Tag Archives: sensory table

A Handful of Fun: Why Sensory Play is Important for Preschoolers

(Please, please, feel free to print and share this article with parents and teachers! Simply cite the source as Amanda Morgan, www.notjustcute.com.)

 Think of your average preschooler.  How long has this child been proficient with language?  Depending on the age, the child may not really be too proficient yet!  Others seem to have been talking non-stop since 2 1/2, but that means they’ve been talking now for all of…..about a year!  Now think of how long these children have been seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling, and tasting.  Their whole lives!  Children are wired to receive and utilize sensory input from day one.  This is why children will dive in hands first, exploring a new substance.  The senses are their most familiar, most basic way to explore, process, and come to understand new information.

This is why we must allow young children to learn through experience, not just lecture.  These children need to use their senses and be engaged in meaningful experiences.  As we talk with them about what they are observing and sensing, we give them new language tools to connect with these more familiar sensory tools, building language as well as supporting cognitive concepts specific to the experience. 

Now, the flip side to this equation is important to remember as well.  Just as children learn through their senses, they also are developing the ability to use those senses and are building the neurological pathways associated with each one.  With added sensory experiences, combined with the scaffolding of adults and peers, children become more perceptive.  Their sensory intake and processing becomes more acute.  As they are better able to use their senses, they are then better able to learn through their senses.

Sensory play is really part of the scientific process.  Whether out loud or within the internal dialogue of the mind, children have developed a question, leading them to investigate– by grabbing, smelling, listening, rubbing, staring, licking , what have you!  They are using their senses to collect data and from that, attempt to answer their own questions.  Whether or not young children are always able to verbally communicate this process, it is still a valid exercise in scientific inquiry.

The sensory table is the usually the first place people think of for sensory play.  That’s logical, as the term “sensory” is shared by both.  The sensory table certainly stands as an open invitation for hands-on exploration, but it is not the only place where the senses come into play.  Throughout the preschool room and throughout the preschooler’s day, there are appeals being made to the five senses.  The sound of toppling towers in the block area, the feel of finger-paint sliding under their fingertips, the glow of the Light Brite at the small manip table, the smell of cinnamon playdough.  As teachers, the more we can attend to the sensory involvement of our planned activities, the more our children will be engaged and the more they will learn. 

For example, when discussing the need for warm clothes in the winter time, we can simply tell children about it, or we can have them hold ice cubes, one in a bare hand, and one in a gloved hand, let them really feel the difference and then meaningfully attach a verbal discussion to the sensory experience.

Back at the sensory table, we can find many more benefits to sensory play.  That bin of sand, or foam, or colorful rice is more than just another way to keep kids busy, it is a bustling factory of developmental growth.  In addition to honing sensory and science skills, sensory play builds language, social, and dramatic play skills as the children negotiate with one another to share tools, create stories, and build dialogues.  Both small and large motor skills get a boost as well, as the children manipulate the medium and tools of the day.  Creative, divergent thinking is displayed as the children are essentially invited to explore and come up with new ways to use the materials.  Cognitive skills are fostered as well as the children learn about specific concepts pertinent to the bin’s contents.  Things like gravity, parts of plants, states of matter, and color mixing are easily explored and understood through sensory play.  As you teach appropriate boundaries with sensory play, children develop more self-control and body awareness.

As one of the truest open-ended activities, sensory play provides an opportunity for every child to succeed.  No matter whether you are gifted or delayed, learning a new language or mastering your first, you can’t really fail with a bin full of beans or a ball of playdough.  Children who struggle to succeed or who are apprehensive about failure often find solace in sensory play.  The simple act of pouring water or running fingers through rice is often cathartic and calming to many children who may be struggling emotionally.  It can soothe the nervous child, distract the homesick child, and serve as an outlet for the angry child.  For children with special needs and sensory integration disorders, sensory play may be particularly therapeutic.  (Please note that we must also avoid over-stimulation in many sensitive children.  Special attention must also be paid to children with sensory integration disorder and properly recognizing their thresholds.)

