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Preschool Education Articles

Sensory Materials: More Than Playdough

What are they?

Sensory materials are often goopy, messy things that children can't wait to get their hands into. They're what our moms told us not to play with. Any material that stimulates several senses, especially the sense of touch is considered a sensory material. Teachers use sensory materials all the time and their use is recommended for preschool and young school-age children. The following is a list of recommended sensory materials that you can use in your home or day care center.

  • playdough
  • silly putty (recipe follows)
  • bubbles (recipe follows)
  • potting or garden soil
  • sand, wet and dry
  • ooblik (cornstarch and water)
  • snow
  • ice cubes
  • shaving cream (very messy)
  • Ivory Snow and water
  • water
  • aquarium or pea gravel
  • sea shells
  • dried beans
  • cotton balls
  • grass seed
  • cornmeal
  • used, dried coffee grounds
  • rice

Please be aware that many of these materials may be inappropriate for children under three years. They can be dangerous (dried beans or gravel can get stuck in throats or ears), the children may eat them, and they can be very messy, especially soil or shaving cream. Regardless of the age of the children, provide adequate supervision while they are playing with sensory materials.

What is their value?

If our parents didn't want us to play with these materials, why are they considered valuable now? Sensory materials allow children to use their senses of sight, hearing, touch, and smell (hopefully not taste!). Using sensory materials provides children with the opportunity for hands-on, self-directed, and self-centered activity, as well as the opportunity to learn.

Wait a minute? Learning? They're just playing! Messing around! Do young children really learn anything from sensory materials? If you'd like to include sensory materials in your home or center, but don't know how to justify it to parents or other staff, read on. Sensory materials encourage the development of the following:

  • Fine motor skills (eye-hand coordination)
  • Creativity (artistic skills)
  • Creativity in play (deciding how to use the materials)
  • Social skills (sharing, cooperating)
  • Emotional development (tension releasing, soothing, failure proof, and confidence building)
  • Knowledge of science (experimentation, evaporation, gravity, physics, construction, and engineering)
  • Knowledge of math (1:1 correspondence, counting, and concepts like grouping, sequencing, weight, volume, and measurement)

How are they used?

The best way to use sensory materials is to set up large tubs either on the floor or sitting on a low platform of blocks. If large tubs are set on a table, they are often too tall for children to comfortably reach. Put a throw rug underneath the tub to contain spills so materials aren't tracked throughout the room.

To stimulate social and language development, pull the tub away from the wall so children can stand on all sides of the container. This encourages children to talk and to share their ideas with each other. If you don't have enough indoor space, or you are concerned about the mess, put the sensory tubs outside on a nice day. It is better to offer sensory materials on pleasant days than to never use them at all!

The standard container for sensory materials is a water table or tub that sells for $75 to $200. If this is out of your price range, there is a less expensive alternative. Large tubs used for mixing cement can be found at building supply stores. They sell for $10 to $15. A dish pan is commonly used, but is not large enough to manipulate the materials or for more than one child to use at a time. Use large metal or plastic serving trays for individual play with ooblik, shaving cream, and silly putty. The sides of the tray form a natural boundary for the material and will contain the mess.

Many of these materials can be used for one week at a time, stored, and reused. Food products should be in airtight containers and stored in the freezer. Soil and ooblik can be dried, stored, and reused. Playdough and silly putty should be refrigerated.

Other toys and equipment can be used with sensory materials to stimulate a greater variety of play. Include items such as plastic dinosaurs, plastic teddy bear counters, funnels, measuring cups, ice cube trays, turkey basters, ice cream scoops, egg beaters, plastic eggs, etc. Ask parents to save their empty spice shakers, yogurt containers, microwave dinner plates, margarine tubs, oatmeal containers, plastic strawberry baskets, and liquid detergent bottles. The supply of free recyclable materials is endless. Use your imagination. The children will love you for it.


Silly Putty

2c (approx.) White glue
1c (approx.) liquid starch*
Food coloring

Mix until it achieves the desired texture. If the silly putty is too sticky, add more starch. If the silly putty won't stick to itself, it needs more glue. Add your choice of food coloring with the starch.


1c Joy or Dawn dish soap
10c water
1/4 cup glycerine (makes bubbles last longer, but not really necessary to use)

Bubbles mixture may be saved in plastic jugs.

Also See Useful Recipes for more great ideas and recipes.

Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care - NNCC. Billman, J. (1995). Sensory materials: More than playdough. In Todd, C.M. (Ed.), *Child care connections*, 2(3), Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.

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