Encouraging Sensory Exploration During Play

Sensory activities have always been one of my favourites to plan, because they are so open-ended and are easy for children to explore, create and broaden their imaginations. A misconception about sensory play is that it’s exploring an item simply by touch. Sensory play is so much for than that, it’s any activity that stimulates any of the 5 senses – touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing -and you can throw movement in there for good measure.

Children learn best when they play, through hands on experiences. One of the biggest asset of sensory play is it benefits the WHOLE child. It teaches them self-regulation skills, encourages language development, strengthens fine and gross motor skills, builds nerve connections in the brain and allows for differentiating between things they like and dislike. One if not the biggest benefit of sensory play is that it comes naturally to children and they love it…and it has been proven that children learn best when they are engaged.

” Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning” – Mr. Rogers

Below I have compiled a list of activities and suggestions on how you can incorporate sensory experiences into everyday routines. Please keep in mind you can alter all activities based on age or interest.

Sensory Tables and Bins

Sensory tables and bins are super simple, and can be stored and reused over and over. If you aren’t fortunate to have a sensory table you can use the bottom of a shallow rubbermaid bin, and place it on top of a tarp or messy mat to entertain groups of children. If you prefer individual sensory experiences you can put the items in small rubbermaid bins.

I really enjoy these types of sensory experiences. One of my favourites is kinetic sand (as seen to the right) and cloud dough, which also can be called moon sand. Both the dough and sand are very malleable, smell great and allow a lot of creativity and fine motor experiences.

Below is a list of some of my favourite table/bin fillers:

  • Cereal
  • Water
  • Sand
  • Rice
  • Pasta (cooked or raw)
  • Easter Grass
  • Tissue Paper
  • Wrapping Paper

Check out my blog post Sensory Bin Fun, for examples of some bins I have created.

Science

A lot of science activities can also be considered sensory activities, and sensory exploration allows children to start developing the scientific method of thinking – asking questions. One activity that has held up over time is Oobleck. If you are not familiar with Oobleck it’s a mixture of water and cornstarch. When the mix is poured it acts like a liquid, and a solid when a force is acting upon it. It’s so much fun but super messy…so make sure to use a messy mat, or strip the children down and let them explore in their diapers/pull-ups. Children can explore Oobleck with their hands, but you can also incorporate spoons, measuring cups or whichever materials the children are interested in. Don’t forget to experiment yourself, and try adding food colouring or glitter to give the Oobleck some extra special flare.

A more recent activity that has taken hold of children over the past few years is slime. So popular even that you can find slime kits in every store, including the dollar store. There are also several home-made options, the one that I have previously used, works great and you can find it HERE. To get the most out of your slime exploration, try experimenting with glitter, sequins, food colouring, pompoms, and whatever else you can think of.

Sensory Bottles and Bags

Sensory bottles are fantastic and can last for long periods of time if created properly. Find a sturdy bottle and seal it with hot glue, because if not the next minute it will be open and all over your carpet. I like using the Tim Hortons orange/apple juice bottles, Sparkling Ice bottles, Voss water bottles and the chubby soda bottles. When making sensory bags I suggest strong durable ziplocks and duct tape to seal and tape them down. Sensory bottles are also a great tool to help assist children with self-regulation. Under the Sea sensory bags/bottles have proven to be a hit with all of the age groups I’ve worked with – using water, glitter, glitter glue and either water beads or aquarium rocks. If using a bag I would suggest using foam marine characters or stickers (so that they don’t put a hole in the bag) and if using a bottle, try tiny little marine creatures, feel free to throw in some shells too. With sensory bags/bottles there are an infinite number of posibilities – magnetic, holiday themed, glitter, pompoms, nature bottles…you name it you can create it. Check out my post on how to create sensory bottles – click here.

Art

Art allows so many possibilities for sensory exploration. One activity that will always be a timeless classic is finger painting. Let’s be honest, even if you give a child a paint brush, as soon as your head is turned they are digging their fingers into that paint. If you would like to enhance this experience, encourage them to mix colours, set out sequins for them to grab and sprinkle on their art or you can even try mixing spices into the paint to add a scent. You can also use their love for finger painting to create handprint art. I love handprint art! I created an entire alphabet book using the children’s handprints.

