Sensory play is one of the most motivating activities for myself. If we’re at an early learning gathering and there is playdough, sand, slime, or anything else to sink my hands into, you can bet that’s where I’ll be. For this reason alone, I find tactile experiences to be incredibly beneficial in setting up a play-space where children are more motivated to delve into experiences because they see adults engaging and enjoying themselves. Trust me, it really does make a significant difference to how children play and interact if the adults roll up their sleeves and get messy in the business of play.
Therefore, if I have an opportunity to offer children an activity that makes me want to play, I know it’s more likely to be motivating for the children, too. Not only that, but there is also much to be gained from sensory experiences such as these tactile (or touch-based) activities. “Sensory play is crucial to brain development – it helps to build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways. This leads to a child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks and supports cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interaction and problem solving skills.” [Goodstart Early Learning Ltd, 2016; https://www.goodstart.org.au/news-and-advice/october-2016/exploring-the-benefits-of-sensory-play ]
So what types of materials make for motivating early learning experiences? If you’re home with your children for the summer, these sensory play materials and activities just might become your new best friends.
5 Sensory Play Experiences for Early Learning
Clearly, I could not write a post about engaging sensory play materials without mentioning playdough. This material is just so readily available, either for purchase or by making your own. I generally opt to make my own for personal and preschool use, as it is less expensive, I know exactly what it’s made out of and that it contains no toxins, and if made with children it offers another learning experience all in it’s own to follow the recipe and put it together. Here is the super simple and amazingly effective playdough recipe I use, which is safe enough to be eaten (though that should still be discouraged).
You can find some easy and engaging ways to use playdough here, and there are endless ideas to come up with on your own. In order to get the most out of this tactile experience (as with all materials), first offer the playdough in it’s most simple state. After the children have had an opportunity to explore it’s properties and how they can interact with it, tools and other materials can be added to extend the activity.
These are SO COOL! When I attended the ECEBC Conference in 2016, I picked up some of these teeny tiny sprinkle-looking things in a wee ziplock bag from one of the vendors. When I got them home, we put them in a dish with water, watched them hydrate throughout the day, and have since spent many happy hours exploring them.
Water beads are made from a water-absorbing polymer that turns the colourful specks into delightfully jiggly little gel-like beads of transparent colour. The beads keep their shape (unless stepped on or squished too hard with a tool), and make for the most interesting tactile experience of scooping and pouring, or simply running your hands through the container of hydrated beads. A ladle, a funnel, and a clear jar were all we needed to keep on enjoying this material for extended amounts of time. It’s an exceptionally beautiful activity when done outside in the sunlight, or in a clear container on the light table.
These beads are fairly inexpensive, and can be dried and re-hydrated a number of times, so well worth the purchase in my opinion. You can find a range of choices for buying water beads on Amazon here (affiliate link), either in packages of single colours or multi-colour mixes.
Slime is another material we make that I just cannot stop touching when it’s out. Unfortunately, the way slime had been made by the general population for a long time has been with borox, which Health Canada has stepped in to tell us to stop using it for kids crafts, homemade pesticides, and everything else, as there is already so much exposure to this toxin through everyday products (you’d be amazed by all the things that borax, or boric acid, is an ingredient of). Being mindful of the ingredients in most everything we contact, myself, I haven’t used borax for slime, and instead use this borax-free 2-ingredient slime recipe.
For this sensory experience, you need not buy a thing. Pour some water from a tap into a large container and presto! You have an activity that will let your littles explore water – it’s properties, flow, gravity, buoyancy, etc – with very little set up and likely a lengthy time of engagement. If you’re playing inside, you’ll want to lay out a big towel under your water table or bin. Add some kitchen tools, like ladles, strainers, funnels, containers, spray bottles, tubes, or whatever else you have, and let them explore. You can add food dye for some colour, glitter for some glitz (use caution with the glitter, as it’s a petroleum product that can cause harm to eco-systems as the fish think it’s food), a bit of gentle dish soap for suds… so many options.
When you take your water play outside, not only is it a less stressful activity for those of you who are a bit afraid of mess, but there are a lot more options for exploring, too. By adding some paint brushes or rollers, children can “paint” fences, walls, playground structures, and more with the water. As the water dries in the sunshine, we can watch and open up discussions about concepts such as evaporation and wet vs. dry.
Sand is another easily-attracting material for tactile sensory play. While regular sand is a beneficial and interesting material as it is, finding and playing with kinetic sand was a bit mind-blowing for me. My husband aptly describes this material as a mix of spiderwebs and sand. When I first brought this sand home, we actually had to bring it back out after our little one’s bed time so that we could get a better chance to play with it ourselves.
The way that the sand sticks together makes it more mold-able, and as an added bonus, less mess-making than if I were to put a tray of regular sand out on one of our preschool tables. It doesn’t dry out, so it can last for a very long time. My favourite tools to add to this material after the initial hands-only exploration are small animals, playdough stampers, and other things that make interesting prints. Sand castle molds and sea shells also make for another motivating set-up.
You can order kinetic sand here on Amazon (another affiliate link). It comes in different brand names (mine is called Sands Alive, I believe), different colours, and with various tools depending on what you opt to buy.
When it comes to buying gifts and new things for my preschooler(s), I am a firm believer in experiences over toys. The next time you’re looking for something new to give the little ones in your life, consider what might happen if, instead of a toy that offers a single identity or purpose, you choose a new sensory play material or pick up a few simple items to add to a water table. What opportunities for learning enjoyment might come?
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