Sensory Play Provides Year-Round Fun and Creative Learning

Sensory Play Provides Year-Round Fun and Creative Learning

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, 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.

Material Ideas for Sensory Play

Base Material
* Water
* Snow
* Play-Doh
* Sand (play sand, beach sand, Moon Sand)
* Ice
* Different types of seeds (bird seeds)
* Corn
* Flour and water
* Shaving cream
* Oobleck (cornstarch and water)
* Weeds and grass with roots
* Shredded paper, confetti
* Slime
* 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)

Rotate In
* Measuring cups
* Measuring spoons and utensils
* Different types of bottles (plastics and recyclables work well)
* Sifters and colanders
* Tweezers and egg cartons for sorting
* Straws
* 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

For the article published in Bay State Parent:




Imagine giving a bicycle to an adult who has never seen or ridden one, and not showing them how or what to do. The adult may be able to figure it out, but it is unlikely. The person would try, fall, and probably never ride again.

A child, new to the world, is the same. If you give a child a cup, they will hold it for a minute, then drop it. Without instruction, the cup holds no purpose for the child, and he or she does not know the possibilities. However, if you create the proper setting and facilitate learning, giving this same child a cup and a spoon full of water, the minute will turn into five. If you give the child a spoon and a cup with a bucket of water outside, or with pasta or bubbles, the five minutes will turn into thirty, and so on. Rather than simple observation, the activity will turn into exploration and a rich sensory integration experience.

Open your mind to the possibilities and opportunity you have to create a home of learning. This is not a daunting task or more work. I actually had more free time because I took the time to facilitate such an environment, which kept my children occupied. I was not their sole source of entertainment. I kept my children busy, learning through play, while I was able to do the dishes, make phone calls, check email, or do other things. I also had the peace of mind knowing I was giving them the right opportunities of discovery and exploration, not sticking them in front of a TV so I could have a break (even though I did do that at times). And teaching happens naturally in this type of rich learning environment because it also keeps you engaged in your child’s development and progress. They will ask for help, guidance, and engage you with questions.

By being conscious of the constant opportunity you have to create and facilitate learning while a child plays, you can also become your child’s greatest teacher. The concepts of structuring a child’s environment and learning how to facilitate it around the home and beyond will become a new way of life.

A facilitator’s role is to create a positive and enriched environment with resources and circumstances for enhanced learning and development. Many parents believe they are doing facilitation right, providing play dates, sending the child to preschool, signing them up for soccer, or even buying them the toys they want. And these are ways to facilitate a child’s life. However, without facilitating learning, much of our opportunity to serve as the greatest resource for our growing and ever-changing child is lost.

The importance of play

Young children learn when they play — and work very hard when they do. They use all their resources and energy to participate in and make sense of the world around them. Children learn when challenged by settings and tools that foster their growing skills and abilities. A child’s brain triples in size the first three years of life and absorbs more information than any other time. The first five to eight years are the most important in preparing a child for what is ahead: establishing confidence, independence, and a joy for learning. The home environment can set the stage for all future life experiences, interpretations, development, competency, and understanding.

We have the opportunity right in our homes to facilitate learning by using the toys, practices, and techniques that naturally target the learning domains of a developing child. We can bring the resources any accredited program offers and implement them right in our homes. Materials and concepts used in nationally accredited early learning programs have been developed and used by early childhood practitioners and educators for decades, combining experience, knowledge, and practical application.

Parents can offer the same rich experiences and create the same environment at home. This approach can begin as soon as a child can crawl and can be used through formal schooling (to age 8 and beyond), providing years of discovery and fun. The objective is not to create a preschool in the home, supplement a preschool experience, or create an academic world. Creating a home of learning is not building a prescribed, teaching-based environment, but rather providing the child with the right toys and resources to experiment, discover, evolve, and grow through play.

Inside Learning Areas

In national accredited early learning programs, learning domains — essential areas of learning in proper development — are targeted and promoted by using specific toys and equipment through intentionally designed work and play centers. Centers are dedicated areas for art, blocks, discovering science, dramatic play, literacy, math and manipulatives, music and movement, sand and water play, technology, or more. In these areas, toys are rotated, and activities are changed regularly, often following a curriculum or theme. Centers are also designed to accommodate multi-aged children’s interest and abilities.

