Many parents and teachers are reluctant to engage their children in sensory play. It’s easy to see the reason for their hesitation when you envision what could happen when you combine preschoolers or toddlers with a thousand grains of rice! The key to sensory play is two-fold: recognize that there will be somemess, but also set limits and boundaries to keep it within a range you can live with. Here are some tips for setting appopriate boundaries with sensory play.
Lay it all out. Before starting any sensory play, be upfront about your expectations. Set an appropriate work area. For playdough and other single person material, I give them a tray to work on. For larger media, I use bins. I explain to my own children, and those that I teach that if the material goes too much beyond their work zone, it’s time to take a break. This may mean a certain child has to leave the activity, the material gets put away, or the lid goes on the bin for the next 15 minutes until we’re ready to try again.
The beauty of a drop cloth. Now recognize that there will be some overflow. I usually give an appropriate “drop zone” by placing the bin (or whatever is holding the material) on top of a towel, drop cloth, or old table cloth. (Be sure to tape it down, particularly in a classroom setting, to avoid tripping or tangling.) This provides two purposes. The children know, first of all, that accidental spills may happen here, but anything beyond this zone would be excessive. Secondly, when it’s time to clean up, it’s much easier to pick up the cloth and pour the material back into your bin than it is to crawl around picking up each piece individually!
Get involved. Another way to help children recognize the limits to sensory play is to get involved and play with them, particularly when introducing a new activity. While playing with them, you can model playing within the limits and immediately correct behaviors that may cause problems before they become habits. (“Pouring water in those funnels is so fun, but remember to hold them over the bin so we can keep all the water inside. We don’t want to have to put it away!)
Define acceptable media. My kids love to play in rice. It flows and has a soothing texture, and also makes intriguing sounds as it rustles when pushed, or snaps as it is poured. I like it because it is relatively inexpensive and easily accessible in most parts of the world. To clarify to my kids that the rice we play with is not the same as the rice we eat we talk about the differences in texture between raw rice and cooked rice. I also point out that the rice play with is colored, and the white rice is for eating, not playing with. Coloring rice and other media is a great way to differentiate it from material that should not be played with, while also making it more enticing.
Find your own comfort level. Some people are ok with a little mess, others are willing to put up with more, while others still find it all a little too much. Some people feel perfectly comfortable with sensory play right at their kitchen tables. Others find that they can only live with sensory play when they take it outside. Find your own comfort level, define it, explain it, and enforce it consistently and you will find sensory play quickly becomes less intimidating and more enjoyable for everyone!