Schools are typically pretty good at providing children the opportunity to learn through their eyes and ears, but there are a whole host of things we learn through our other senses. The sense of touch is often neglected in early years settings, but as the great Bev Boz was famous for saying, “If it hasn’t been in the hands, the body, and the heart, it can’t be in the brain.”
Anyone who has spent any time observing children at play knows this is true. Indeed, toddlers can’t keep their hands off of their world and until they’re about three, that goes for their mouths as well! It’s important that their playspaces be set up with this in mind: if can’t be touched, it should be kept out of reach, preferably in another room or a locked cabinet, because there are few things more tempting to a young child than a forbidden object visible on a high shelf. A high quality preschool offers children a variety of opportunities to learn about their world through touch, providing a host of textures, materials, and even temperatures for them to manipulate. One of the centerpieces for this type of play are sensory tables or sensory bins.
You can spend hundreds on a sensory table, but that’s an unnecessary expense for a small in-home provider. Inexpensive plastic tubs do the job just as well. As for what goes in the tubs, the possibilities are endless, keeping in mind that supervision is necessary, especially for children who are still prone to putting everything in their mouths.
Water is endlessly fascinating for young children: a simple tub of water provides hours of exploration and learning. Make sure to include containers for filling and pouring, spoons for stirring, funnels, and items that both sink and float. Adding a dash of dish soap to the water means you will have bubbles. A drop or two of food coloring creates an entirely new playscape. Shaving cream floats like icebergs, then slowly dissolves into nothing. Ice cubes make it cold. Warm water makes it seem like bath time. Toy sea creatures encourage dramatic play. For older children, you might want to provide swim goggles so that they can see underwater. Water play is, of course, wet. You might want to provide smocks for the children and if you can take the water play outdoors, you won’t have to be continually mopping up the floor.
Sand, like water, is an endless joy for young children. If you don’t have a sandbox, your sensory bin can do double duty. Dry sand is fun for a few days, then try adding a little water for an entirely different experience. Small toys, sea shells, florist marbles, or even coins are fun additions, giving children things to hide and find or to use as decorations on their sand castles.
Rice, beans, flax seeds . . .
There are few things more satisfying than plunging your hands into a tub full of rice, beens, or flax seeds. Providing scoops and small pails are popular playthings to combine with dried materials. Rice becomes “snow,” flax seed becomes “water,” and beans become “pebbles” as children use their imaginations to explore the properties of the various materials. Toilet paper tubes, toy animals, and even small building blocks can be added to extend the children’s play. Other dried sensory materials that I’ve used include coffee beans, corn meal, dry pasta of various shapes and sizes, and wheat berries.
Icky, sticky, gooey, slimey
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you might want to try mixing up something special. Mud, of course, is a classic -- all you need is soil and water. Or try making it with red clay for a real slimey experience. Coffee grounds are free from your local coffee shop. Mixing cornstarch with water creates an “anti-Newtonian” product that sometimes acts like a liquid and sometimes like a solid. A small amount of vegetable oil in regular white flour results in a substance similar to the kinetic sand products at a fraction of the cost. Play doughs of all kinds are always popular (here is my mother’s award winning recipe, but you can find dozens of others with a quick Google search). And then there are thousands of non-toxic slimes and goos that you can make yourself.
Some of your sensory materials have a limited shelf life and must be disposed of after a few days (or even daily in some cases), but many, like the dry materials, playdough, and some of the slimes can last a good long time in a sealed container and that’s the biggest benefit of using tubs instead of a sensory table: just snap the lid on and store them until you’re ready to play again.