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Sensory play in the classroom: best practices

Children learn from their environments, so creating an environment that supports a healthy (and varied) sensorial-based experience will promote self-awareness, preliminary math, and science-based skills! In order for these activities to be successful, educators must envision and communicate the best practices by way of activity standards and expectations. These parameters should consider: designating appropriate places for the activities to occur, anticipating messes, protocols for cleanup, and identifying the number of participants that are appropriate at any given time. Conversations around these topics will provide clarity for children, so they can appropriately meet the expectations and maximize their learning experiences.

Three ways that sensory play develops foundational skills:

1. Promotes self-awareness 

In order for children to learn effectively, they must feel settled within their own bodies. One way to help children feel settled within their own bodies is to offer a variety of sensory-based experiences to promote awareness and comfortability. When a child’s nervous system is calm, it opens opportunities for learning. Children who are able to experience learning through integrated sensory experiences are able to be more flexible in their thinking and their learning.

2. Skill refinement

Through opportunities to practice repetitive activities, the child refines their skill set. A simple example of a sensitive period is the 2 1/2 or almost 3-year-old child that walks around the classroom counting almost everything. This observed behavior usually happens spontaneously and is a strong indicator that the child is entering a sensitive period for numbers. The child is then presented with opportunities to count specific materials and many related and supporting lessons and experiences.

Sensory-based activities provide children with experiences that support strengthening the whole hand and specifically the pincer grasp fingers; in an effort to further strengthen the hand for future writing-related activities. For these experiences, think about activities that involve transferring and or art supplies.

3. Opportunities for preliminary academic skills

In language, math, and science: speak to the five senses!

Sight – A great way to focus on this is to obtain a variety of objects that can be sorted, such as items that are available in three different sizes or the same object, but in different colors, so they can be sorted based on one characteristic. It is helpful to plan for quantities of 5 or 10 for each grouping.

Hearing – Providing opportunities for comparative analysis helps children develop more awareness. You may consider discussing noises that are louder and quieter and simply showing the difference with patting your lap, clapping your hands, or singing a song.

Smell – Imagine providing the students with mystery bottles and creating an opportunity for them to differentiate common smells by sweet: vanilla, mint, flowers, or sour: lemon, lime, grapefruit. The intention would be to have three for each category and a second set could be added for matching purposes.

Taste – Children often love the opportunity to explore the concept of differentiation, comparing foods that are similar by identifying these categories: sweet/sour, savory/sweet, salty/flavored. They also enjoy simpler taste tests: three types of apples or pears, fresh fruit with dried fruit, and freeze-dried fruit. These opportunities also allow for a conversation on texture.

Touch – There are many ways to approach the lightness of touch and develop body control. Some activities to consider: matching fabric squares, sorting creatures by fur, feathers, or scales; and even introducing opportunities for stretching, yoga, and other gross motor movements. One of my favorites is offering children opportunities to draw and write numbers and letters on a sand tray or in shaving cream on a tray!

HiMama has a fabulous resource that teachers, educators, and administrators can use to help support quality learning in the classroom! Check out a wide variety of learning activities!

Practical application

The best way to manage these activities is to identify your best practices and standards. When creating these opportunities for learning, it will be critical to determine three aspects:

  1. Designate an appropriate place for the activity to occur and identify where the activity needs to go, as well as when it is time to clean up the activity.
  2. Anticipate messes by obtaining the necessary supplies for ample cleaning and opportunities for the children to participate in this process.
  3. Create parameters in an effort to set the students and yourself up for success. Identify the number of participants that can take a turn simultaneously. Identify if there will be ample time for everyone to take a turn on the same day. Are there enough materials for each child to have one turn over the course of the project? Or, are there enough materials for each child to complete this activity daily for a period of time? 

Remember, each experience is a new opportunity for learning and the activities do not need to be complicated, but they do need to be thoughtful and intentional.

Do you have any favorite sensory activities for early learners? Comment them below! 

Stacey Band

Stacey Band holds a Bachelor of Science in Child Development, a Master Degree in Public Administration from a School of Education, and is an AMS certified Montessori Teacher. With more than 14 years of experience working with children in various capacities, she founded Home Day Hero. Through her work, Stacey is proud to offer a variety of support services aimed to enhance lives of families, educators, and educational facilities. Through thoughtful and meaningful support, Stacey provides resources that further children’s success. In her spare time, she loves spending time with her two young children and her college sweetheart, gardening, going on nature walks, and creating cooking and art projects.

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