Friday, June 26, 2015

Taking Sensory Play to the Next Level

I’ve always wondered why older preschoolers tend to ignore the sensory table. Is sand and water play boring? Is it just that there are more exciting things to do in the classroom? Toddlers and young 2’s and 3’s can’t seem to get enough of sand and water play, scooping and pouring it
in and out of containers, watching it flow, mastering the concepts of empty and full.

But in the older classrooms, the sand table, with its scoops, measuring cups, and funnels, slowly gets left behind in favor of other activities. As I watched the children play with the sand less and less as time went on, this thought occurred to me: it’s not that the sand itself isn’t interesting, it’s that the children have mastered the tasks we provided. They learned how to scoop and dump. They figured out what it means for something to be empty and full. What they needed was something new to figure out. They needed to do more than the simple motion of manipulating sand from one container to another. They needed materials that involved more complicated problem solving – materials that said to them “hey, figure this out.”

My inspiration came from an amazing blog: Sand and Water Tables by Tom Bedard. Tom’s blog documents his development and use of different sensory table “apparatus” in his preschool classroom. I was awed by the complexity and limitless problem solving opportunities his materials provided. I decided to start small – with two pegboards supported by wooden dowels, creating a “two-story” platform for the sand table.

Interest in the area increased at once. The children had experienced the process of simply pouring sand, but watching the process of sand flowing through holes was something new. Could the sand be piled up and the holes blocked? Would pushing the sand with hands or a brush make it flow through faster? Was there a way to slow or increase the flow between the two levels? A large group of children gathered around, experimenting, watching, and testing as they poured, brushed, and blocked the sand as it flowed.

This was more than just sensory play and experiencing the sensation of sand on hands. This was engineering, problem solving, and scientific theorizing. This was an opportunity for children to pose questions and figure out the answers for themselves. It was a chance to figure out how things work, and to take their play, literally and figuratively, to the next level.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out. You mention that my work is your inspiration. That is a two-way street because when I see how others adapt an apparatus to their work, I get inspired all over again. I am curious, how did you keep the top pegboard from sliding down the dowels?

    1. I think it was just luck that the dowels were the right diameter to jam into the holes without falling. And they fit better in some holes than others. Depending which holes the dowels were in, the pegboard sometimes slid down, but the kids just pulled it up again.

      Again, thanks for the ideas!