The concept of centers can be implemented easily in a smaller home setting, by setting up spaces called Learning Areas. There are 12 dedicated Learning Areas (see diagram, next page.) Each is designed to target learning domains and facilitate proper development through different types of play. All areas should be established, but you can start with a few toys or items in each and add as you go. Toys and equipment will evolve with age and competence. Children between ages 3 and 6 will require more complex and rich play, where infants up to age 2 will be more interested in shapes, colors, textures and sizes, and exploring toys rather than engaging in play with them.

If you do not have a large enough space for all the Learning Areas, some can be established in different parts of the home. When my children were very small, the easel served as the Art Area and the Writing Area, but as fine motor skills and writing became more developmentally appropriate, I established a dedicated Writing Area. I have a small, sturdy, round table and four chairs in my kitchen with a clear plastic three-drawer container that holds different types of paper, crayons, markers, scissors, paints, glue, colored pencils, and more.

The 12 basic Learning Areas and sample equipment:

1. Center Activity Table (for manipulatives and free play collections)

2. House Area (babies, changing station, kitchen, dress up clothes)

3. Climbing & Movement Area (climbing structure, rocking horse, sit and spins)

4. Play House Structures Area  (various houses to play in)

5. Art Area (easel or small table and chairs)

6. Reading Area (bookcase, books, reading area, cushions, soft elements- blanket)

7. Listening Area (recorder, CDs)

8. Writing Area (small table and chairs)

9. Construction Area (blocks, cars,car tracks, parking garage, dinosaurs)

10. Doll House Area* (full-size doll house or Barbie house)

11. Sensory Table (i.e., water table)

12. Outdoor Area (chalk, balls, jump ropes, other)

To small children, the world feels very big. This is why we create Learning Areas and a set up a playroom sized just for them. Everything in the playroom should be in reach of and be able to be used by the child. A child’s play space should be their own little world. Items, such as tables and chairs, should be child-sized,

All children are alike and all children are different. Some will naturally be drawn to and play in certain workspaces and with types of toys or equipment more than others. Some children may spend most of the day playing with blocks or cars, while others may be in the reading space looking at books. This is normal and healthy. Learning is influenced by many factors: genetic heritage, age and size, sex or gender, culture (home and community), interests, ability and disability, and medical conditions.

Offering children choices of Learning Areas, toys, and activities will give you insight into their interests and abilities, and you will find yourself changing your setup to accommodate their interests. However, if a child needs work in one area, it is important to facilitate them to that activity or area. Some children may need to practice coordination, such as using their large muscles for climbing or pumping a swing.

Areas of learning will cultivate a whole and competent child with the foundation necessary for success. Understanding how children play, the right toys to provide, and techniques to follow will transform the life of your children and open the world of learning and discovery right in your home. For more information, visit Facebook or

Published in Baystate Parent Magazine this month! “How to Create a Home of Learning
Click HERE to view article in Baystate Parent Magazine!




Different options = exploration!


A room with different options provides children the opportunity to explore and find their interests! However, even if a child is drawn to a preference like dolls, it doesn’t mean they will always play with those toys. Nor should you get rid of toys they don’t play with frequently. Just put them away. When toys are reintroduced, weeks or even months later, every time they are taken out they feel like new! This is called “rotating the toys”. My son didn’t play with the construction toys for weeks but this week he used them often.
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Sensory tables are one of the best investments!


Sensory tables are one of the best investments you will ever make (when used properly)! I had two, one for when they were really small $99 and another when my oldest turned 4, $138. Many refer to these as water tables, but they are truly sensory tables and with the right ideas you will have hours and hours of FUN and learning (from sand, to snow, to pasta, to water, to other!) Red water table =

My water table was one of the best $100 investments!


Water play is such a wonderful sensory and stimulating activity for any age! Children love the water, any kind; rain, baths, sprinklers, lakes, oceans, snow, puddles. It is part of our world and part of us. My water table was one of the best $100 investments I ever made. I started with the small blue one in the link below, then transitioned to the larger when my oldest turned 4. At 9, 7, and 6 they still find different ways to play with it. We use measuring cups, bottles, bowls, and any other type of plastics we can find. Plastic can go a long way! They love anything that can pour or shoot water (like the medicine dispensers from CVS). Often they put the water table on the ground, fill it, sit in it, dump to make a stream to lay in, pretend it’s a pool or boat, and more. We also mix up the activities with bubbles, food coloring, utensils, buckets, and water guns. Water tables are worth every penny!! Just set it up in the driveway full of plastics. A hose and clean recyclables host hours of fun.

The two water tables I purchased: