Discovering Our World Through Sensory Play
Written by Rhonda Yeager

Have you ever observed the sheer delight of a small child that has just discovered the momentous pleasure of stomping in the latest remnants of rainfall? It’s irresistible! It does not matter that this pool of water is dirty, murky, or full of unknown objects. It is an opportunity to explore, experiment, observe, and manipulate -- a way for a child to discover the world around him – SENSORY PLAY.


Sensory play is a valuable part of quality early childhood programs. Children are provided with sensory materials used to enhance their senses of touch, sight, taste, smell, and hearing. The use of sensory materials allows children the opportunity for hands-on and self-directed play to encourage the development of the following:

Fine/Gross motor skills - Children are able to improve their fine/gross motor skills through the manipulation of sensory materials – pouring, molding, lifting, carrying, sifting, sorting, etc.

Creativity - Sensory play allows the child to experiment with a large variety of materials in new and creative ways. Uninterrupted play (by adults) allows creativity to flourish. The children are able to use the materials as they see fit and are able to enjoy the process and have no concern for the end product.

Self-esteem – The children build self-confidence and positive self-esteem as they master what they set out to do. They have the opportunity to choose on their own what they plan to do and how they will accomplish it. When their personal goals are achieved, there is a great sense of fulfillment.

Social development – As children interact with each other, they learn to share and cooperate while building their vocabulary. They also learn effective ways to resolve conflicts among each other.

Cognitive development – Children develop their cognitive skills through sensory play by observing, experimenting, and formulating solutions to problems that arise while manipulating the sensory materials. They learn to count, group, sequence, construct, measure, etc.


In setting up sensory play, you can get as simple or as elaborate as you like. The standard container for sensory play is usually a sand & water table, selling for $100 to $250. However, the cheapest and most beneficial way to set up your sensory materials, is to invest in numerous large tubs or dishpans.

When setting up your containers, be sure to place them at a level easily accessible to the children. The containers may be placed on the floor or on a very low table. If you are doing sensory play indoors, place a throw rug or plastic matting under the containers to help contain the mess.

Some sensory materials may be placed on individual plastic serving trays, such as clay, shaving cream, and Jello. The trays will allow the children to play individually, if desired. Plan an area where the children may sit down and effectively use these trays.
Sensory materials may also be stored in large, clear Rubbermaid-type tubs with lids to be used whenever the children would like to use them. However, it is important to choose sensory materials that will store for long periods of time.

Once you have decided the type of containers to be used and where you will set up your sensory play area, it is time to start collecting sensory materials – those materials that stimulate the senses, especially the sense of touch. Begin to look for sensory materials by searching your home. There are many common household materials that may be used for sensory play. Always consider the ages of the children in your care when selecting items for your containers. Regardless of the ages of the children, ALWAYS CLOSELY MONITOR SENSORY ACTIVITIES.

Sensory materials are often gooey, goopy, slimy, wet, squishy, squashy, messy materials that children enjoy playing with, but parents are squeamish about! Most children only get the opportunity to play with these materials in a childcare setting. Rice, mud, water, play dough, sawdust, dried beans, cotton balls, shaving cream, cornmeal, oatmeal, sea shells, styrofoam peanuts, bubbles, sand, coffee grounds, Jello, aquarium gravel, fall leaves, salt, ice cubes, wood shavings, goop (cornstarch & water mixture), potting soil, marshmallows, whipped cream, pudding, silly putty, clay, confetti, shredded paper, beads, feathers, buttons, pasta, Easter basket grass filler, and bird seed are examples of sensory materials. Keep in mind your children’s allergies when using food items and do not allow the children to eat food items that have been used in sensory play.

A large variety of toys and miscellaneous items should be easily accessible to utilize with the sensory materials to encourage a broader range of play. Miscellaneous items may include measuring cups, measuring spoons, scoops, funnels, egg beaters, shovels, small plastic animals, margarine tubs, strainers, tongs, spoons, strawberry baskets, whisks, sieves, lids, magnets, slotted spoons, rakes, buckets, sand molds, cookie cutters, muffin tins, hoses, ramps, sponges, eye droppers, straws, toilet paper tubes, aquarium nets, etc.

To keep the interest of the children in your care, change your sensory materials often. Allow the children to independently choose their sensory materials and give them the freedom to explore their world in their own unique way. With a little imagination, children will engage in endless, creative play.


Clean Mud
Shave 2 bars of soap and shred two rolls of toilet paper. Add 2 cups of warm water. Be careful to avoid eyes.

Mix one part water to two parts cornstarch. It turns into a solid. When touched, it turns into a liquid. Add food coloring or powdered tempera paint to add color.

Oatmeal Dough
One part flour
Two parts oatmeal
One part water
Mix ingredients together. Form into shapes and let dry. Pieces can be painted when dry.

Kool-Aid Play Dough
½ cup salt
2 ½ cups flour
2 pkgs. Kool-Aid
3 tbs. oil
2 cups boiling water
Mix dry ingredients. Add oil. Add water and knead. This play dough is colorful and has a wonderfully fragrant smell. Store in plastic bags in the refrigerator.