Puffy Paint is inexpensive to make, simple to use and looks super cool when complete. I have added a link to a great puffy paint recipe. This recipe calls for food colouring, but I have also used a few drops of acrylic (or normal paint) to dye the mixture instead – this allows for a lot more colour options too. One of my favourite add-ons for puffy paint is to mix in Kool-aid (I use the powder but i’m sure the liquid drops would work too) to give it a delicious scent. If the children desire add some glitter to the mix, or leave it on the table so they can apply it themselves. Once the painting is dry allow the children to smell their picture and run their fingers along the “paint” to see how it feels.

Another fan favourite, and I don’t think this will ever change is play-dough. Play-dough is fun for all ages – my fiancé would always choose the play-dough option in Pick ‘N’ Choose, if I would let him. Take time to sit down with the children and listen to their conversations while they explore, you will be surprised with what you hear. Don’t forget to encourage sharing and co-operation skills. Make sure to supply various supplies including textured rolling pins, cookie cutters, alphabet dough stamps, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, forks, spoons, play-dough knives, scissors, buttons, candles, shells, play-dough mats…the sky’s the limit really.

Circle Time and Music

Circle time is a wonderful time to bond with the children and to encourage literacy, but it can also be a very antsy time for children. In order to keep children engaged incorporate materials to allow them to participate more – like felt pieces. I created my own felt board using a canvas and hot gluing felt over top. Take the The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle for example – you can hand out the food pieces, and have each child put their felt piece on the board when it is their turn. If you’re not a big fan of felt you can incorporate instruments or create shakers to allow the children to follow along to the music. Sound Books are also a fantastic option, my favourite is Going on a Bear Hunt. If you don’t have a copy of the sound book, you can make your own sound effects using items you have in the house/classroom, or create sensory bins for the children to explore with their feet.

Outdoor Play and Gross Motor

The outdoors bring so many natural sensory activities including rolling around in the grass, playing in the sandbox, smelling flowers or dandelions, digging in the mud and jumping in puddles. Don’t hesitate to bring the sensory table outside or introduce the children to a water table. By bringing the table outside it allows the children to be messy without you having to worry about actually cleaning up the mess. While outside supply the children with music to encourage creative movement or whip together a batch of homemade side walk chalk to encourage their creative side, and build their fine motor skills. Another great idea that I have been seeing more in schools as of late, are sensory walks. A sensory walk is similar to an obstacle course that builds sensory pathways in the brain. They can include deep breathing, hopping in place, growling or acting like an animal, jumping over obstacles, or it can simply be mats of textured materials to step on. Check out these 12 Creative Sensory Walks for inspiration.

Sensory Toys

Planning activities is great, but what’s even better is to always have an array of sensory toys available in the classroom or at home. These toys can be store bought or home-made. Below is a list of a few options:

  1. Sensory blocks (linked is a great home-made option)
  2. Fidget toys (clickers, spinners, cubes, stretchy strings)
  3. Textured balls
  4. Pull and stretch squeeze balls/stress balls – why not try making your own stress ball, using balloons and cornstartch – click HERE to learn how
  5. Water wigglers (these were my favourite as a child)
  6. Light up toys (glow sticks)
  7. Liquid motion toys (these are similar to sand timers but with oil and water, and much cooler patterns)

Don’t forget to encourage language as much as possible. Ask a lot of questions about what the child is doing, how things feel, talk to them about how the experience is effecting their different senses. Individual experiences can be great, but if you are fortunate enough to have a group of children allow them to participate together this will encourage genuine conversation.

Remember to keep an eye out for my upcoming blogs on creating sensory materials, including sensory bags and cloud-dough recipes and uses. Don’t forget to visit my Pintrest board Sensory Exploration” to discover new recipes and activities, including those mentioned in this post.

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