Make a Rainbow Rice Bin for the toddler in your life for hours of mixing, measuring, and fine motor skill development. So easy! A DIY colorful sensory bin for preschoolers.
Turn plain white rice into rainbow rice
When my youngest was 1, I noticed a sand table at the local kindergarten. The teacher explained to me that they were using sand in a classroom station that was meant for water. It allowed the students to measure and pour, learning while they played. The sand was all over the classroom carpet, in the children’s hair, and covering the trucks, and measuring cups with a fine film. The teacher was very proud of her sand station, and explained to me that the apparatus was meant for water but the water would have been too messy for classroom use. I was intrigued.
At home my sons were helping me bake bread – already 11 and 8, they were past the sand box games, but enjoyed scooping and measuring real flour, and sugar. My 1 year old was just starting to want to dig and splash. It came to me, one day scooping rice out of the bin, that rice would be an easy substitute for the sand box – easy to clean up, not harmful if swallowed. Being a fiber artist, it was natural to eschew plain rice for coloured rice. And the rainbow rice bin was born.
The rainbow rice bin was the most played with toy in our home for over 9 years. We kept our rainbow rice in a Rubbermaid box with a snug lid. The bin was only half full of rice so that lots of trucks, measuring cups and toys could be kept in the box. At the end of a day of play, the dropped rice was swept off the wooden floors and thrown away. The Rubbermaid container kept insects and mice out of the rice, and the rice inside the bin. When we moved out to our acreage we tossed out the rice bin – my youngest was sad to see it go. She was 10.
How to make a Rainbow Rice Bin
You can make your own for the cost of a sack of cheap rice and a 4-colour food colouring package, plus a scant ¼ cup of white vinegar.
- A 10 gal Roughneck Storage Box with a lid, that will comfortably hold 20 pounds of rice, but that your toddler can sit beside and easily reach into . We had a pink one that was about 9 inches high.
- 10 pounds of white rice (buy the cheapest brand. You aren’t going to eat it, but since your child might, make it non-GMO)
- 1 package of 4 liquid food coloring in blue, green, red, and yellow – the kind that is sold in the flavoring aisle of the grocery store.
- ¼ cup of white vinegar (this helps to set the acid dyes – food coloring is acid dye)
Divide the rice into 6 – 3 cup portions.
Using a 4 cup glass bowl for mixing, add two cups of rice to the dish. Add 10 to 20 drops of a single color of food coloring plus ½ tsp. of vinegar. Mix well with a spoon until rice is evenly colored and the color is as rich as you desire. Spread the rice on a baking sheet and put in 250*F oven. Bake, stirring often until rice is completely dry and no color bleeds. The temperature is kept low to keep the colors bright.
It takes about 20 – 30 minutes to dry the rice completely. You can bake more than 1 baking sheet at a time.
Pour the rice into clean bowl to allow to dry. Stir it often with a spoon while it is drying to prevent condensation. Repeat with each of the remaining 4 simple colors – blue, red, green, and yellow.
If you can’t find green liquid food coloring you can make green rice with 10 drops of yellow food coloring and 7 drops of blue food coloring or add blue till you get a pleasing green.
To get orange rice, a compound, secondary color, mix 10 drops of yellow and 5 drops of red, plus ½ tsp. of vinegar directly into the rice and mix well. Add more food coloring, a little at a time, to get the desired shade of orange that you like. Don’t increase the vinegar. The color will lighten slightly as it dries.
To get purple rice mix 10 drops of blue and 10 drops of red, plus ½ tsp of vinegar directly into the rice and mix well. Add more food coloring, a little at a time, to get the desired shade of purple that you like. Don’t increase the vinegar. The color will lighten slightly as it dries.
Rainbow rice uses 4 different colors of food coloring, blending these colors to achieve the rainbow of colors. You can certainly use just 2 or 3 colors if your child has a favorite color combination – team colors, or school colors.
Once the rice is cooled completely, the colors will be stable and unlikely to bleed.
