One activity that toddlers and young preschoolers never tire of is filling and dumping. A container full of anything – sand, toys, food – is often quickly dumped over, its contents spilling to the ground. An empty container is often filled (even if not what was originally in it), sometimes to the top, as a mix of puzzle pieces, toy food, and playdough reaches the top and spills over, prompting the child to eagerly dump it out again.
This process of dumping and filling, filling and dumping, is one of the ways that young children explore how the physical world works, and experiment with their actions on objects. Filling and dumping involves thinking about size, volume, incline, force, gravity, and cause and effect. What sometimes looks to adults like “making a mess” is actually a complex long-term project of figuring out the relationship between a container and the objects that fit inside.
In my classroom, I provide many activities that give children an opportunity to explore filling and dumping. Some of the best materials for filling and dumping are “loose parts” - open ended, non-representational materials that can be used in a variety of ways. Finding appropriate materials for toddlers and twos can be challenging, since so many “loose parts” are small enough to fit in their mouths, or are easily smashed and crushed.
Pompoms and cotton balls are two wonderful materials for this age group (and older preschoolers too). A simple “fill and dump” activity is to put out empty juice bottles with small plates of cotton balls.
The children were fascinated watching the cotton ball drop to the bottom of the large bottle, but they cotton balls were hard to dump out through the narrow top. So, the next day I switched to shorter applesauce jars that they could fit their hands into.
Setting up the materials in the sensory table provided more room for dumping, and made it easier for the children to control where the cotton balls went. I combined the cotton balls with pompoms to make it colorful, and added napkin rings – another “loose part”, but with a different shape, weight and texture. I also added tongs as an option for picking the objects up,
The children used the materials in ways that I expected, and in ways that I didn’t.