Sensory tables are a staple of most play-based toddler programs and preschools. Sensory play is basically a large tub full of some loose material, tools for scooping, pouring, and manipulating the loose material, and often other toys mixed in. It is a pure play-based activity, where children can settle in and explore to their heart’s content.
If you’re wondering what kids learn by doing this, check out my list of benefits of sensory play at the bottom of this post.
How To Assemble a Sensory Activity
If you are a parent and are new to sensory play, start simple: just get a plastic storage tub you can fill with cheap white rice. Whenever you want to, pull it out of storage, toss in an assortment of kitchen gadgets and let your child play! When they’re done, put it away. Next time, throw in some plastic animals and blocks…
Sensory Table Fillers
Note: If you have a young toddler who mouths things, use caution and only choose non-toxic age-appropriate materials from the list below.
- Rice in all colors (how to dye rice).
- Pasta in all shapes (you can dye pasta, or find lots of amazing specialty pastas, like zebra striped bowties, rainbow tagliatelle or conch shells),
- Cornmeal, corn grits, or popcorn kernels,
- Grains: oatmeal or oat groats, buckwheat, barley, wheat berries
- Legumes: split peas, lentils, dried beans (pinto, black, black-eyed peas, navy, mung beans and more), chickpeas, soybeans
- Seeds: flax seeds, millet, acorns, horse chestnuts
- Baking soda – drip colored vinegar on it and watch it fizz
There’s also the whole world of water play. Learn about those options on my Ultimate Guide to Water Tables post.
Non-food sensory fillers
- water beads (click on that link to learn ALL about this fabulous material)
- pompoms or cotton balls
- sand in all colors, Kinetic Sand, aquarium gravel
- crumbled cork (I wish I could find a cheap source for this…), corks
- cedar shavings, birdseed
- rock salt, epsom salts
- easter grass, straw or hay, raffia, shredded paper, tissue paper, the crinkly paper you add to gift bags, bubble wrap, packing peanuts
- autumn leaves, flower petals
- silk leaves or flowers, cut up scraps of fabric or felt or ribbon, scarves, wool roving, polyfil
- wooden beads or plastic pony beads (add string for threading practice), mardi gras beads (add scissors for cutting practice)
- potting soil (note, some of our parents were concerned about chemicals that are often in soils, and don’t like the “natural” soil with manure or compost in it, so we’ve instead started to use coconut coir bricks – learn about them in our seeds and plants post)
- shaving cream – a little messy for my taste, but kids love it!
- mesh tubes – one of my co-workers found a “crazy hat” with these orange and green plastic mesh tubes she cut off – so fun to play with!
- mesh hair rollers from the dollar store… these nest inside each other
- plastic jars, lids, and bottle caps
Sensory materials you can make
- cloud dough (we make ours with cocoa powder and it smells like brownies but looks like dirt)
- non-Newtonian fluid aka oobleck aka quicksand
- Sand foam (shaving cream and sand) looks interesting, but I like to be able to re-use materials whenever possible so we haven’t tried it
- Slime – there’s 100’s of versions… just search on Pinterest
- Clean mud (made from toilet paper and soap – my students loved making it, but didn’t like playing in it that much)
- A big blob of clear gelatin with pipettes and liquid watercolor
- Flour and water – one well-known preschool guru, Bev Bos, advocated for giving kids a 20 pound bag of flour and as much water as they wanted and letting them explore mixing without limits. (Personally, I’ve been un-willing to take on the clean-up this would involve. But it looks like great fun for the kids.)
- For some of the materials listed above, you can add in scents, like mixing cinnamon into the oatmeal, or soaking a few of the cotton balls in peppermint, or mixing some lavender seeds in with your flax seeds. Start really light with your scents. They can quickly become overwhelming.
Tools for the Sensory Table
- scoops, measuring cups, spoons, slotted spoons, shovels, gardening rakes, spatulas, ladles
- tongs, tweezers, Handy Scoopers, chopsticks
- funnels (with narrow necked bottles to fill), test tubes, PVC pipes, or TP tubes to pour through
- containers of all sizes and shapes: bowls, buckets, metal pie pans, gift boxes, plastic eggs, etc.
- multi-compartment containers (muffin tins, ice cube trays, silverware organizers, medication organizers)
- sifters, strainer, colanders, mesh trays
- magnifying glass
- toy Conveyor Belt, toy Grain Auger, a sand & water wheel
- balance scale
- Kodo’s Sift and Sort tower is a tower of three screens, which sift out large, medium, and small materials. (It’s pricey at $175. Some other alternatives are “classifiers” such as these Sifting Pans ($53 for a set of 5), or a DIY version: Explore Inspire EC cobbled together two pegboard platforms supported by dowels. I’m thinking you could use cookie cooling racks or a shelf insert or a drying rack)
- Sand castle molds – these work best with wet sand or kinetic sand – not with most other materials
- Haba has a “spilling funnel” that mixes water and sand – I’m curious to try it
The blog Sand and Water Tables by Tom Bedard is full of fabulous ideas and thoughtful reflections on sensory play. He assembles what he calls an “apparatus” out of cardboard and found materials to take sensory play up a level. I plan to explore these next year in my class. For now, I’m just going to include two collages of photos here to inspire you. The first is collages is all images from Tom’s site. The second is compiled from lots of different sources. I will give links below to sources for all the images.
