Early Learning—Sensory Play Area

Parents will often see the Sensory Play Area as just a play area and not understand the great skills that their children are acquiring in this area.  Not only are they learning math and science concepts, but they are learning critical social-emotional skills. 

From a social point of view, a child will rarely be alone in the Sensory Play Area.  For this reason, there will be a lot of give-and-take, a lot of cooperative learning, a lot of compromising.  What great life skills!  As for the emotional piece, sensory play can be very soothing.  We all have coping mechanisms for when we get stressed; perhaps chewing fingernails, smoking, or taking a nice warm shower.  These are all sensorial experiences that we have learned over time to soothe ourselves  (and, no, I’m not promoting smoking or even fingernail chewing, but recognize that these are commonly used soothing mechanisms for adults).  Some of us even have worry stones or stress balls on our desks.  This is what the Sensory Play Area does for children.  They can plunge their hands into water, let sand sift through their fingers, or squeeze playdough to soothe themselves when they are feeling stressed. 

Any learning area that involves water, sand, and playdough should not be located in a carpeted area of your classroom if possible.  If it must be located on carpet, make sure that you have a lot of plastic mats available to protect your carpet.  At the same time, your flooring must be non-slip so that, when it does get wet, the children (and staff) are not in danger of slipping and falling.  Ideally, your Sensory Play Area will be located near your back door so that it can be used both indoors and outdoors.  Specially-made sand and water tables are great, but not necessary.  If you don’t have the space or money for these, dishpans or plastic bins work well also.  Along with sand and water, you can use a variety of sensorial materials like clean mud (basically toilet paper, soap, and water), real mud, snow, packing peanuts, beads, and, depending upon your philosophical beliefs, rice, beans, or cornmeal.  (Keep in mind that your materials and water containers have to be appropriate for the age of children in your program.)  You also need tools for playing with these materials.  These tools could include:

  • Rakes, shovels, spoons, and scoops
  • Buckets and sand molds
  • Cups and bottles
  • Sand wheels
  • Measuring cups
  • Funnels
  • Sifters
  • Egg beaters
  • Plastic boats
  • And don’t forget the smocks to help keep the children’s clothes clean.

Looking at these materials, we can see what types of things the children will learn in the Sensory Play Area.  We’re talking about a lot of math and science concepts here.  How many cups of sand will fit in this bottle…and how do I get it in there?  What happens when I mix water with the sand?  What will sink and what will float?  As with any learning center, you can change out both the tools and the materials to fit the theme of the week.

Next week, we’ll talk about expanding the learning about scientific concepts into a specific Science Area.

Misty