We often think of the sensory table as being a tactile activity, which it largely is, but the other senses come into play as well!  The tapping sounds of popcorn kernels hitting the bin, the pungent smell of baking soda and vinegar at work, the sight of separating colors as tinted water, oil, and syrup are mixed together are all sensory experiences that can be tapped at the sensory table.  Taste sometimes finds less desirable ways to sneak in at the table as well, though taste-tests can also be properly planned as fantastic sensory experiences!

Find ways to optimize sensory play for your children.  Whether that’s providing a bin of sand to explore, giving your child a dish wand and plastic dishes to “wash” at the sink, or finding ways to integrate the senses into your other activities, provide space and time for sensory play!  It’s a natural and satisfying way to explore and learn!

Links you might love:

Creating a Sensory Table on a Budget

Setting Boundaries with Sensory Play

How to Find Sensory Materials on the Cheap

Messy Play: Bubbles, Sand, Dough, and Water  (Great Sensory Play Ideas from lekotek)

Find more ideas for sensory activities by clicking on the sensory tags and categories at the right, or by entering “sensory” into the blog search engine!


Top photo by osmar01.

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Filed under Article, sensory activity

Exploring Magnets

I apologize for disappearing for a bit.  I was being held hostage by a computer virus and spent the better part of the last couple of days trying to put down its hostile take-over.  For the life of me, I can’t figure out why people make a hobby out of creating something to waste other people’s time.  If you want to waste your own time, by all means go for it, but why waste some stranger’s?  Is that entertaining to some people?  Though I have to confess, if, in the midst of my virus-inflicted frustration, I had actually followed through with my fantasy of throwing my computer through the window, someone might have found that entertaining.  But alas, the computer is still here on my desk, and the mutiny has been laid to rest.  So, on to the better things in life…..like magnets!

Kids love magnets!  They are intriguing at any level.  Whether a child is systematically going through a collection of materials creating and checking hypotheses about their reaction to the magnet, or creating a chain of magnetized screws, or simply watching the magic of an invisible force, magnets are magnificent!

For some great magnet fun, fill your sensory table with something light, such as sawdust.  Place a variety of objects like screws, jar lids, paperclips, twisty-ties (there’s wire in the middle!), as well as some non-reactive objects like packing foam, plastic figures, and wooden beads.  Have the children use large magnets to find the objects buried in the sawdust.  Talk about how the magnet works, and ask why some of the other objects don’t react. Use open-ended questions and really get them involved in the scientific process of inquiry.  You could also tie math and science together by building a graph as you go, sorting items that are or are not drawn to the magnets.

I really like using these magnet wands.  They’re easy to handle and very safe.  You can find them at educational stores, but also at fabric stores like Jo-Ann’s (in the notions section for holding pins).  The prices are usually fairly comparable, but I find it easier to come by a 40% off coupon through Jo-Ann’s mailer than some of the educational specialty stores.

If you’re working with younger children and are worried about small paperclips and the like, or if you need a magnet activity for a self-contained science center, or an on-the-go situation, try filling a plastic water bottle with sawdust or small foam beads.  Add the metal objects (and a few small plastic ones too if you like) and seal the lid on by super-gluing the inside threads or hot gluing around the outside seal of the lid (or both if you’re compulsive like that).  Draw out the metal items using the magnet wands, or for a super-fun spin (which I think I saw in one of the Transition Magician books) sew magnets into the fingers of stretchy gloves (cover with another patch of fabric or sew one glove inside the other to secure the magnets) and allow the children to hold the magnetic power right at their fingertips!

Magnet image by nayand.  Glove image by fabiennew.


