A Sensible Approach to Sensory Play

By Leah Eslinger Shaw, Shippensburg Area Middle School

Sensory Play Products and Ideas to Engage and Target Each Sense in Early Childhood Education

Education is full of jargon, buzz words, and trends. Things come, things go, and sometimes things just cycle back around with different names. One concept that is not going away any time soon, with good reason, is sensory play. Clearly, there’s far too much to explore in a single blog post, so let’s simply look at ways to incorporate sensory play into your early childhood classroom. We’ll divide and conquer this topic, taking a look at some recommendations for products and free ideas to engage and target each sense.

Sensory Play & Touch

Touch/tactile is probably the most well-developed sensory play area in many classrooms. Be mindful that many young children have sensory avoidance in the tactile area. For students with severe avoidance, try a pair of gloves to ease into a new material.

Product Recommendation:

Play Dirt is perfect for spring! Add some plastic bugs, a trowel, and a shovel, and you have yourself a recipe for a ton of indoor/outdoor fun. This variation on kinetic sand provides a great opportunity for tactile play. It also provides an interesting framework for a conversation about how ‘real’ and ‘play’ dirt are similar and different. Warning: This can be a bit of a mess (as with all kinetic sand), so watch out for carpeted areas.

If you work in an infant classroom, or have your own at home, you MUST try these Sensory Feathers. These remind me of cat toys, but it’s impossible to dismiss the delight that many infants experience from these.

Do It Yourself Options:

There are literally ENDLESS possibilities for tactile play in your classroom. A simple online search will yield thousands of wonderful ideas from teachers, parents, and experts. Tactile play doesn’t have to stop with texture!  To build children’s awareness of temperatures, try adding ice cubes to a water table or warming the water.

Sensory Play & Sight  

This is an interesting, and frequently overlooked, area of sensory play. Perhaps the most obvious visual play item in your classroom is the light table, so let’s shed some new light on this classroom classic.

Product Recommendations:

Simple and straightforward, these colorful acrylic disks are a wonderful option to engage a child’s sense of sight and wonderment. If you don’t already have a light table, here is a cost effective and space friendly Tabletop Light Box that may better suit your needs than a more traditional table.

Do It Yourself Options:

Turn out all the lights in the classroom to really draw children to the light table center. Play with flashlights and small camping lanterns. Try a new color light bulb in your reading corner. You may be surprised how deeply some children (and adults!) are impacted by color.

Sensory Play & Sound

Anybody who has ever spent time with children can attest to the importance of sound. Music, tone of voice, instruments, all play an important role in an early childhood classroom. Most of these things are happening in the periphery of our classrooms, but let’s take a look at some options for exploring sounds in a more targeted way.

Product Recommendations:

Sound Boxes are tons of fun! Use these in a structured circle time activity, or leave them at a learning center for children to explore more independently. It is fascinating to notice what sounds students are drawn to (you’ll know instantly because YOU will hear the same particular sound over and over and over and….). Even students who are not typically interested in singing or instruments may become engrossed by these.

Do It Yourself Options:

Everything makes sound. It’s simply a matter of talking about it, pointing it out, giving students language to talk about what they like and don’t like. Have a bunch of plastic takeout containers? Great! Give them out at circle time and invite students to tap, scratch, knock, and rub the containers. Now switch with your neighbor and try with your new container. Ta-da! Don’t be surprised when you see children tapping, scratching, and knocking on all sorts of things in the classroom.

Sensory Play & Taste

In the era of food allergies and sensitivities, this can be a bit tricky. There are also some issues with mixing play time with food time when working with young children. Let’s leave the ‘play’ part out of this category and focus on exploration during breakfast, snack, or lunch time that already exists during your school day.

Product Recommendation: I’m not going to recommend certain foods or specific products for safely exploring taste. Your sensory investigation in this category will depend on regulations, allergies, and policies specific to your classroom. What you can do, is use a book set like this one to jump start conversations about how spices, textures, and taste are used in various cultures.

Do It Yourself Options:

Begin a conversation during an eating time using the four basic words for taste: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. If you have flexibility in what you serve to children, consider having a taste theme each day for a week, sampling a few different foods in each taste category. If you want to keep your snack time sacred, conduct a voluntary taste test using dark chocolate, lemon juice, milk chocolate, and a pretzel. If students bring their own food, take a poll to see how many students have a salty item in their lunch box on a given day.

Sensory Play & Smell

Much like taste, this can be a tricky category to combine with play. That being said, there are some lovely possibilities for incorporating aromas into your classroom.

A few caveats before beginning your olfactory adventure: 1) Beware of allergies! 2) Use natural items, not scented products.

Product Recommendation: None-You’re better off working with natural materials for this one!

Do It Yourself Options:

Add something aromatic to your water or sand table. Dried lavender, rosemary, sprigs of evergreens, or a squeeze of citrus are some great and easy scents to explore with your class. Homemade play dough with peppermint extract, pumpkin spice, or cocoa can really breathe some new life into a classroom favorite.

A few pointers for sensory play before we go:

  • Offer variety
  • Change it up!
  • Think about all the areas of your classroom, not just sand and water
  • Prepare for sensory avoiders
  • Beware of overstimulation

Whew! Who else is exhausted? This is really just the tiniest tip of the sensory iceberg. Explore for yourself, do some research, and talk to colleagues for more ideas. You’ll be glad you did!

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Since graduating from Juniata College in 2008, Leah has worked as a Learning Support Teacher, Life Skills Support Teacher, Instructional Coach, and is currently teaching 6th Grade ELA and Social Studies at Shippensburg Area Middle School. When not busy teaching or scouring Pinterest for teaching ideas, Leah enjoys reading, baking healthy treats, and practicing yoga. She currently resides in Greencastle, Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter.

The opinions, representations, and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and not of Becker’s School Supplies as a whole. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. The company accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.

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