Children are natural-born explorers. Present them with a bin of dry beans and random tubes, and they will dive in hands first. They will manipulate the medium — scooping, pouring, burying — creating stories and structures and, oh yeah, brain connections.
Sensory play is a powerful and alluring learning experience for children. Last year, I wrote this post explaining why sensory play is so important for preschoolers and this one about how to find sensory media inexpensively. Recently, a reader commented asking for a quick-reference list of sensory media as well as ideas for tools and storage tips for those who might just be starting out with their sensory play adventures.
The first thing I would point out is that sensory play is happening all around you, whether you have a dedicated sensory table or not. Children will naturally utilize their senses to investigate the world around them. And because they use their senses to explore everything and anything, that means almost everything and anything can be used in a planned sensory play activity. Notice the things they are drawn to in their impromptu sensory play. To get your own creative juices going, here are some of the basics of sensory play to get you started.
Here’s a quick list with hot links for 42 Ideas for Sensory Media. (Why 42? Well, I started out thinking I’d put in 25 and after adding “just one more” and “just one more”, I had to draw the line somewhere!) This is in no way an all inclusive list. When it comes to sensory media, the sky’s the limit! If there’s room to explore it, manipulate it, pour it, scoop it, or squeeze it, chances are it will make a good sensory medium.
So how does anyone manage limitless media in a limited space? The first thing to consider is that you don’t have to store all of it. Some items that are being repurposed (such as shredded paper or packing peanuts) may be used for a time and then continue on their way to the recycling bin as was initially intended.
You may also want to consider a sensory rotation. Network with other parents or teachers and create a list of reusable sensory materials. Assign each person one or two sensory items to collect and store. Then rotate the media after a set time period. This keeps the sensory contents novel for your children while only requiring you to store a small amount at any given time.
For those that you do keep on hand, you have several options. For items like beans, sand, or rice, I use shoe-box sized stackable storage containers. For compressible contents or smaller collections, like feathers, foam shapes, and sawdust, I use plastic bags for each group and then put all the bags into a repurposed Costco-sized detergent bucket. Of course, if you’re storing much, it’s important to label your containers to keep your collection organized.
While you could certainly present a sensory material all by itself and be quite sure that your children would still explore it, adding tools and other items serves to make it more inviting and exciting. Here are just a few ideas:
Scoopers: Cups, spoons, ladels, garden shovels, fish nets, repurposed scoops from formula, drink mixes, and detergents
Tubes: Tubes from paper towels or gift wrap, PVC pipes, clear refrigerator tubing
Texture: Rakes, combs, and paint brushes
Figures: Animals, people, dinoaurs, cars, bugs, and on and on!
Treasures: Coins, rocks painted gold, sequins, large beads
Motion: Funnels, waterwheels, hand-powered egg beaters, whisks,
Measuring: Measuring cups and spoons in a variety of sizes, scale/balance, bowls of differing sizes
Finding a Space
Many people feel a little nervous about setting small children loose with several pounds of dry rice or a few gallons of water, and rightfully so. A free-for-all could swiftly spell disaster. It’s important to set appropriate boundaries, which I discuss in this ancient post found here. You may also want to start out having your sensory play activities outside until you feel more comfortable and your children have become more familiar with the procedures and limits.
When you’re introducing sensory play activities, having a designated area helps to create appropriate boundaries. But that doesn’t mean that you have to shell out the extra money for a commercial grade sensory table (though who wouldn’t have fun with one of these?). My first home sensory table was a large, shallow storage bin with a lid. I would set it on a table cloth on the kitchen floor and let my son have at it while I made dinner. I’ve since graduated, though only slightly. I’m still using a shallow storage bin, but it now has it’s own child-sized table and the two have been secured together using velcro to increase stability during play but movability during clean up. (Though I still bring out that same table cloth from time to time and give my youngest a few metal bowls and cups along with some dry pasta to manipulate while I cook.)
Sensory play can also happen in other everyday locations. It can take place at your kitchen sink while washing dishes or incorporating other water, ice, or shaving cream play. A muddy patch in your back yard can give limitless avenues for wriggly, squishy play as well. A bedtime bath can become a sink- or-float experiment or a time for exploring with a number of tools for water play. A simple cookie sheet on a table can hold salt, playdough, or slime. And simply helping with dinner can turn into a delightful sensory extravaganza. Opportunities for sensory play are all around if you’re ready to see the world through a child’s eyes.