Filed under fine motor skills, Learning through Play and Experience, science activity, sensory activity

Cornmeal Play

If you’re looking for something new to put in your sensory table, consider cornmeal!  Some types are more fine than others – the fine stuff can leave a bit of a dusty residue on those little hands, but no permanent harm done, right?  Whether you have coarse or fine cornmeal, the kiddos just love it!  Compliment the play with toy cars, scoops in a variety of sizes, and even combs to create a fun texture!  Around Valentine’s Day, I threw in some foam hearts and the children kept themselves engaged burying and digging up their “treasures”!  You could add any foam features, plastic figures, or some beads or rocks. 

Sensory play builds curiosity and creativity in children as they engage in open-ended play.  Small motor skills are also developed as they dig and scoop and manipulate the material.  Language and social skills also come into play as the children work together and create dramatic storylines along with their play.  Try it out!

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Filed under fine motor skills, Learning through Play and Experience, sensory activity, supplies

Moving Water

Here’s a quick and easy, yet fascinating , activity for your sensory table.  (Find how to make your own here.)  Inside the table, place two smaller containers.  (I used the shoebox size storage containers here.)  Fill one box with water.  You may want to add a little coloring to make the water more visible as it moves.  Leave the other box empty.  Provide a variety of tools including scoops in varying sizes, funnels, basters and eye-droppers, and clear tubing (available at hardware stores).  One of my very favorite sensory tools is created by inserting a funnel into the tubing.  You may want to do this yourself, or see if the children come up with the idea!  With a variety of materials present, ask the children how they can move the water from one container to the  other.  As they experiment, talk with them about how the water moves and its other properties.  Also talk about the various tools.  Use their names, and compare their sizes and the amounts of water they are able to move (math).  Challenge them to use more tools or a combination of tools by simply saying, “How would you use ____ to move the water over?”  Using the tools improves fine motor skills as well as increases science knowledge  as they experiment with how they work.  There’s just something about water that invites little ones to explore!  So follow their lead and discover something new about water as it moves!



Filed under Learning through Play and Experience, science activity, sensory activity

Recipe for Fun: Leaves, Sawdust, and Bugs!


If you’re lucky enough, you have childhood memories of digging through fallen leaves, twigs, and dirt to find treasure troves of bugs and creepy crawlies.  Hopefully the children you love and teach get the same opportunity!  Here’s a way to extend that fun into a  sensory table  activity.


The title describes it all!  In your sensory table, place sawdust, leaves (real would be great, I just used artificial here), and a set of plastic bugs .  Add scoopers and tweezers, and you’ll be surprised how much fun the children have digging around for their tiny specimen. 

Children build sensory, small motor, and language skills with this activity as they scoop, squeeze, scatter, and sift.  As you talk about the bugs, their names and characteristics, as well as places you and your children have found them outside, you also introduce some science concepts.

For more favorite fall activities, click here!

Check out How to Find Sensory Materials on the Cheap!

Find out how to make a Sensory Table on a Budget.

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Filed under fine motor skills, Learning through Play and Experience, science activity, sensory activity

Pouring Preschoolers

DSCN2308Here’s a little secret:  Preschoolers can pour their own drinks.  It’s true!  The children gain so much independence and self-confidence by learning this self-help skill.  Autonomy is something children crave at this age, and this is certainly an activity they can do on their own when appropriate parameters are set. 

First of all, I use a small pitcher that they can easily lift and control.  I use these little, plastic, liquid measuring cups that I picked up at the Wally Mart, and have my little ones pour their own water at snack time.  I love that these are see-through so the children can watch as they and others pour (and the fact that they are extremely cheap and readily available is nice too). 

Secondly, I don’t fill the pitcher completely full.    This way, they can move the pitcher without it immediately spilling.  You may need more than one pitcher, with frequent refills, to accommodate your group, but it is well worth it!  I also point out to the children that their cups only need to be filled half way (this minimizes spills), pointing out where half-way is on their glasses .  Then I have them point it out as well .  I let them know that there is more water than that in the pitcher (an embedded math lesson in fractions and volume), so they will have to watch as they pour.  I always let them know that I am confident that they can do it!

