At Wildrock, Sensory Play is woven into every part of our playscape. Whether kids are splashing in the stream, rolling down a hill, or making mud pies in the Nature Kitchen, they are engaging their senses through nature play. Wildrock's three urban outreach programs -- Pop Up Play, Nature Friends preschool program, and Nature Play Lab Program -- have been designed to bring sensory play out of Wildrock and into the community. In each of these programs, we use sensory bins, which give indoor spaces and urban outdoor play spaces the kind of rich sensory stimulation that naturally occurs in nature play. 


Our urban outreach programs use natural materials to increase children’s access to the beauty and wonder in nature. As is true with all of our exhibits, we hope to inspire our visitors to see how rich nature play experiences can be recreated inexpensively and easily at home. 


When I was a stay-at-home mom to three preschool aged kiddos, I had what I called my “back pocket activities.” When we couldn’t go outside, my most foolproof and trusty back pocket activity was to pull out a sensory bin.


Sensory play is any kind of activity that stimulates the senses. Sensory play isn’t just fun and games, though. Play, after all, is the work of childhood. Children learn best through physical, sensory experience. When kids can see, smell, touch, and hear something, the learning is more meaningful, making sensory play an extremely effective early childhood education practice.  


What made sensory play a back pocket activity for me as a mom, though, was the calm it brought into our home. Sifting rice through your fingers or raking patterns into a tray of sand are exceptionally calming and meditative practices. Even my “wild child” second-born, who existed in a near constant state of motion, would settle down his physical body when provided with a bin of visually enticing sensory materials. While calming down and experiencing the tactile stimulation, he was also developing fine motor skills, grip strength, grasp control, and sustained attention.


I first became aware of the power of sensory play when my oldest child was a toddler. He was, and is, a highly sensitive child. He did not like the physical sensation of getting “messy” and tactile discrepancies bothered him greatly. He was the toddler who ate “finger foods” with a fork, the preschooler who needed his socks readjusted a dozen times before they felt right in his sneakers. 

I introduced him to sensory play as a way for him to experience different tactile sensations in a safe and non-threatening way in order to build his comfort level and, hopefully, teach him to respond with patience, instead of anxiety, to the seams in his socks or the tags in his shirt.

When my second child was born and sensory play was already a part of our weekly, if not daily, routine, I noticed how, even from the very beginning, he used sensory materials completely differently than his brother. My older son would mostly scoop and pour the rice or sand using containers and tools, and only sometimes submerge his entire hand in the material. My younger child was a full-body sensory kid. He would stand in the bin, giggling at the funny feeling of rice between his toes.


When kiddo number three came along, she took the middle course; sometimes opting for an immersive sensory experience, sometimes for a more methodical approach.


I watched as each of my kids participated in sensory play differently, each taking what they needed from the experience...whether it was careful, measured, scientific exploration or silly, giggly, tickly sensory stimulation.  This open-ended nature of sensory play is what makes it such a rich and inviting component of early childhood education.

Sensory play is a great equalizer in a classroom setting because there is no expectation or desired result. All children can be successful in sensory play regardless of their language or cognitive abilities. Sensory play is non-verbal by nature in that it requires little dialogue between child and play facilitator. Kids, you will notice, tend to know just what to do when presented with a sensory bin. Although it requires little communication, sensory play invites rich language development. Have you listened to your students as they engage in sensory play? They are using descriptive language but also story-telling language. They are narrating their actions and describing imaginative scenarios. They are conversing and sharing and acting out scripts with their peers.

Because sensory play can invite such rich communication between the child and the adult play facilitator, sensory bins (sand trays in particular) are widely used in therapeutic settings to help children work through past traumas. Many children are unable to verbalize their feelings and emotions but are able to express his or her feelings or experiences through play, allowing a therapist access to past traumas in a child’s life.

Sensory play can contribute to other aspects of emotional well-being, as well. Studies have shown that when patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia engage in sensory play and stimulation, agitation and restlessness decrease and the quality and duration of sleep improves.

Most early childhood classrooms have dedicated sensory play areas. If yours does not, consider introducing sensory play with a simple, manageable sensory bin. The one I used at home, and the ones we bring to our Wildrock Nature Friends preschool programs, are Rubbermaid under-the-bed storage containers. They are generous in size, comfortably allowing two to three kids at a time space to play, but are small enough to be lifted on to a table or other elevated surface to allow children to stand while they play. These bins come with a lid, which will help with “material control” when the bin is not in use.


Sensory Material Inspiration!

*Rice (Here’s a tutorial for making Rainbow Rice)
*Dried pasta
*Dried beans
Kinetic or “Magic” Sand
Water beads
Pom poms
Shredded paper
Easter basket grass

*Something to consider: Certain cultures, and certain families, find it inappropriate to play with food material. Before using dried beans, pasta, or rice for play, consider your families and their values. A letter requesting feedback on using food materials for play might be a good idea!

BEST OF ALL -- Natural materials!

Acorns, seeds, seed pods, pinecones