What are your favorite sensory play activities? Share your ideas for sensory media, tools, storage, and space!
Top photo by Nico.
This year my students loved lentils and split peas — not at the same time. I like to include containers with twist off lids to add another fine motor task. I usually put something in the container to get the ball rolling.
Love it! Thanks for sharing, Mariah!
Oh thank you! This helps me feel not so overwhelmed at getting started! I’ve got a friend with a little boy the same age as mine and she is interested in doing a sensory table. I like the idea of rotating among other moms/teachers. I used to have a bunch of empty Costco baby formula containers but I had so many and I didn’t know what to do with them at the time. I gave them away and now I’m thinking they would have been perfect for this!
So happy to help you get started, Sara!
Love and Lollipops says
Hi there Amanda,
As always your posts are so well written and informative! I have just been posting about a “Let’s Build It! ” theme and shared our construction site sensory box using Red Split Lentils. It’s a huge hit with my little guy! Here’s the link if you would like to check it out.
I must say that I also struggle with the storage of all our sensory goodies and need to be more organised. Thank you for your tips in this regard.
Thanks for sharing your link. What a great activity!
Jo-Anne DeGiacomo Petrie says
Your posts are so beautifully and clearly written. You truly have a gift for delivering information in an organized format.
This post hit home. In the news and in the education world, sensory integration is a hot topic. I see so many children coming in to my classroom who need to get to a “just right” place (term from “How does your Engine Run” program on sensory regulation- which is fabulous!!).
Sensory “centers” or making materials you listed in your blog are so valuable to children for fine motor strength and regulation. When you invited comments, I could not resist! Some of my favorite mterials are listed below which reinforce a proper writing grip and mellow the sensory system. Please check out Therapro catalog which has many manipulatives to add to your sensory tables. I am very partial to them as they carry my book, “The Mystery of the Land of Letters” in their catalog!
Fun Materials/ideas which reinforce a proper writing grip and hand strength.
1. Zoo sticks – A fun twist on chopsticks.
Pick up materials (beans etc…) and release.
2. Theraputty – Hide things inside and have children “pick” them out. I love to use coins. This is also helpful to teach young children the name of coins and their worth.
3. Tweezers and pom poms. I have students I tutor for handwriting roll a die, pick up that number of pom poms using a pincer grip then release.
4. Hide jewels (not for kids who are oral) in a sandbox – have them hide them find them. I also love to use water, little cloths, and jewels to have the children wash then “polish” them. This is so calming.
5. Using straws, have kids make a map with chalk on the driveway and blow cotton balls along the “road”. Not only is this regulating, but it builds oral motor strength.
Wonderful ideas! Thank you for sharing your experience and resources, Jo-Anne!
Thank you for all the valuable information. My girls (4 & 2) are at the perfect age for this. Right now, a lot of our sensory play takes place outdoors. We have a sandbox & a water table, river rock borders on our gardens… even something as simple as experiencing the texture of walking through the grass barefoot gets those senses going!
So true, Terri! For every innovative sensory idea, there are several simple, natural ways to engage the senses. It sounds like your girls have plenty of great opportunities (plus one very aware mama, which helps).
JoAnn Jordan says
Truly well written. I would add the sense of sound to your list. Can you make different sounds from the same object? And, I would add, it is important to remain aware of our senses throughout our lives.
How do you suggest going about introducing “dedicated” sensory play? My 10-month-old son puts everything in his mouth, of course!, so I’m afraid of some things. What are some good things to start with for his age?
You might check out this old post about setting boundaries with sensory play https://notjustcute.com/2008/09/19/setting-boundaries-with-sensory-play/
With a 10 month old, I would start with water play (supervised of course) and then other media that would not pose a choking hazard. Cornmeal, flour, and even sand– while not tasty– would not be dangerous if ingested in small amounts, and would likely reinforce those boundaries addressed in the post I linked above. Good luck! You have lots of fun in store for you!