The sensory table is a fantastic play area for all early childhood classrooms and this blog post has 7 easy sensory table ideas for you to implement in your classroom. Sensory tables not only fill a sensory need for many students, they also help all students learn about many things! Students learn about science and math from changing materials and states of matter, volume and capacity, conservation, and more! Students are also developing language skills by telling stories about their play and discussing their observations and wonderings.
Start with Sand
I always start my year with sand in my sensory table. Sand is something that the majority, if not all, of my students are familiar with from preschool or the playground. It’s helpful to start with a material that students are familiar with so that they can focus on learning the rules and expectations of the sensory table. It also makes them feel more comfortable to try out new ways to play and experiment when they are starting with a familiar material.
Some sensory table ideas for sand include adding sand toys, adding some water, foam letters, plastic animals, and more. My students are generally engaged in playing with the sand table and the same sand toys for the first 4-6 months of school. They are always finding new ways to play with the sand and make up stories and imaginative play with the sand. Sand is a very easy sensory table material to start with.
Water is the next easiest sensory table material, because children are very familiar with playing with water from bathtubs, and most likely preschool sensory table experiences. I like to wait to put out water until the end of the year for a few reasons. One, the students have had enough practice with self-control in the play area that it will be an easy transition to making sure to keep water inside the table. Second, I love using water and soap in my sensory table to clean toys and materials at the end of the year. The kids love having new materials in the water, and I love that my toys get cleaned! Win-win!
In the water table, I like to put out clear plastic tubes and cups with different size holes cut into them, turkey basters, measuring cups, droppers, and funnels. I also like to change the color of the water frequently and mix colors as well. Adding in soap is also a fun addition for the students!
Water beads are probably the easiest and most instantly engaging sensory table ideas. You can buy them on Amazon in my storefront and they come very small to start. Spread them into the sensory table and add a thin layer of water to the table. Over some time (I like to leave them overnight) they will expand to the size of a dime or smaller. I would start with less water and then you can always add more water if you want the water beads to get bigger. Over time, the beads will shrink again. Just add more water overnight and they will grow bigger again!
With the water beads, I add similar tools as I do for regular water – cups, funnels, shovels, buckets, etc. I have also added in plastic toys, like pretend underwater animals. But, you should be prepared that whatever you put in will get a slight sticky layer on it from the water beads, so they will have to be washed when you are finished.
Ice and Snow
When winter comes outside, I love to bring it inside whenever possible! Adding snow and ice to my sensory table lets children explore with changing states of matter! They love discovering how to melt the ice and snow. A fun thing to add is colored water or watercolor paint to see what happens to the snow and/or ice. You can always freeze some ice in different shape containers and then just let the children explore with it! I like asking my students what they want to add to the table with the ice and then I follow their lead. For more ideas about winter activities, check out this blog post!
Throw Random Materials Together
Sometimes when I want to change up the sensory table ideas and am struggling for sensory table ideas, I just start throwing random materials into the sensory table and see what happens. One time I threw in some pom-poms and straws and cups and I loved the imaginative play I saw. So, I add in this combination every year now! I saw a lot of sorting the pom-poms by color and size and pretending the pom-poms were liquids and drinks with the straws.
I also have loved putting in random paper scraps and seeing what the students do with them. This is great for fine motor development. The children can rip up the paper scraps or you can give scissors and they can cut the scraps into smaller scraps. They love the freedom of ripping and cutting in whatever way they want, and the scraps stay inside the table, so it should be easy to clean up!
Old Science Units
I used to do a whole unit on magnets, so I had a bunch of leftover magnets of all varying sizes and shapes. I threw them in the sensory table one day and added some cardboard and non-magnetic materials. The students were so curious about how many magnets they could connect to, which materials were magnetic, and if they could move a magnet through another object, like cardboard.
Balls and ramps is another fun exploration unit and if you don’t have the time in your science curriculum to teach it, like me, you can always add in some ramps and different kinds of balls into your sensory table! It’s a great place to explore with balls and ramps, because the balls are naturally caught in the sensory table and aren’t at risk to go bouncing all over the place!
I read an interesting article in college, (I can’t find it anymore so I can’t link it unfortunately) that talked about reconsidering food in play. Up until this article I hadn’t thought twice about the rice and beans I would see in the sensory table or in different art projects. The article mentioned how playing with all this food, gives children the idea that food is for playing not eating. This also promotes wasting food. Many families around the world, and in our own communities, do not have enough food to eat. What if a starving child walked into your classroom and saw an entire sensory table full of rice? What kind of message would that send?
I am not saying don’t ever use food in your classroom, but just think about the purpose behind using it. Is there another material that could be used instead? It’s definitely something to consider and reflect on when planning your play materials.
Sensory table ideas do not have to be complicated! When in doubt, throw odd materials inside the table and see what the children do with them! Classic sensory table ideas include sand and water. No matter what you put in your sensory table, children will always amaze you with their creativity and observations! Let me know which idea you are excited to try in the comments below!
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