In my years prior to graduate school, I had the privilege of working under some amazing educators. They adhered to a Reggio Emilia model of early childhood education. This philosophy emphasizes discovery and investigation through student led projects and within a community of learners. This is when I truly gained an appreciation for the importance of sensory stimulation as a way of challenging the neural development of a child while also encouraging them to exhibit and explore their creativity! While every child may not have the ability to attend a Reggio preschool, you can do this at home! Creating sensory bins for toddlers is a great way to incorporate these opportunities into your child’s play. Your toddler will be challenged to explore their senses and be encouraged to develop their creative and critical thinking skills.
If you’re not a preschool teacher or a mommy blogger, perhaps you’re asking “what’s a sensory bin?” Think of it as a snack for your senses. It’s frequently a contained quantity of some material that engages your child’s senses. It is designed to be developmentally and appropriate for your child, perhaps seasonal, and frequently engages multiple senses including touch, smell, and sight. Because our brains learn from experience, sensory bins are designed to equip your child to learn through experiencing various materials. Sand boxes, water tables, and finger paints all play off this same concept. However, with summer here, sensory bins are a great way to engage your child’s mind in a exciting, convenient, and contained (usually) manner.
Here are a few tips when incorporating sensory bins into your play at home:
Prompt a project; Often, we need not instruct our toddler’s curiosity, they have plenty of things they wonder about. Try asking your toddler a question like “What would you like to learn about?” If this is too vague, prompt your child with a few interests that have exhibited. Then, talk about how you could learn about that subject. Maybe it’s flowers, or worms, or lakes and streams. All of these can be incorporated into a project that utilizes a sensory experience! This approach to learning is certain to engage your toddler. I love the various ideas presented on the blog, PlayCreateExplore, and I’m sure you will too!
Incorporate seasonal learning; If you’re fortunate enough to live in an area where you witness fall, winter, spring, and summer, incorporate the outdoor elements into your sensory bins. Leaves, snow, flowers, grass, and sand all present wonderful opportunities to explore nature and science concepts. Consider gathering these elements and working with them inside too! Witnessing snow melt inside or leaves crack between your toddlers fingers can be a fun way to play when it’s too cold to be outside for long periods of time.
Explore together; Many of these sensory projects can be more engaging when your toddler gets to work with you or a peer. Consider inviting your toddler’s pal over for a project play date. Determine what they would like to learn about, and find a way to incorporate a sensory bin into their topic. However, this doesn’t have to be formal. Maybe you find yourself with three toddlers at your house on a rainy day. Create three bins/baskets. One with cotton balls, one with blocks, and the last with markers. Try prompting, “Which one of these will make the tallest building? Why? Let’s try it!”
Document the experience; With the ease of photography these days, documentation has never been easier. This is also a critical component of the Reggio Emilia philosophy. By documenting these projects, learning experiences, and sensory exploration, it provides your toddler the opportunity to reflect upon the experience together. Consider using your smartphone to take pictures of your child’s project as well as the process. Another option is to create a reflection notebook. Give your toddler the opportunity to document his/her own work! Although it may not be the most accurate depiction of their project, it will definitely be meaningful to them. Consider narrating their work by writing some of their words at the bottom of the entry, just in case years from now it’s not near as obvious that that mess of purple lines are worms in a bucket.
Reflect together; Take the time to talk with your toddler. They will enjoy looking through pictures of themselves working on their project! Encourage your toddler to talk about what they did and how it felt. This reflection encourages language development as well as critical thinking. This may also spark further interests on various topics, which could lead to the next project with your curious toddler.
These sensory bins not only foster development in fine motor and sensory abilities but also foster opportunities for language development, critical thinking, and socialization. So, why not ask some questions, make a mess, and enjoy exploring through the eyes, fingers, nose, and toes of your toddler?