Touching the future of children’s learning

By: Kristyne E. Demske, Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | C&G Newspapers | Published September 28, 2016

 Children can learn about the world around them and develop communication skills through sensory table play.

Children can learn about the world around them and develop communication skills through sensory table play.

Photo by DGLimages/Shutterstock


METRO DETROIT — The moment they’re born, children are learning through the senses of sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. 

One of the most basic ways for infants, toddlers and children to learn is through exploration using the senses, said Laureen Krausman, the preschool teacher at St. Germaine Catholic School in St. Clair Shores. By manipulating objects with their hands and touching new textures, children can get a better idea of what something is and what it is used for.

But that type of learning doesn’t have to wait for school. 

Parents can set up sensory tables or areas with sensory bins in their own homes to help their children begin to explore the world around them.

A sensory table is a surface or a collection of tubs that can hold items — from sand to water to buttons — for kids to examine.

Sensory tables, which Krausman uses in her classroom, encourage more of a hands-on approach to learning, “especially when you get into things they’re not familiar with.”

“Just because it’s something new, a lot of times we see an increase in their enthusiasm and/or some kids have a fear of it, so we try to work through understanding that things are different,” she said.

When children interact around a sensory table, she said it helps to develop their communication and teamwork, as well as fosters sharing and taking turns. Interacting with the contents of the tables also maximizes hand-eye coordination and develops small muscle movement, which children need for writing, tying shoes, zipping, buttoning and more.

Catie Quinn, program director for Friendship Circle — a West Bloomfield-based organization that works with children with special needs — said the organization frequently is dabbling in sensory activities. 

“We’re sensory aware, you could say. We actually don’t have a sensory table in the facility, but we do some sensory activities and we have a sandbox, which is often stuff people use at home with sensory tables,” Quinn said.

Sensory tables can be used in the home or at school to encourage young kids and those with sensory processing disorders to explore and learn, she said.

“We have a lot of kids that come through (Friendship Circle) who have a formal diagnosis of sensory processing disorder,” Quinn said. 

“Basically, (sensory processing disorder) means that any sensory input — taste, touch, feel, smell — can be exaggerated or muted or distorted. What often happens with kids with formal diagnoses or some with sensory sensitivity, there’s generally a need to get some sensory intake so it can be calming. It can also be focusing to have some time to indulge that sensory need,” Quinn said. 

All toddlers — neurotypical or not — face a point in their development when they experience the world with their senses, Quinn said. So, giving them that access can help them understand the world. 

That’s where sensory tables come into play.

Sensory tables can be filled with different items for children to touch, see, smell or hear. Quinn said that Friendship Circle doesn’t focus on oral sensory input because of allergies, but in the home, parents can try using foods like celery or granola bars. If a family does not have a table, Quinn said a shallow plastic tub will do the trick. 

“My recommendation for anyone who wants to do one is to not lock themselves into one type of texture that’s in there,” Quinn said. “Don’t get one that only works for sand or water. They are flexible, so you want to be able to move things in and out of there.” 

Because the table is meant for exploring, parents can use anything from marbles to rice to dough in the bins. To encourage play, Quinn suggested that parents use a seek-and-find game where they hide things like velcro or beads in rice or sand. When it comes to testing different smells, Quinn said parents can use the seasons and incorporate items like pine cones. 

Krausman suggested that, instead of sand, parents use colored rice because it makes less of a mess. She makes hers by combining rice, a capful of rubbing alcohol, and food coloring or liquid watercolor in a zip-top bag and then spreading it to dry on a tray after it is thoroughly mixed. 

“It goes just as easily through sifters. The kids are still measuring. I don’t worry as much about them putting it in their mouth,” she said. 

Other ideas for a sensory table include kinetic sand; different pasta shapes; leaves, acorns, pinecones and apples; fake snow; and birdseed and plastic eggs. 

“They string the pasta. Sometimes I put a sorting tray out and, the next thing I know, they’re dividing the macaroni from the shells. Then it becomes mathematical,” Krausman said. 

She said she will bury items in the snow so the children can dig for and uncover the treasures. Having a letter table with Scrabble tiles, big wooden letters and other alphabet shapes is a great way for the children to be introduced to literacy through the sense of touch. And much of the sensory play helps children get ready for science as well.

“Observation is one of the first things when we’re learning science,” she said. “A lot of these sensory things ... so much of it is science-based. You’re looking and thinking, ‘Do I want to touch it? What’s going to happen when I touch it?’

“They’re all science questions.”

Quinn said the tables and bins also are good for kids working on writing. A parent can add a shallow layer of sand to the table, and the kids can use their fingers to trace out letters and numbers. For kids with sensory processing disorders, Quinn said that the Friendship Circle staff has found that the sensory activities can be calming and help a child to engage in activities after sensory play.

Quinn suggested parents keep in mind that whether they purchase a table or use shallow plastic bins, you want something that can be cleaned easily. Also, use items that are practical. 

“That would be my only caution. Otherwise, go wild and explore everything you can think of to throw in there. … If something doesn’t work, try again with something else. There’s only positive benefits from creating specific sensory playtime. You have nothing to lose. Give it a try,” Quinn said.