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How to Plan Hassle Free Sensory Play for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers (And Why You’d Want To)

by | Sep 12, 2017 | Early Childhood Learning, Motherhood | 0 comments

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Do you love the feeling of warm sand between your toes, or the crunch of an autumn leaf on the sidewalk? I know I do! Those are sensory play experiences and children love them too, probably even more so than us. Most preschools probably have a sandbox or water table to provide a sensory play opportunity for the children. You can provide these experiences at home for your children too, no matter their age.

Why is sensory play so great?

Sensory play is great because it’s an opportunity for development. Fine motor skills can be practiced through rubbing fingers together between sand. Language can be developed by discussing the temperature and texture, words like hot, cold, dry, wet, etc can be learnt in this setting. Social skills can be strengthened through taking turns and passing tools to one another. Arguably, every area of development can be practiced in some form of sensory play.

Not only that but when children participate in sensory play it builds connective pathways in their brains which will be the building blocks for more complicated tasks. It can also be a very calming and peaceful activity for children who are anxious or just need a relaxing experience. Think of a hot bath after a stressful day, or kneading bread. These activities can be very soothing for us; just as sensory activities can be soothing for children as well.

So what sort of materials should I use for sensory play?

There are endless possibilities but here are some ideas you can consider:

  • Water
  • Sand
  • Snow
  • Flour
  • Gravel
  • Bubbles
  • Paint
  • Clay

Always make sure whatever you are using is appropriate for the age of your child. I wouldn’t give my 9-month-old (at the time of first writing this) a basin of gravel to play with because – hello choking hazard! But a 9-year-old? Definitely! However, at times I have enjoyed allowing my daughter to sit on the edge of a lake and play with the pebbles and splash in the water, but because she likes to put the rocks in her mouth I have to stay very close and alert to her while she does so. Supervision is very important, especially with your younger children.

So once you have your base chosen you also need the right container for it. There are water and sand tables available for this certain purpose, similar to what you might find in a preschool classroom. You could also use a small basin, cookie sheet, bath tub, high chair tray or whatever will appropriately contain it and work best for your child. If they can easily put their hands in it and explore the feeling while also being safe then it should be fine. Remember when working with water to be very careful and keep a close eye on your child.

This sounds messy, how can I keep it clean?

This is the tricky part but it shouldn’t stop us from setting up sensory play for our children. The easiest solution is strip down and go outside but that’s not always an option, especially if you live in a colder climate.

So first choose the room you are going to set up in, the kitchen or bathroom would be two good places to consider first as they would probably be easier to clean up afterwards, anywhere with carpet is probably out of the question. So I would choose a place that would be easy to mop or sweep after and move anything like a rug that might not need to be in there that I don’t want to have to clean afterwards. You could also put towels or plastic wrap down, depending on your sensory substance of course.

Choosing the right place is important so that while your child is playing you’re not stressing about the mess they are making. You should of course have age appropriate expectations for them (your 9 year old shouldn’t be throwing hand fulls of sand on the floor but your 9 month old might). Don’t get frustrated or worried about the mess, go into it knowing it will be messy. With that you also might want to dress your child accordingly. You can give them a bib or smock to wear, or designated clothes that can get dirty. Roll up their sleeves and remove anything that might hang down and get dirty. Since you are doing this at home you might want to just plan this for right before bath time, but it depends on how messy it will be.

If this just sounds way too messy for you then you might want to look for a playgroup or other children’s program that already has sensory play available. A lot of cities have free groups for children to go to and then you won’t have to worry about your house getting messy. 😉

Once the activity is over and it is time for cleanup it’s good to consider how your child can help based on their age. They may be able to sweep up the sand, or wipe up the water. You can actually buy child sized brooms and other child friendly cleaning supplies to help encourage independence and self-care. They might need some help and some hand over hand, and you might have to sweep up again after them, but it is a great real life opportunity for them to learn those skills.

The thing is, as moms we might get hung up on things being done a certain way, or the “right way.” I try not to obsess over this too much but it can be difficult. In the moment, if you let your child do it on their own they might not get every little bit of the mess, or it may take them much longer than if you just did it yourself, but you are allowing them to opportunity to practice a real life skill, which they really need. Learning independence and self-care will come up quite often in your day to day activities and you should look for opportunities to nurture those critical life skills.

We already do sensory play, but how can I make it more interesting?

Playing day after day at the water table for instance can get boring, but there are things you can do for it (and other sensory activities) to make it more interesting. Here are some ideas:

  • Add new items, such as shells and dump trucks to sand, or cups, boats and socks to water
  • Add colour or glitter to the water
  • Put a mirror at the bottom of the water
  • Put your sensory material into a deep, narrow container that your child would have to reach their entire arm through
  • Try mixing different substances (water and sand, flour and water, etc.) Add a little bit at a time so your child can notice how the substances change.
  • Try feeling with more than just hands – for instance bare feet in the sand box
  • Include items that are in line with their current interest. So if they are interested in big trucks right now maybe put some trucks in the sand box, or dinosaurs, or cooking dishes, whatever it may be
  • Make sensory boxes where they have to feel inside (without seeing what is inside) and guess what it is

These are just some ways you can mix it up to make it more interesting. Keep in mind sensory play can also be experienced through regular activities like taking a bath or baking bread together. If you live near a beach or lakefront, then a lot can be experienced and learnt through playing there. If you start to think about sensory experiences, you will realize that they are all around you. Embrace those opportunities for your child and have fun.

If you want to start to learn how to track your child’s development and interests then you’re definitely going to want to download my free worksheet for observation and documentation! Download it below and don’t forget to read the post all about the BEST curriculum for our children!

Let’s get started!

Sensory play is so great, I love it for children and to be honest I love it for myself too. It is a fun experience with a lot of benefits so why not get started today!? Tell me what sort of sensory play do you enjoy or find relaxing? Do you think of child might like a variation of that?

If planning sensory play for your child sounds exciting you’re probably intentional about your child’s learning. I have a free course I think you’d be interested in, check it out here!

Have a happy day mamas!





How to Plan Hassle Free Sensory Play for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers (And Why You'd Want To)


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The Moving Mama

The Moving Mama

Lizzy Mash is an experienced early childhood educator now living in Africa as a missionary working with children and families.

She teaches Christian moms how to take a more respectful and Christ-like approach to motherhood by using Gentle Parenting strategies.

Read more about Lizzy here >>