By Jodi Healy
Water play or water tables evoke thoughts of summer fun, but sensory tables can be used all year-round — outside or inside.
Sensory tables enable exploration, discovery, and experimentation with all types of materials, such as earth and water. Children investigate, explore, and create. By pouring and feeling it, they learn how water moves, and experience concepts, such as gravity, hands-on. Children learn through touch how to manipulate objects and their environments. They experience sensory exploration, develop math and science concepts, fine motor skills, and more. A sensory table may seem like a simple resource, but when used properly, it is one of the best investments and tools an early educator or a parent can make.
I purchased two sensory tables from environments.com, a shorter one (18 inches high) for when they were really small, and a larger one (24 inches high with an 8-inch-deep tub) when my oldest turned 4. When you purchase a sensory table, size matters, because toddlers will not be able to reach into a tall table. A child should be able to stand up naturally and reach in easily to touch the bottom. My oldest is almost 5 feet tall and can still use the large table for play. However, if there is not enough space for a sensory table, or you have budget restraints, buy a large, flat, plastic storage bin or any large plastic container (no taller than 8 inches for the safety of young children). Buckets also work for smaller areas.
A sensory table doesn’t require elaborate planning or fancy projects to keep children interested. I have seen wonderful ideas and books on related activities, but with three children I rarely had the time to set up and do them. Instead, I used simple things as a base, like water or sand, and added other items that would spark their imagination.
Regardless of the material — sand, water, snow, uncooked pasta, etc. — all you need to do to keep it interesting, new, and fun is weave in various materials: measuring cups, bottles, bowls, and any other type of plastics from the kitchen. Children love anything that can measure, fill, dump, splash, sift, poke, pour, squirt, squeeze, or simply hold a substance. For water, anything that can shoot water (water gun, turkey baster, oral medicine syringes from the pharmacy, etc.) is a hit.
Sometimes I hid things in the sand or snow, like coins or smooth glass pieces I had from an unused mosaic kit. The girls pretended they were pirates finding treasure. They loved using strainers or just digging in the sand with their fingers. They would then take turns hiding the “jewels” and finding them. These jewels also were sorted and organized, and placed in a hierarchy of most valuable to least valuable (all with no adult intervention). I rotated in marbles or dinosaur bones from another unused kit. Now they were archaeologists; I was shocked when my oldest used that word at age 6. Adults do not need to teach or orchestrate play, just facilitate it with the right tools.
I stole the idea of a sandbox filled with dried corn from a fair I attended, and used it in my water tables for pouring, touching, or as a road for toy trucks. My kids loved it. Be sure to use it outside first because the corn gets dusty. You can buy corn, or even bird seed, at any local farm or animal supply store.
I also incorporated other props while using a sensory table, such as a small baby pool, different-sized buckets, or bins. I usually had one or two plastic kitchens (which I found on the side of the road) that I kept outside. When the table was full of sand, a few buckets, and a hose, the kitchen would change from pretend play to experimental play, “cooking” with dirt, rocks, and sticks. Expect a mess: Mud pies, nature soups, dirt sandwiches — all mixed with grass, rocks, and twigs — will create one, but little scientific minds will be growing and creativity flourishing. The jobs get messy, and children should be encouraged to do so.
During indoor play and colder days, I would set up the sensory table in the kitchen or mud room. I tried to use the sensory table two or three times a week, especially when the children were in preschool part-time. The table was filled with water, sand, Play-Doh, Floam, Magic Sand, snow, leaves, pasta, rocks, bubbles, flour, corn, rice, or anything that is safe to touch and explore with little fingers. And eat: Children love to drink the water, eat the snow or pasta (even raw). Make sure items are clean and edible (if eaten), and if not, that a child is old enough not to put them in his or her mouth.
Water was the most frequent and easiest to set up; it is also an easy resource to change with food coloring or by adding bubbles. Food coloring is great in snow. Maple syrup is super fun and tasty in the winter, and can be scooped up with little spoons or popsicle sticks. Heating it up makes the snow melt a little and is a great, sticky treat. Get creative, throw things in, and watch the children explore.
When the weather is warm, I left the table outside in the driveway for weeks. I alternated between water and beach sand that I brought home in a bucket from the ocean. Beach sand is very fine and great for straining and pouring.
Water play is always easy and effective. Set it up full of measuring cups, a few plastic storage containers, and plastic oral medicine syringes from the pharmacy. A hose will host hours of fun: water games, car washes, pouring jobs, splashing, water fights, “bathing,” and more. Combined with a hose, sprinkler, or an outdoor plastic kitchen, a sensory table and a few buckets transform a driveway into a water park.
Often my children put the water table on the ground, filled it, sat in it, dumped it to make a stream to lay in, pretended it was a pool or boat, and more. Most of these scenarios my children created, I simply provided the tools. We also mixed up activities with bubbles, food coloring, sponges, Q-tip, old rags, sprayers, and even paint brushes.
Painting with water is super fun. Cutting up a sponge or rags into small pieces adds an element of play, whether playing car wash with toy cars, their bicycles, or helping wash the family car. Children also love things their size, like little bars of soap.
Published Author Jodi D. Healy is a mother of three with more than 20 years’ experience in the field, with a B.A in psychology and M.Ed. Her recent books, Create a Home of Learning, the Jesse True series, and The Dirt Girl, are available at createahomeoflearning.com.
Material Ideas for Sensory Play
* Sand (play sand, beach sand, Moon Sand)
* Different types of seeds (bird seeds)
* Flour and water
* Shaving cream
* Oobleck (cornstarch and water)
* Weeds and grass with roots
* Shredded paper, confetti
* Foam packaging
* Shells, pebbles, stones
* Collection of things that shine: mirrors, CDs, flashlights
* Broken toys or items to take apart
* Potting soil (without chemicals)
* Magnets and metals (cans, tools)
* Measuring cups
* Measuring spoons and utensils
* Different types of bottles (plastics and recyclables work well)
* Sifters and colanders
* Tweezers and egg cartons for sorting
* Balls, marbles
* Small plastic toys for hiding
* Colanders, sieves, pitches, colanders
* PVC piping
* Digging shovels, buckets, cups
* Food coloring
* Pipe cleaners, Q-tips, popsicle sticks
* Paint brushes
* Bugs or sea creatures, collections
* Toy cars
* Beach toys
Sensory Play Provides Year-Round Fun and Creative Learning
By Jodi Healy