Sensory play: more than just sand and water tables

sensory table noodles

I get very frustrated when I visit classrooms in which small, ready-made sand and water combination contraptions are set up and are never changed, meaning that they are used strictly for sand and water and have limited playthings in them for manipulation such as shovels, scoops or cups. I don’t think that when teachers utilize them for merely sand and water, they use the containers to their greatest potential. Certainly there are times when the basics are appropriate, but keeping play novel is what engages children in teachable moments (see “Teachable Moments” Sept, 2013)  with adults and each other.

Always, in any classroom or playground activity, the following factors should guide your decisions about what to put into the hands of young children:

  • Safety- Is this a choking hazard? Is this toxic? How much supervision does this require? Does an adult need to be engaged with a child or children throughout this activity? How many children can safely do the activity at one time? [The goal should almost always be to create opportunities for children to play cooperatively with one another, as their tendency during toddlerhood is to parallel play and they must learn to interact.] Will smocks of some kind be needed to protect clothing from becoming wet?
  • Learning opportunities and curriculum- What is the the theme of the day- a certain letter sound? A holiday? A color? A smell? A shape? A temperature? How can one or more of those elements be incorporated into the sensory activity?
  • Developmental opportunities- What areas of development can this activity be focused on? For example, do the children in the class need to develop an improved pincher grasp (fine motor) to enhance pre-writing skills? Do they need to develop visual discrimination as a pre-literacy and math skill and would sorting shapes or colors be a developmentally appropriate and rewarding activity? Do they need to develop an ability to tolerate different textures or temperatures, like ice cubes or shaving cream?
  • Materials- Are there certain supplemental objects that can be used to enhance a curriculum’s theme? Are there certain tools, toys or everyday objects that will inspire curiosity in children and enhance developmental skills? Are there any interesting tactile experiences that I can introduce which may promote children’s new expressive language?
  • Location, location, location!- Eliminate frustration ahead of time; understand that sensory play is oftentimes, intentionally, messy. Accept that it is explorative and as such, as long as it is safe and the children are attempting to keep the contents of the sensory table in  said table, messes will happen. That said, it would be unwise to set up wet activities in carpeted areas or near furnishings or valuables that could be easily damaged. As a general rule, it is a good idea to have a “wet area” that is near a sink so that children wash their hands with soap before and after using a sensory table. This is a good practice to get into, regardless of what is in the table, but particularly if you are using water, shaving cream or another wet material that will breed bacteria. Placing your paint easel and/or “art center” in the same area makes sense for this reason. [I’ll talk more about classroom setup or playroom arrangement in another post.]

Here’s an example of how I’ve put the above considerations to use in a two year-old classroom toward the spring when about two-thirds of the kiddos were three:

Safety: Our classroom rule was that two children could play at the “water table” (which is what we called it, regardless of its contents on any given day, which I suppose was confusing). Children had to wash hands before and after playing and had to wear smocks. In this activity, there were no choking hazards.

Learning opportunities and curriculum: This was a Jewish preschool and we were learning about Passover. This particular example is about Moses’ mother putting baby Moses in a basket and floating him down the river. This is a story that two and three year-olds are fascinated by. We read a developmentally appropriate picture book about baby Moses during Circle Time that remained in our classroom library during Open Centers and Library Time for sharing.

Developmental opportunities: I decided that I would like to work on pre-literacy story-telling. The children demonstrated their comprehension of the story and reenacted the story using props in the water table, so it was a little like dramatic play but with a sensory element. This activity also lent itself to “sink or float” activities in the water table, which I then parlayed into language charting about which objects sank to the bottom and which floated on top.

Materials: I found this wonderful plastic “basket” which was really a bowl, in that it had no holes in it, at The Olive Garden (it was for the breadsticks) and I asked if they would sell it to me for my class. They were nice enough to give it to me. I used a naked baby doll and a handkerchief that I wrapped around him. That was baby Moses. I put some plastic frogs and sand and grass in the water table; I used food coloring to turn the water a little murky. We talked about how Moses’ mother put him in the basket and floated him down the river and what that must have felt like during our Circle Time. In order to incorporate the science piece about buoyancy and the language charting for “sink or float,” I also ensured that there were some pebbles and some cork or reed.

Location: One whole side of my classroom was devoted to “wet” or messy activities and I avoided putting carpet in those areas so that spills could be easily mopped up. The sink and the toilet were also in this area.

There are so many wonderful ways to use sensory tables to augment your curriculum each day. They can serve as the catalyst your children need to have that “aha!” moment and the inspiration that those moments will give you is what will keep you coming back for more and thinking of how to do it even better.

Check out this great link from Tom Bedard, a veteran early childhood educator with over 25 years of experience in the field:

Here’s a durable and inexpensive DIY alternative to pricey indoor-outdoor sensory tables that you find in education supply catalogues or at popular retailers. I’m partial to this because it’s what I used in my classrooms while teaching. The bins are easily interchangeable and have lids so you can swap out sensory items based on your curriculum, theme, the child(ren)’s interests, etc. and store away non-perishable items for another day of fun. Thanks, Busy Bugs

Your children will thank you.



Artwork by Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar


4 thoughts on “Sensory play: more than just sand and water tables

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