Home Connections: Sensory Play for Young Children

by Melissa Harding

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Our senses are how we learn about the world. When we talk about “observation skills“, we are really talking about using our senses to understand what is going on around us. In fact, observation is the foundation of all science; it causes us to ask questions and seek answers through experimentation. Observation skills are important. That is why we work so hard to make sure that our students are spending their time observing the natural world and why we care so much about promoting observation skills in this space. One of our favorite ways to help young children learn to use their senses is through the use of sensory bins. Sensory bins are common in any early childhood settings, from pre-schools to nature centers, and provide children with a tactile way to learn about color, shapes, plants and animals.

We have developed a variety of sensory bins for different age groups, based on what is appropriate and safe for children in different stages of development. Here are a few of our most successful bins:

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Little Sprouts (ages 2 and older)
Children ages 2-3 are still learning many gross and fine motor skills. They are not yet able to articulate well with their hands, grasp objects with care or perform detailed actions. With this mind, sensory bins for this age group are meant to stimulate the senses and give children practice stacking, building, drawing and molding shapes, and just generally manipulating objects. Adding fresh scents, bright colors and pleasing textures makes these bins fun for older children as well.

Day 4 003Cloud Dough: Cloud dough is a great way to add texture and scent to your sensory bins. Made with a base of flour and vegetable oil, the resulting “dough” is both crumbly and holds a shape, rather like wet sand. Try adding cookie cutters or shaped ice cube trays to the bin.

To make cloud dough, you will need: 7 cups any type of flour and 1 cup vegetable oil. Mix it all together until the oil is evenly dispersed throughout the flour. Use your hands.

Tracing Salt: Tracing salt is made with ordinary table salt and essential oils. A thin layer of this scented salt is put in a shallow bin for manipulation; this bin is great for promoting literacy and creativity, as children can trace letters, numbers or pictures into the salt and then erase it and start again. It’s a fun tool to use when practicing letters, shapes, or numbers. We like to add feathers and paint brushes to give our students something to make shapes with besides their fingers, but anything soft and stiff would work.

To make tracing salt, you will need: 3 cups iodized salt and 5-7 drops essential oil. Place one cup salt in a bag and add 2-3 drops essential oil. Close bag and massage the contents to mix. Add essential oil to achieve the scent you desire; remember, less is often more with strong oils. Follow these steps until all salt has been scented. Add drops of food coloring to the salt for optional color if desired.

Salt Dough: Salt dough is a great go-to staple. All children love to play with salt dough or other play dough. Salt dough is made with flour, salt and water; the resulting dough is moldable and will even dry into permanent shapes if left out for a few days. However, this dough is able to last for up to a month in a sealed sensory bin. Try adding herbs, spices, food coloring, grains and even glitter to create extra-special dough.

To make salt dough, you will need: 2 cups flour, 1 cup salt and 1 cup water. Mix salt and flour, gradually stirring in water until it forms a dough-like consistency. Form a ball with your dough and knead it for at least 5 minutes with your hands, adding flour as needed to create a smooth texture.

Dance Scarves: Dance scarves are perfect for sensory play: they come in a rainbow of colors, they are soft and floaty, and they can be made into a costume. They are fun to twirl with, to throw up into the air like fall leaves, and to pile up and lay on. Children will pull them all out of the bin and play with them for hours.

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Seedling Scientists (ages 4 and older)
Children ages 4-5 are learning more fine motor skills, spatial skills, independence, and the ability to self-regulate. They need to practice manipulating small objects, whether pouring things from one container to another or nesting differently sized objects into each other. These bins are not appropriate for younger children, as the objects in these bins can cause a choking hazard to young children who like to put things in their mouth during play.

IMG_0010Seeds: Seeds of all shapes and sizes fill the seeds bin; some seeds, like corn, are recognizable and others, like lotus seeds, are odd and interesting to children. This bin gives children a chance to observe and identify a variety of seeds, as well as fun material to fill up containers and serve as tea. Children like to run their fingers through the pleasant texture of the seeds and pick out seeds of different size and shape. Add some measuring cups, funnels, wide tubes and other containers in odd shapes to help children manipulate the seeds.

Caps: While a bin full of empty bottle caps seems like an odd choice, this repurposed material is perfect for early learners. Caps of all shapes, sizes and colors fill our bin. Children love to stack them into towers, fit them inside each other, and use them for pretend play.

Colored Rice: Rice is another material that feels silky against the skin and makes a pleasing sound when poured from cup to cup. Color your rice with vinegar and food coloring, or use spices and botanical dyes, to create a rainbow of beautiful colors. Rice also makes a great base for small world play, whether you are hiding plastic bugs in green rice, pretending your blue rice is an ocean, or using yellow rice to simulate the desert.

To make colored rice, you will need: 1 cup of rice, 1 tsp of white vinegar, and several drops of food coloring. In a bag or bowl, mix rice, vinegar and food coloring and shake/stir to combine. Place colored rice on a piece of aluminum foil to dry before use.

Dirt: What kid doesn’t love to play in the dirt? Potting soil is a safe, clean way to play with dirt. Add kid-sized shovels and rakes, buckets, and plastic bugs to make this bin into a mini garden patch. Be sure to use sterile dirt, rather than dirt from your yard, as soil from outside may contain insects, fungus or bacteria that could be potentially harmful.

Adding scents: Adding essential oils is a natural and safe way to add a variety of scents to your bins. Additionally, many essential oils are naturally antibacterial and can keep your bins both clean and sweet-smelling. Consider using lavender as a calming scent, mint for stimulation, or citrus for a fresh scent. As a fun alternative, try adding herbs like fresh lavender blossoms or rosemary leaves for added texture and scent.

About choking hazards: For children under the age of 3, choking can be a danger when dealing with small objects. Any object smaller in size than a toilet paper tube can be hazardous if ingested and cause children to choke. For this reason, always supervise your children when they are interacting with sensory bins and choose materials that are appropriate for their age and level of development.

Remember, these are just a few sensory bins suggestions. There are many objects that you have in your home already that would create wonderful sensory experiences for your child. Shaving crème, water and bubbles, mud, and play sand are items that would make some delightfully messy sensory bins as well.

For more sensory bin ideas, check out these great websites:

The Imagination Tree
Teaching Preschool
Happy Hooligans

To learn more about the importance of observation, check out this post!

The above photos were taken by Cory Doman. 

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