Monday, November 10, 2014

Sensory Tables - Not Just Another Piece of Furniture

Lots of pictures this week.  I have been thinking a lot about choice time and options for play that get at multiple developmental needs. A sensory table is a standard piece of equipment in many classrooms. But because they can be covered they often end up as just another surface to store or display things. This can mean that an important opportunity for children is now out of circulation.
Plastic tubes, marbles and very fine sand
provide a soothing play experience

What is your sensory table being used for and why should you open it sooner rather than later?

The sensory table is one tool in a teacher's repertoire to provide much needed sensory experiences throughout a child's day.  In addition, these experiences can also incorporate play, communication, sorting & classification, and science options.

Depending on the materials, sensory tables provide an open ended experience where children learn the properties of the materials and how to control them. And children often stand at the table, enabling movement in classrooms that increasingly expect children to sit.

There is also research supporting sensory experience's impact on motor performance, cognitive development, sensory processing, social-emotional learning - not just for children with disabilities, but typically developing children as well.

The American Occupational Therapy Association has a wealth of resources and links to current research.

This board is attached with velcro to the edges of the table to provide a
place for experimentation.
Water is an obvious choice - it can be calming for some children, and small scoops & cups encourage repetition and precision.  Add eye droppers for increased fine motor practice.  Colored water for color mixing experiments.

Choosing materials and adding novelty over the course of a few days or even weeks sustains interest and focus.  For example you might start with colored water and scoops, then add droppers, then other colors, then plastic test tubes.

Bark, wood pieces, plastic forest animals, sand - for dramatic play,
construction, and sensory stimulation.
Think about natural objects for the table to create beauty in a child's day.  Children with special needs and typically developing children benefit from sensory experiences that stimulate the nervous system in a gentle way.  This kind of experience used to be part of children's every day lives as they encountered water, dirt, sand, did practical work in the home or outside.  But children now have fewer opportunities to engage in every day sensory activity.
Some object to the use of food in classrooms - so if you do use food items, make sure you can reuse them, store in airtight containers for future use.  There are some great tactile opportunities with items such as rice, beans or flax seed. But you can use different colored pebbles, shells, etc.

These children had been sorting (above) for days and when they began scooping and counting their teacher gave them a clip board and asked "How many scoops do  you think it will take to fill the jar?" "How will you keep track of how many scoops?" These 4-year olds developed a dot "tally" system for counting (right).

Rice, sprigs of lavender, blue containers
You don't need a special table, although the tables children use at school are nice for fostering collaborative efforts that allow children to stand and move while playing.  A wash tub will do - plastic or metal.

I remember pulling up a stool to play in a tub at the sink while my mother did other things in the kitchen.  This kind of opportunity allows children to play alongside adults, and even practice some of the things grownups do - like wash potatoes, scrub carrots (and maybe even peel them), play with measuring cups in water, mix cornstarch and water and see what happens - all provide sensory experiences that involve play, motor practice, and scientific discovery & math.

This 2012 link from High Scope not only has ideas for sensory table explorations, but reinforces the rationale for using the sensory table often and with intention.

Some ideas for your table:
  • Base Material: flax seed, corn meal, types of sand, rice, tiny stones, water, glass jewels, play dough, cornstarch & water, ice or snow (with gloves), leaves, acorns
  • Tools: plastic scoops, measuring cups/spoons, eye droppers, tongs, tweezers, small cups, bowls, fish nets, muffin tins, clear plastic or glass containers

  Some combinations:
  • water, fish nets, shells, plastic fish
  • playdough with jewels or tiny stones hidden in the dough, golf tees to press in
  • playdough with sprigs of fresh herbs - rosemary, lavender, etc.
  • aquarium rocks, water, and plastic turtles and frogs
  • ramps, cars 
  • paper tubes, marbles
  • pom poms, pipe cleaners, beads
  • wire, cut up straws, washers
  • rocks, driftwood, clean pea gravel or sand
  • plastic bugs, dirt, seeds
  • half fill with soil, plant grass seed, cover with plastic wrap to create a greenhouse, water and then play in the grass with plastic insects, animals, wood, etc.
Now take the lid off, fill it up, and enjoy.