Mixing the colors – for homeschoolers
Not a homeschooler? Jump to the section on “loading the rice bin for creative play”.
Get your child to help with this step and you can turn it into an art lesson.
This is a great art lesson for your homeschool students, so don’t rush this part. You’ll only get to do it once. Dump the cold colored rice into the bin that you plan to use to store the rice.
When you mix the yellow rice and the red rice together, try mixing one cup of yellow and just ½ a cup of red. Now step back. What color do you see? Add in another ½ cup of red and mix well. Step back. Now what color do you see? Note that the colored grains of rice are still the same but our perception of the color changes when we look from a distance.
You can vary the proportion of colors and you’ll see totally different colors with your eye. Use your remaining cup of red to mix with the blue rice. Note that when you mix just the blue and the red rice in the bin, while each rice grain remains either blue or red – the overall impression is purple. When you vary the amount of red and blue you change the perceived purple that you see.
Some color vocabulary for Homeschoolers
Primary Colors – Red, Blue, and Yellow – these are the colors that can’t be mixed using any other colors. They are the basic colors that all other colors are mixed from. Note that no real color that we humans are capable of making is truly a pure primary color.
For instance red is either a blue-red (cool red) or an orange-red (warm red). This is an important distinction if you are a professional artist, but for homeschooled students it may be enough to give them this definition of a primary color as a theory.
Secondary colors –purple, orange, and green – these are the colors that can be mixed from just two primary colors.
Complimentary colors are the colors that are on opposite sides of a color wheel. Green is complimentary to red. Purple is complimentary to yellow. Blue is complimentary to orange. When you mix two complimentary colors together, you get brown. It is like mixing all three primary colors together.
Learn more about creating natural inks and dyes here.
For further study: Itten: The Elements of Colour, translated by Ernst Van Hagen (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold), 1970)
Wasn’t that fun? Once you’ve had your fill of color mixing and color perception, you can dump all the rice that you’ve colored into the bin and mix well. Add a few measuring cups, shovels, sieves, buckets, sand toys, trucks, cars, Lego blocks, dinosaurs, small dolls, soldiers, or plastic farm animals and you are ready for hours of quiet play.
Rainbow rice games
One game that my homeschooled students loved was hiding objects in the rice for their little sister to find. She became so adept at finding small objects in the bin of rice that she could do it blindfolded. The favorite game was hiding Lego blocks in the bin to see how many she could find. It kept her busy so the boys could build their Lego cities without her help.
One afternoon we went to a homeschool baby shower. Sarah was 5. The hostess had a game where white rice filled a bowl and a number of tiny gold safety pins were put in the bowl. Each person was blindfolded and had to find as many safety pins as they could in 2 minutes. Since Sarah was only 5 they weren’t planning on letting her play the game. Everyone else had a turn and the top score was 14 safety pins, while everyone commented on how very difficult it was to distinguish a tiny safety pin among all those grains of rice.
Sarah looked very disappointed that they weren’t going to let her play, so the hostess relented and blindfolded her. Before the timer had gone off, her rice box trained fingers had found over 30 safety pins — although she didn’t win a prize (they weren’t expecting a 5 year old winner and didn’t have a prize suitable,) they did give her hearty congratulations. It is still one of her favorite memories.
Child Development Goals that are improved with rainbow rice play:
- increases fine motor skills,
- increases hand dexterity
- improves hand-eye coordination
- encourages imaginative play
- improves math skills
- improves language skills
- helps learning outcomes in measuring, fractions, addition, and subtraction
- encourages quiet play
- improves color sense and memory
While our rainbow rice box days are long gone – Sarah is in her final year of her Bachelor of Science degree in Ministry Leadership at Moody Online Studies – I recently bought another 10 kg. (22 lb.) bag of cheap white rice and a package of food coloring to make a batch of rainbow rice for my granddaughter Celia. I made Celia an I Spy pillow filled with rainbow rice for Christmas.