out. If you want to make multiple cards for your game like I did, simply save each version with a different file name and change the information as needed.

You are welcome to use my template for your own personal use. Just be nice and don’t rework it or republish a different version of it and claim it as your own. That’s mean and it’s bad karma!

It is also against the law. See my Terms of Use if you have any questions. 

Tips for Successful Play

This game might sound like kids’ stuff, but it can very easily be made too hard even for adults to successfully complete.  Tempting as it might be to make it “challenging enough” for older kids, be careful not to make it too hard.  These are a few things we learned from experience:

Color Matters!

Trinkets (especially smaller ones) need to not be the same color as your beans. Anything that is a similar color needs to be larger than the beans, very shiny or heavily textured.

Size Matters!

Don’t add items that are smaller than your beans unless they are very brightly colored. Otherwise, they will be almost impossible for anyone to find.  We had a little speckled seashell on one of our first cards. It took us two weeks to find it…and that was with all of us playing with the beans several different times, including me. We’ve had a similar problem with small metal beads, screws, and even googly eyes that are about the same size or smaller than the beans. Suffice it to say, we’ve had to change our cards several times due to items that were too hard to find.

Don’t add too many items

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 of multiple items.  Any more items that that, even if the items are 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 or 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.

Mix things up!

We found it ultimately worked best for us to mix a few emotions and coping skills trinkets with other random ones rather than having all of them on one card. It was too overwhelming for our struggling kids otherwise and had the opposite effect we wanted.

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 (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” and “Use kind words”.

Possible Variations

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 some 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.

Make it a family affair

It’s also a lot of fun to use pictures of family members as trinkets. You can prepare these the same way you do the emotions and coping skills. It’s a great way to reinforce attachment and teach who the most important people in their life really are. Even angry kids still secretly enjoy finding their people…even if they don’t always think they like them.

Have fun with it! 

Most importantly, no matter how you do it, have fun with it! This has been a great tool all of us to use! It’s great for solo play and it can also be a fun cooperative activity.  It’s not at all uncommon for one kid to start playing on their own and soon have at least one sibling or parent helping them find all the trinkets. It isn’t something we try to force. 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.

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