To be sure, many children will quickly turn over the pitcher, pouring out the contents and overrunning their cups.  You will have spills.  But the spills will lessen dramatically as the children gain experience – experience pouring as well as experience taking care of their own spills.  (Have towels handy!)  I often have people comment, “You’re so brave.”  When they see that I let the children do their own pouring.  My response is usually, “It’s just water, it’s not going to hurt anything,” or “They can do it, they just need the opportunity to try.”  Not only can they pour their own drinks, but they should.  Pouring is a great hand-eye exercise.  It is requires self-control in the form of motor control.  It is self-correcting.  You don’t have to tell a child whether or not she successfully poured her drink.  Usually she can tell very quickly by whether or not she has a puddle dripping into her lap!  Give them the means to clean up, and an opportunity to try again.  You don’t have to get upset.  This isn’t your water, it’s theirs.  Let them own it!

I often chuckle at well-intentioned parent volunteers who quickly jump in and start pouring the water at snack time.  I don’t usually have to remind them that the children do their own pouring.  The children readily, and emphatically let them know they can do it themselves!  The confidence and autonomy gained here is extremely beneficial for these children who developmentally crave these opportunities.

As a mother, I’ve found an added benefit to these small pitchers.  My oldest son inherited his dad’s extremely low threshold for soggy cereal.  Far too many mornings, I have poured his milk only to later pour his cereal down the sink, because it got soggy before he decided to eat it.  Now, I pour milk into this small measuring cup and tell him to pour his own milk when he’s ready to be focused on eating his cereal.  I won’t say we’ve never had a soggy cereal morning since, but we’ve had less, and I will say he is much more aware of his responsibility to eat the cereal promptly, now that he has some control in it as well.

You can extend pouring activities (which can also be extremely soothing, particularly when done in a repetitive fashion) into the sensory table, encouraging children to pour not only water but also dry  materials (rice, beans, popcorn, etc.) either from a container back into the bin, or from container to container.  Provide cups, bowls, scoops, and pitchers in the sensory table and the children will go to work! 

So give your preschoolers the opportunity to pour.  It’s a simple activity that will garner great rewards!


Filed under fine motor skills, Large Motor Skills, Learning through Play and Experience, math activity, procedure/organization, self help skills, sensory activity, Snack Time

Dinosaur Erosion

dscn1232After seeing an erosion table at a nearby museum, I decided to implement the same concept on a much smaller scale in my sensory table.  There are three vital ingredients here: sand (you can buy a large bag for a little money at Home Depot), water filled spray bottles, and dinosaur figures.  After placing the sand in the sensory table, add the dinosaurs and mix well.  You want some to be buried, some to sit on top, and a few somewhere in between.  Provide spray bottles filled with water so that the children can spray water to erode the sand and unearth the dinosaurs.  Inevitably, they will incorporate some dramatic play as they create storylines involving storms, floods, or dinosaurs trapped in quicksand.

This type of activity gives children that time-honored sensory experience of mixing sand and water.  That could be reason alone for doing this activity, but there’s more!  Using spray bottles takes a great degree of fine motor strength and control, as well as hand-eye coordination for keeping aim while firing!  Science and language skills come into play as the children notice and talk about the effects of the water on the sand; not only that it changes the texture and consistency of the sand pile, but that the sand can be moved by the force of water.  This can also lead to discussions about the concept of erosion, or about how dinosaur fossils and remains are found as earth is moved, perhaps by erosion, exposing the prehistoric treasures! 

When your little paleontologists are done at the sensory table, remove and clean the dinosaurs, drain the water from the sand, and leave it out to dry (preferably thinned out on several trays) so that you can store your dry sand and reuse it later!

 Click here for more dinosaur ideas!


Filed under Learning through Play and Experience, science activity, sensory activity