In many preschool rooms, the sensory table is often surrounded by children. It is an inviting area of the room where children are encouraged to stick their hands into the medium of the day, be it water, colored rice, or even slime! Children gleefully run their fingers through a new texture, scooping and dumping to their hearts’ delight, all the while using vocabulary words like, mushy, gritty, or runny. They naturally compare volumes and textures, diameters and temperatures as they engage in their play. Flow patterns are observed, compared, and manipulated as children pour water down tubes and rain gutters, and cause and effect is constantly tested. The sensory table is a melting pot of a variety of developmental objectives while also being so completely fun and engaging! Sensory tables designed for and sold to schools easily run into the hundreds of dollars. Parents and teachers in smaller preschools are often left feeling like the sensory table is an experience reserved only for large institutions. That does not have to be the case! Here are a few ways to put the sensory table in reach of every child’s hands.
It’s Bin Fun.
If you look purely at function, a sensory table serves one main purposes: It contains the sensory medium and provides a boundary for play so that you don’t end up with sand castles built in your book area or sawdust all over your snack table. Any container that gives a child room to manipulate and play with the sensory material while also containing it will do the trick. Some teachers I know use separate plastic storage bins to store each of their sensory materials. When they want to use it, they simply place the bin on a table, and the kids go at it! If using a storage bin, make sure it is big enough around to allow children to share the space, and shallow enough for children to be able to reach in easily. Bins for under the bed storage or wrapping paper often work well. I have used one small bin on a table and simply change the material inside. Because my table is dedicated to sensory play, I simply attached adhesive velcro to the table top and to the bottom of the bin to make the bin a bit more sturdy during play.
Many sensory activities can be carried out on a smaller scale – literally. Put small amounts of your materials like sand, salt, or colored rice in a shallow cookie sheet or casserole pan. Place the pan on a towel to catch the overflow. Allow individual children to write with their fingers, drive cars, or scoop and pour to their hearts’ content.
The Real Deal
There are also many natural and authentic opportunities for children to engage in sensory play. At home, think of your bathtub as one big water table. Add materials that you would add to a water table – basters, foamies and fish nets, ping pong balls, or water wheels as your children play their way through bath time. Outdoor play in the sandbox is also a common way to find a place for sensory play. Engage them in expressive language as you describe the textures they’re feeling or the dramatic scenarios they’re creating. Cooking is also a fantastic, authentic sensory experience as children engage all five senses while creating a culinary masterpiece. When they’re done, pull up a chair to the kitchen sink (just another version of a water table) as you wash dishes together. You’d be surprised how much time a child can spend at the sink with one dish washing wand and a cookie sheet! The key is to find sensory experiences on a level that works for you, set appropriate boundaries, and open up a world of new experiences for your own children or the children you teach. You don’t need to spend $300 on an official “sensory table” to do that!