From top left: Hanging sand funnels from Teach Preschool; Grain silo from Frugal Fun. Wine rack and tubes from Nurturing Roots. Poster tubes and PVC pipes: source. Holes in a box from PreK and K sharing. Divider with a hole from Let the Children Play. Tube between tables from Day Nursery Indianapolis. Tubes and funnels from Fairy Dust. Don’t these all look fun?
Some common themes with these apparatus are ramps (inclined planes) or tubes to slide materials down, holes to reach through or drop things through, things that block your view of the materials or of your playmates (the increased mystery increases the fun) and chain reactions… pour through here, and it knocks this door open, etc.
A simple bin full of rice, scoops and a few containers to dump into can entertain toddlers for hours. But, a sensory bin can really come to life when we mix in other items to inspire imagination or provoke math and science learning. For example, on plants week, a bin of potting soil with trowels and rakes is fun. But it’s so much better when we add in a few plant pots, some lima beans or other big seeds (that are easy to sort out of the soil later) and little signs to label what they’ve “planted”. On cars week, we use kinetic sand and shovels to make mountains and trails with, then add in toy monster trucks with big treads on their tires to lay down tracks. On a hearing / sounds week, you could use dried beans or popcorn kernels with metal pans and cymbals where they could bounce the items off the metal for that metallic “tink” sound. When we study animal adaptations and habitats, we use sensory materials for our “bird beak adaptations” activity and for a camouflage themed activity where we offer plastic animals to hide in various materials.
Sifting / Separating / Sorting
You can toss in a few handfuls of almost anything and children can use sifters or tweezers or their hands to separate all those items back out. For example, add plastic coins and gems into the bin, and a piggy bank or treasure chest to gather them into. Add glass stones, or buttons, or jingle bells, or small toys. On Geology week, we use sand with pebbles, small rocks, and big rocks. We offer three different types of sifters which separate out the different sizes of rock and containers to sort them into. On Magnet week, we throw in metallic and non-metallic items, and give the children magnet wands to pull out all the magnetic items, and container for sorting out the magnetic and non-magnetic items. On Bugs week, we hide bugs in the coir, give them magnifying glasses, and dishes to sort out the bugs into categories – insect, arachnid, myriapod. (Learn more about sorting – a key skill for math and scientific thinking.)
In States of Matter, we freeze toys in a big chunk of ice, and the kids work to excavate the toys, using salt and water to melt the ice.
Gather a collection of items. Make a “key” listing them all – for younger children, you’ll want pictures of the items they can match an object with, for older children, this could be a list of words describing what they are hunting for. Then bury the items in the filler material. Kids hunt them out and match them to the key. We do this with the “human organs TOOB.” when we study anatomy. On dinosaur week, we bury plastic dinos in shredded paper for the big motor dig, and put real fossils, sand, and paintbrushes in the sensory bin. You could use magnetic letters, foam letters or scrabble tiles in an alphabet hunt. You could toss in puzzle pieces and they would search for all the pieces to complete the puzzle.
On Beach week, we fill our bin with sand, buckets, shovels, and seashells. We have a mural on the wall showing a beach scene, and we put nearby books about shells and beachcombing, so they can look up more information on the shells that they find.
Small world play is when children use miniature items to act out ideas from real life or re-enact stories. Examples are playing in a dollhouse, or making a pet store with toy animals, or a fairy house with twigs and stones. Mixing in sensory play makes this an even richer learning environment. Learn more about small worlds at: Little Worlds, Big Adventures.
For our bridges and tunnels week, we use cloud dough, round wooden blocks to build tunnels around, and plastic animals to live in the tunnels. In Build a House week, all around the room, we are replicating parts of the home building process. Our sensory bin is the excavation stage with toy bulldozers, Playmobil dolls and cloud dough. For Earthquake week, we put plastic fences, trees, and animals in a tray of sand, and give kids a back massager to press against the pan to create an earthquake. For chemistry mixtures, we make corn starch quicksand and put in plastic animals to “run across” or sink into (you could also use this cornstarch and water mixture for “tar pits” in dinosaur week). When we study planets and space travel, we use Mars Rover toys in sand.
Where to find add-ins
One of my co-workers is a genius at this. She goes to craft stores, dollar tree, Goodwill, hardware stores, and garage sales, and wanders around and waits for inspiration to strike! Like our fish-shaped soap dishes that leave cool fish-y impressions in the sand… You don’t have to spend a lot of money to find fun add-ins.
Tables and other Containers
If you have one or two children who will be playing at a time, you can get by with a smaller container. A cake pan is not really big enough for most sensory play – but if it’s all you have, you can make it work with some. It’s better to use a big plastic tub. (Something like this Sterilite 32-Quart tub which is 24 x 16 inches or a Gift Wrap Storage Box which is 33 x 12.) For multiple children to be able to play, you need more space, such as an Underbed Storage Bin, which is around 40 x 20.
