When it comes to sensory play activities, most of us think of sand and water tables and different mediums we use in bins for children to explore. While these are great examples of sensory play, there is so much more to it than that. It is important to first understand WHY young children learn best through sensory play, and then secondly, it’s equally important to know how to plan for it with our students.
Before children even know they have five senses, they immediately start using them with sound, smell, taste, touch, and sight. It’s imperative that we foster a safe and enriching environment for them to explore these senses from the time they are infants until they leave our care as school aged children.
Here are some really fun ways to do that in your class that are easy to prepare and never get old! Most of these activities require a deep, clear, plastic bin that you probably already have in your closet!
One of my most favorite sensory activities to do with 2-year-olds and older is a car wash. The reason it is one of my favorites if I’m being honest is because it’s SO easy to prepare!
Just grab some cars from your blocks area and grab an empty bin to fill with water. Throw some clean sponges and other tools like a toothbrush, dish brush, etc. and let the students explore washing the cars (feel free to add a splash of dish soap to get suds, but be sure to monitor that they don’t ingest!).
Sometimes in the summer, it’s also fun to do this activity on a larger scale with our trikes, bikes, and other riding toys. Kids can drive them up to the line, and other friends can use sponges and the hose to wash them!
These activities are great for allowing students to use fine motor skills and pretend play to help their developmental growth. So much pretend play stems from this type of activity, so be sure to offer this type of play throughout the day.
This activity can be used all year round, and it can be a big focus when you teach about topics like community helpers or transportation. Just grab a deep bin and fill with a medium like rice, dried beans, noodles, or sand. Add some construction toys, rocks, blocks, and a few play people, and you have yourself a construction wonderland. 🙂 Children will thrive with something open-ended like this because it allows them to pull from preconceived ideas and experiences and put them into play.
In addition to these materials, it is helpful to have some photos hung up nearby of construction sites and vehicles as well as some children’s books. This will enhance their creativity as they play in the bin. Limit this activity to no more than two students at a time so that it doesn’t get overcrowded.
To help reinforce their letter recognition skills, you can create an alphabet sensory bin. Start with adding 5-10 letters, both uppercase and lowercase, and mix them into a medium like sand, rice, or beans in a deep bin. If they are magnetic letters, it is fun to have children use a magnetic wand to “fish” for the letters. Once they find the letter and it sticks to the wand, the child can place it on the metal cookie sheet.
For older children, you could have them place letters in order on the sheet or sort by color, etc. Add a letter each time the class is introduced to it. This is a center that children love and can play in year round.
Another fun way to explore our senses with letters, is to use different mediums to trace the alphabet. Using a shallow tray, place enough salt, sugar, or sand to cover the bottom of the tray. If you have toddlers doing this, have them practice drawing shapes and squiggles so they can work on those fine motor skills.
For 3 and 4 year olds, have index cards with uppercase letters that they can practice writing in the salt. Offer the back of a pencil or paintbrush to practice as well. When ready, they can try writing on paper. This is a fun way for students to practice letters in a different way that doesn’t feel confining. This is an excellent way for children to build those prewriting muscles and skills.
This one is always a crowd favorite. I always like to set the tone by setting up a beach umbrella and laying down a blue tarp to look like water. I bring in some beach chairs, and it feels like we are at the beach! I place our sand table on top of the tarp, and I like to use kinetic sand for this. While it is more expensive, it’s so much easier to clean up. Regular, playground sand works great, too. Add different beach toys like shovels, pails, molds, etc. Play some beach music, and students will have a blast! This is something I like to do in the fall or winter when we are starting to really miss the beach!
Tip: if it’s in the winter, I also like to mix things up and replace the sand with actual snow! We use the beach toys and the kids wear their winter gloves and play!
Sometimes our senses can experience overload, and children do not quite know how to self-regulate. Having a “calming corner” where children can go from co-regulating with a teacher to self-regulating in a designated area, can be super helpful for the child and for you as the teacher!
I love using Voss water bottles to create sensory bottles. Sometimes I use them in our science center or language center, but using them in my calming corner as a “calm down” bottle is a wonderful addition to my classroom. Students know that when they feel angry or sad, they can go to the calming corner to identify the feeling and allow their body to calm down. They can hold a stuffed animal, read a book, and hold one of the calming bottles. These calming bottles serve as a visual anchor to bring focus when the rest of the word seems to be spiraling out of control for the little one. A child can shake the bottle as hard as they want (don’t use glass) and then watch the glitter release and settle while their bodies also settle.
If you are still operating under COVID guidelines, you may be shying away from sensory play, but PLEASE don’t do that! There are so many ways you can still do these activities with some intentional planning. For example, you can create individual bins for students using plastic shoe boxes or bins that are smaller. If you want to still use a community bin, have students wash hands right before playing and immediately after, and sanitize the toys in between uses.
According to Educational Play Care, “the sensory activities allow children to refine their thresholds for different sensory information helping their brain to create stronger connections to process and respond to sensory information.” This shows that children need sensory play for brain development, body awareness, and balance in addition to exploring their senses.