1 gallon water
½ cup Joy dishwashing liquid
¼ cup glycerin
Mix all ingredients together. This solution gets better with age.


The Sense of Touch

Place familiar objects in a cloth bag. Have the children, one at a time, reach in and describe what they feel. Is it hard, soft, bumpy, smooth, cold, furry, rough?

Set up containers or trays with oatmeal, Jello, mud and relish. Have the children place their bare feet into each container one at a time and have them describe what they feel.

The Sense of Sight

Place 4 or 5 familiar objects on a tray. Allow the children to view the objects for one minute and then cover the tray. Ask the children to share with you what they saw. You can also remove one object and see if the children can recall the missing item.

Provide the children with a variety of viewing glasses (sunglasses, magnifying glasses, reading glasses, a view master, binoculars, etc.), and have them explain how differently things look through each one.

The Sense of Taste

Gather up different foods with a variety of flavors. Cover the children’s eyes and have them taste the foods one by one. After tasting a food, ask the children to describe what they tasted. Was it sour, sweet, fruity, salty?

Give each child three Dixie cups. Fill the cups with water, punch, and cola. Blindfold the children and hand them one cup at a time. Have them sip each one and tell you what it is.

The Sense of Smell

Collect a supply of film canisters and place a hole in the top of the lids. Place a scented cotton ball into each canister, making 2 of each. Permanently seal the lids on top. Have the children smell through the holes in the lids and match the containers by smells. Some scents to use: lemon, vinegar, vanilla, chocolate, floral.

Blindfold children and place familiar items in front of them. Through their sense of smell, see how many items they can identify. Good examples: toast, toothpaste, hand lotion, sliced oranges, banana slices, apple juice.

The Sense of Hearing

Cut out pictures of animals and common items with recognizable sounds. Glue the pictures onto stock card and laminate (or use clear contact paper). Then, record on tape the sounds of these animals and items, so that the children may match up the sounds to the appropriate pictures.

Fill plastic Easter eggs ¼ full with various objects – coins, rocks, marbles, sand, paper clips, rice, buttons, beans, nuts & bolts, etc. Film canisters may also be used. Make two of each. Have the children shake the eggs or film canisters and pick which ones sound alike.


From birth, infants begin to use their senses to explore the world around them. During the first six months of life, an infant will learn to utilize his senses to discover where his body ends and the world begins. So, sensory activities adapted to an infant’s abilities will play an important role even in the earliest days of infancy.


Look for interesting objects that are colorful, boldly patterned, and produce some type of noise. This can be as simple as a cereal box, or as favorable as your own face. At this point, infants love to watch your smiling face and listen to your sweet voice. Introduce the infant to 2 or 3 items every day by individually placing each item approximately 1-foot in front of the infant’s face. Allow enough time for the infant to observe and explore.

As the infant matures and is able to follow movement with his eyes, you can affix a toy to a string or stick and move it back and forth (and all different directions) approximately three feet in front of the infant.

Playing peek-a-boo with your infants will develop a perceptual understanding of how things continue to exist even though you cannot see them. Peek-a-boo also aids in the development of social interaction. Most infants will squeal with delight upon seeing the return of your face.

Older infants love to make noise. Infants should be provided with musical instruments and materials that will assist them in making noise, such as a rattle or a plastic water bottle filled with rice or beans (depending on your noise tolerance level!). Also, a wooden spoon and a pan to bang on will provide pleasurable play for an infant or toddler.

Find objects of many textures that can be touched by infant’s hands and feet. Look for items that are soft, hard, cold, warm, wet, dry, silky, furry, smooth, rough, crinkly, bumpy, etc. Supplying infants with a large variety of tactile materials will enhance their awareness of how objects may be distinguished by feel.

Infants use all their senses simultaneously just as we do. Playing games that combine all or most of the senses will stimulate and nourish the infant’s sensory development.


Keep in mind that many sensory materials are only appropriate for children 3 years of age and up.
Have the children wear smocks to protect their clothing. Keep the smocks readily accessible for the children to use.
If the sand/water table is left out on a permanent basis, the water should be changed at least once a day. A good time to change the water would be during naptime (midday).
Sanitize the containers with Clorox solution every time you clean them.
Have the children wash their hands before touching any sensory materials.
Keep the floor and surrounding areas clean and free of spills. Have the children help with cleaning up.
Place spilled, disposable materials, such as rice, sand, glitter, ice, beans, and flour into the trash, so sensory materials will not become contaminated.
Set limits for safe play. Do not allow the children to throw sensory materials outside the table or containers. Set a limit to the number of children that can safely play in one container.
Do not allow children to eat food used as sensory materials.
Consider children’s allergies when using food for sensory materials.


However you plan to set up your sensory play area, it should be happy, safe, and challenging for children in your care. It should provide an open-ended opportunity for expressive creativity and be a place that children look forward to visiting every day. There are endless opportunities for discovery and learning when children are provided with sensory materials to explore, experiment, observe and manipulate. What a wonderful, exciting way to discover our world!

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