Sensory play has created such a buzz in the past few years that one has to ask, what’s all the fuss about? And more importantly, is it founded in any research? It’s important to know what the goals and positive outcomes of sensory play are to make sure that we as teachers employ the activities in the best possible ways. Sensory play can be described as any activities that involve one (but usually more) of the five senses. Although sensory play and activities can be used for learners of any age, sensory play is most typically used for children in preschool and kindergarten.
The concept of sensory play as a tool for learning has been around for quite a while. Some of the earliest well-known promoters of using the senses in education were Edouard Séguin (1812-1880) and Maria Montessori (1870-1952). Séguin’s work had a great influence on Montessori and she expanded on many of his ideas while developing her own philosophy. Séguin worked with children with disabilities and discovered that by using more of the senses when teaching, students were able to learn more. Montessori tried using some of Séguin’s materials and strategies with children without disabilities and found that it was also very effective for teaching. Furthermore, Montessori suggests that schooling should involve “the perfecting of the senses”(179, Montessori) and that this should begin as soon as possible. Montessori developed a wide array of activities that focus on developing each of the senses, showing the importance of sensory education.
More recently, child development professionals have also supported sensory play. Benefits cited include development of concept of size, understanding cause and effect, classification skills, language development, social and emotional skills, development of fine and gross motor skills, creative thinking and problem solving skills (Dorrell). By directing sensory play and providing the right materials, teachers can create memorable sensory experiences that have lasting educational benefits.
There is an infinity of fun options for educational sensory play. Keeping the skills and benefits in mind, here are a few to try:
Use a Sensory Table
Sensory play at its best with an array of choices: sand, water, pasta, rice, dirt, etc. in combination with tools. Some excellent tools are measuring spoons and cups, waterwheels, funnels, sifters, seashells, etc. The tools mentioned promote learning about sizes, cause and effect, motor skills and problem solving skills. Children can also work on classification if you include seashells or buttons in pairs and ask students to find the matching pairs. This type of sensory play is also particularly adequate for developing social skills and learning how to work with others.
Practice the Stereognostic Sense
This sense involves feeling without seeing and can be done with a blindfold. Small children enjoy this sort of activity immensely. You can increase language skills and use of adjectives by having them describe and then guess what object is placed in their hand while blindfolded. They can work on classification and understanding of size by feeling a block in one hand and finding the same-shaped one with the other hand in a bag full of blocks, etc. Fine motor skills are improved by building a tower with blocks while blindfolded. There are many possibilities in this area
Make Scent Bottles
Get 6 pairs of spice bottles and fill them with different scents. Ask the children to match the bottles of the scents that are the same. Some great ones to start practicing with are mint, cinnamon, banana, and other strong-smelling, easy to identify scents. Use continental themes for this one if you want – such as “the smells of Asia” and you’ll add some great memories to your cultural unit.
Sensory play offers a world of possibilities for teaching and learning. Research shows that it is an effective and recommendable teaching strategy, especially for young learners. So, teachers: get ready to be creative (and messy!) and enjoy sensory play in your classroom!
Have you had success with sensory play? Tell us about it and the benefits for your students in the comments section below.
Dorrell, Angie. “Sensory Experiences Can be Messy Fun”. Early Childhood News.
Montessori, Maria and Gerald Gutek. The Montessori Method: The origins of an educational innovation: Including an Abridged and Annotated Edition of Maria Montessori’s The Montessori Method. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2004.