You can set these on the floor or kitchen table. If you’ll be using the same tub on the same table a lot, put velcro tabs on the tub and table to help hold it in place. Or some teachers just buy a few bins and stack them on top of each other… the one on the bottom provides a “table” for the open bin to get it up to a good height to play on.
DIY sensory tables
Search online, and you’ll find lots of examples of people who have built their own tables. For example: Teach Preschool, A Teaching Mommy’s PVC frame, Pink Oatmeal’s IKEA hack, or this collection of 12 ideas.
Commercially Made Tables
You can buy some inexpensive sand and water play tables for home use, but most aren’t very sturdy, and when you’re done with them, you can’t re-purpose them for anything else. You’re better off just using a storage tub. But, if you run a preschool or day care or toddler class, a really good sensory table is expensive but is worth the investment. Here’s a few to consider: Wood Designs or Jonti-Craft.
Setting Boundaries / Containing the Mess
Many parents and teachers are resistant to sensory play, because to be honest, it’s pretty much a guaranteed mess. You will always need to do clean-up when they’re done! (If your sensory play is outside, you can be a lot more lax about clean-up, but you still need to have some tidying up to keep things safe and free of pests / infectious potential.)
During set-up, think about where it’s best to do sensory play (e.g. tile or hardwood floor is a whole lot easier to clean than carpet!). You may choose a corner of the room instead of the middle, so other children are less likely to track things around. Consider laying down drop cloths (plastic tablecloths and shower curtains can work, or a flat sheet you can easily toss in the washing machine when you’re done). You may need to tape it down to prevent tripping. Don’t tempt fate by putting the sensory table too near the water table or the painting easel. (Kids love to combine materials, which is great for their learning, and dreadful for your clean-up effort and for your ability to re-use expensive materials.) If something is so messy that you know you’d just spend the whole time fretting at the kids about the mess, then skip that activity. Part of the joy of sensory tables for children is the chance to be able to explore and play without you hovering nearby saying “don’t do that.”
That said, while children are playing, you do want to set expectations for behavior and be clear what the limits are. Note that it’s always best to phrase things in positive terms: if you say “don’t dump it all over the floor” then the image you create in their head is not what you want! Instead say “let’s keep it all in the bin” and “move the bucket here so when you pour all the material stays here” and so on. Children often want to carry sensory materials away to other parts of the room – remind them that it all needs to stay there. They also like to bring other things in to try them out. Teach them – “ask a grown-up before adding anything.” In our class, we have the rule of “be creative, not destructive.” If they ask us about something and it’s fun and creative and will do no harm, we always say yes, even if it means that things are being used in ways we never intended. However, if anything will get harmed or ruined, we say no. If children are having a hard time following the rules, we will move them to another part of the room, or if it becomes a chronic problem in a class on a particular day, the sensory table goes on time out – we put the lid on and we’re done.
Some preschools keep a dustbin and small brush under the sensory table and a trash bin nearby and encourage kids to do their own clean-up when there are spills. I like to be able to rescue as much of my spilled sensory material as possible and return it to the bin (to reduce costs of replacing and un-needed waste) but feel like there needs to be an adult eye on deciding whether a spilled material could be rescued or needs to be trashed. (Also, kids might accidentally dispose of add-ins I want to keep.
Read more on Setting Boundaries with Sensory Play.
Benefits of Sensory Play
In our academically driven world, parents may see sensory play as “just play” and wonder what’s my kid actually learning? First, we can talk about all sorts of benefits of all play-based learning, but here are just a few things kid learn through sensory play:
- Life skills: Kids learn to use tools of all sorts. Kids learn to be OK with having messy hands. (Modern kids are doing a lot less outdoor play, like making mud pies, and less outdoor work, like mowing lawns, and many young adults struggle with messy chores and their ick factor.)
- Fine motor skills, strength, and flexibility. Eye-hand coordination.
- Spatial understanding – the meaning of empty, full, volume, weight – will the materials from this container fit inside that container?
- Social skills, language – As they play together around the table, children socialize, negotiate sharing tools, create stories together.
Sensory tables appeal to all ages and abilities. Every child can be successful. In my class, many kids are neurotypical, but some have sensory processing issues, autism, or ADHD. The materials seem to give them the sensory input they need in order to stay focused on other learning activities for longer times. I teach a multi-age class, with children ranging from 2.5 to 7 years old, and they (and the adults) all spend some time at the sensory table each day. There’s just something soothing and relaxing about sensory play.
Little Bins for Little Hands is the single best source of ideas: start on one of these pages for links to lots of specific ideas: 40 sensory bins collaborative series, Rice sensory bins for holiday and seasonal themes, and Complete Guide. Early Learning Ideas also has a huge list, which I found just as I finished compiling mine!
And, of course, you can search Pinterest for countless ideas for sensory play.
Also check out my Ultimate Guide to Water Tables post.