Sensory Play Goes Beyond the Basics

By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE. I have written about early childhood education basics such as blocks, art and dramatic play before. By basics I mean that these are experiences that are essential and should be commonplace in every early learning environment both indoors and outdoors. By no means though, are these experiences simple. Rather, they are steeped in complexity, history and theory. Recently on a long drive home from where I live, after facilitating two block workshops in New Liskeard and Kirkland Lake, Ontario I was thinking about the beautiful scenery and wondering about another experience that could fall into the category of basic and beyond. I thought about the snow on the ground and the glistening ice in the branches of the birch trees and imagined being on the land as a child. I imagined how it would feel, smell and look. I thought about the sentiments of a giant of early learning on whose shoulders we stand. John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) felt that all learning should be put before the senses. Comenius believed that learning is best achieved through the senses and sensory education should form the basis of all learning (Shukla, 2008). I realized then that sensory play is a basic that should be taken to a level of beyond.

Basically, sensory play is play that engages any of a child’s senses. This includes touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste. It also covers movement, proprioception, balance, and spatial awareness. When we think about sensory play, we often focus on touch, but let’s go beyond the basics! The following table was developed from Exploring the Benefits of Sensory Play for Children.

Many materials can be provided that support sensory play and children’s opportunities to act on their environment to explore what Jean Piaget described as physical knowledge. My belief that sensory play is limited in early learning environments is reinforced by a study by Goodwin (2008) that looked at teacher’s perceptions about sensory play. The findings were that although teachers felt sensory play experiences were very important to include in their programs, they did not provide them on a frequent basis citing health, safety, and hygiene issues. I would suggest that many may be reluctant because they want to avoid messy play! Yet, messy play is essential to early childhood!I also, want to know why we are replacing sand and water which are iconic sensory materials with the novel and unique? I want to know why there is a need to switch up materials placed in sand and water tables to create Pinterest pretty or Instagram ready photos?

I think about my grandson and how much he loves playing with water on the tuff tray I got from Scholar’s Choice. He pours and stirs. He offers a cup of “tea” to others. The set-up is simple. The experience is complex. I know there is a great debate in our profession about the use of food in play. I want to believe in the capacity of educators to reconsider the use of food as sensory materials on moral and ethical grounds. I believe we need to think more deeply about sensory play and avoid the lure of the pretty images but celebrate the messes instead! I also think we can go beyond the cooked spaghetti even if it is messy!

Sensory play is messy and not picture perfect. Sensory play is everywhere. Moving fingers along a glossy piece of paper to spread the primary colours to create new colours is sensory. Blending pastels on sand paper is sensory. Immersing hands into baskets of buttons is a sensory experience. Smelling the scent of fresh flowers, rubbing hands on bark and tasting the rain as it drops upon the tongue is sensorial. Sensory invitations to play can be carefully designed in order to provoke a response from children but it is the process of acting on the materials that is important and should not be overlooked. In an effort to be original and different we should not be focusing on changing what’s in the water table and switching out the sand so often. We should look for opportunities for sensory play and sensory materials outdoors, on the land. This summer, I look forward to exploring the bottom of Lake St. George during the week-long Rhythm of Learning in Nature, an ECE retreat that you can register for by visiting

Is there clay on the bottom? Can we harvest it? And what about clay? Talk about an amazing sensory experience! Who uses clay in their indoor and outdoor learning environments? If you aren’t what is stopping, you? With clay, children can explore all their senses! Clay can feel slimy and wet or it can be hard and dry. Different clays have different smells and colours. Children hear unique sounds when they squeeze wet clay though their fingers and when they pound the clay onto the table. Clay doesn’t taste so great, which toddlers will find in their exploration of this iconic early childhood medium.

Children need time to develop relationships in their play. When clay is provided for children on an ongoing basis they will progress through the stages of clay. Fairy Dust Teaching reminds us not to forget the “explore stage” and that clay which comes from the earth activates all the senses. So next time you plan for sensory play broaden your perspectives and think deeply! Think back to your own experiences as a child. What were your favourite sensory play experiences? How can you recreate these with the children you work with? Please add your thoughts and ideas to the comment section.

3 thoughts on “Sensory Play Goes Beyond the Basics

  1. As always Diane you provide such thought provoking, reflective opportunities. One piece I really appreciate you Mentioning is proprioception as sensory. This is a way of sensory exploration that is often overlooked however greatly needed. Educators really struggle with understanding the need for children to participate in ‘big body play’, and it is often children who are labeled as having ‘behaviour problems’ that need it most. The need to move and explore in a larger way is seen as “too active” , “always rough housing”. As in any other piece of education we need to observe our children, understand their needs and provide opportunities for development and growth. Proprioception is an area we need to bring to the forefront and create more opportunities for children.

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  2. Pingback: From the Inside be Outside: Nature and Spiritual Development in the Early Years | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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