Sensory Materials: More Than
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
- silly putty (recipe follows)
- bubbles (recipe follows)
- potting or garden soil
- sand, wet and dry
- ooblik (cornstarch and water)
- ice cubes
- shaving cream (very messy)
- Ivory Snow and water
- aquarium or pea gravel
- sea shells
- dried beans
- cotton balls
- grass seed
- used, dried coffee grounds
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
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
- Creativity (artistic skills)
- Creativity in play (deciding how to use
- 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
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
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.
2c (approx.) White glue
1c (approx.) liquid starch*
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
1/4 cup glycerine (makes bubbles last longer, but not really necessary
Bubbles mixture may be saved in plastic jugs.
Also See Useful Recipes for more great ideas
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