I was in China recently to attend my granddaughter’s 100-day ceremony and also to catch up with my niece, Belynda Seale (aka Bim), who has gone back there to live. She is writing a book on teaching (ECE) in a foreign country and includes a large section on Sensory Play. (I am capitalising it because I think it deserves it.) We had a lot of discussion about this and she gave me a large box of sensory equipment to use with my other grandchildren when they come over to play. My discussions with her and the joy my grandchildren get from such play reminded me of just how important it is. I just take it for granted and do lots of sensory activities (although she added ‘Dinosaur Eggs’ which are a huge hit with my grandchildren). I just assumed everybody does this but apparently not. (It’s a bit like ‘doesn’t everybody in early childhood settings, including parents, do loads of music with their kids?’) The best that a lot of kids get is a sand patch and maybe some play dough. Astounding but true, apparently.
The problem with doing things for a long time is that you can too easily forget why you do them. You need to be reminded, as I was in speaking to Bim. In a nutshell, young children learn by doing and exploring. They need to do so through using their senses. That’s how they learn. Seems simple enough and obvious enough yet we need to be reminded of just how important it is to young children. The learning involved is immeasurable. I am preaching to the converted here, I know, but maybe you need a few new ideas? Bim put me onto a blogger called the Ooey-Gooey Lady (yes it really is!). Check her out on google. She has lots of great ideas. Bim also put me onto The Imagination tree which has loads of great ideas including sensory.
Now to the dinosaur eggs. This was new to me so it was great fun to explore with the children. You need helium-quality balloons and some small toy dinosaurs. Party shops have both. Fill each balloon with a dinosaur then water. Tie it up and freeze it. When frozen (make sure it is frozen all the way through – it takes a couple of hours) cut off the balloon. The child gets to watch while the ‘egg hatches’ which takes about half an hour in the sun (my grandchildren couldn’t wait for it to melt inside the house, they wanted to ‘help’ the dinosaur ‘hatch’ out of his egg – it’s also a watery process so doing it outside is also a good idea to avoid mess). This is a wonderful science lesson about solid and liquid, about dinosaurs and especially about animals that hatch out of eggs and why we shouldn’t ‘help’ them out of their eggs. Those dinosaurs then become precious ‘pets’ rather than simply some little toys to play with. Amazing. And the language involved is wonderful, especially knowing the names of the dinosaurs and then going on to read children’s science books about them.
Then there’s OOBLEK. I remember in my Dip. Ed. days learning about this in the science lesson. Perhaps you did too? I can’t remember the name of the book where this name comes from but in any event it was out of print then so will definitely be hard to find now. It was a children’s picture book about (I think) a man who tricks the king by making something that’s both a solid and a liquid at the same time. Now strictly speaking this is not 100% accurate scientifically – my metallurgist son told me it is called a thixotropic slurry – meaning it will resist the force if you hit it but is soft like a liquid if a gentle force is applied. Of course, you are not going to use this term with your pre-schoolers. Ooblek sounds far more interesting and exciting. If you mix real corn flour (made from corn, not wheat) with equal parts water it becomes solid and powdery. Leave it a while and punch it – it won’t budge but when you put a finger on it you will find your finger disappears into the mix and the hole fills with water. Last week my grandson (aged 4.5 years) played for around an hour with this mixture inventing more and more activities as he went along. I won’t tell you what the state of my dining room was in afterwards but it was well worth it for the absorption by that child. Talk about ‘in the zone’! This is a child with a short attention span, normally. If you try this, do it outside where you can hose it all down afterwards and make sure every child has a painting smock on that covers arms as well as the body.
Making play dough with the children is a great activity as they make it themselves, adding an extra dimension to the activity. I have to confess that cold play dough is an inferior product in my opinion so I prefer the cooked variety. I feel that the children are getting enough sensory stimulation from playing with the dough and being creative with it without actually making it first. Furthermore, I cook a lot with my grandchildren so they get enough ‘food making’ experience. But that’s a personal choice.
Bim told me to get flax seeds so they could be mixed with water for a sensory activity. I couldn’t get flax seeds (not cheaply enough anyway) so I bought small bird seed instead (canary seed or similar). That is just as effective. Parrot seed is too big and sharp for small hands. Bird seed is an interesting variation on texture.
Don’t forget fabrics. I love the feel of different fabrics – silk, satin, velour, velvet, wool, cotton and so on. Get the children to become familiar with these different fabrics and make sure they use their language to describe how it feels – not only with their fingers but on their faces, their feet, between their fingers. How is it different? What else feels like that? How does it make you feel? Who wears these fabrics? The stories that start getting conjured up are wonderful – just from pieces of material. Imagine your art lessons afterwards! And the dramatic play!
This is why I like to use scarves. Irresistible! I use strong polyester scarves that are brightly coloured and patterned so the children experience the colour and the feel as well as then doing a whole range of activities with them to music which can ultimately lead on to other things. I have written a whole book on the benefits of using scarves so I’m not going to elaborate here. Click Here if you would like to see the kidz-fiz-biz range of scarves.
On the theme of touch, I like to incorporate movement – of course – so I get large mats (well, they are large for children) made of various materials, most of which can be purchased from hardware stores. Get some rubber mats – some that have ridges and some that have those nodules on them. Get softer mats that feel spongy and those hard coir door mats. You get the picture. Get as many textures happening as possible and put them in a circular pattern or figure 8 or whatever you like and have the children walk on them like stepping stones. Of course you need marching music but nothing too loud or vigorous or they will start to make it into something of a race and forget about the sensory aspect. When they have all been around your circuit several times get them to stop, sit on a mat and then tell you what they experienced. Were there any that were very uncomfortable? Which did they prefer and why? Children with sensory integration problems may be especially challenged with this activity so just be sensitive to this and don’t push it. With a small group and with assistants on hand, you could do this blind-folded – hold the child’s hand – so they can truly feel with their feet without the distraction of sound (turn the music off) and without sight. Now ask them whether that felt different and why. This activity is best done in a straight line with fewer mats.
I am not going to mention sand and water play because I know you all do that already and you know why. But don’t forget scent. There are so many pleasant and unpleasant smells that children should be able to identify, especially from a safety point of view. Let them explore with rose petals, lavender or other flowers, leaves such as lime or rosemary that are strongly-scented. Have bottles of vanilla or peppermint oil on hand and so on. Remember to incorporate as much appropriate language as possible. What else smells like that? Do you like it? Why? Why not?
Sound is wonderful – play different instruments (no, I don’t mean personally – get recordings). See if the children recognize them. Try a few and then see if they can discriminate between the different instruments when you play some classical music to them. Now dance or move creatively to this music. Is it scary music? Sad music? Happy music? How do you know? Why does the music make you feel like that? Of course, there are other sounds rather than those from musical instruments. See what recordings you can find and see if they recognize them – the wind, the sea, the rain, a jackhammer, different birdsong and so on. I like to use a tactile ring (a rainbow ring made of different fabrics that have a distinct sound when touched) which is a wonderful alternative to a parachute or rainbow ring, especially for hearing-impaired or sight-impaired children. (If you are interested, details can be found on my website – Click Here.
You can incorporate taste creatively too, although through food they get a lot of input. Have some small paddle pop sticks on hand so the children can taste various different flavours. Which is salty, sour, sweet, spicy? What else tastes like that? Do you like it? Why? Why not? Keep it simple. Keep it fun.
There are so many sensory activities once you get started. If you are not doing enough of them, start today. Such fun!