Walk into any early childhood classroom and you’re sure to spot a sensory table—usually a short, wide, open table—filled with one of a variety of materials: sand, water, corn, beans, etc. I’ve recently seen teachers even fill theirs with fake snow, aquarium rocks, pom-poms and shredded paper. There are bound to be several kids gathered around it, because it’s often the most popular spot in the room.
As kids, we had sand and, if we were lucky, water to play in. But kids today have the opportunity to sink their hands into a wide variety of sensory materials. Why is sensory play so important? Because kids learn best when all of their senses are engaged. Think about trying to teach your 3-year-old about snow, for instance. You can tell her it’s cold, but it melts and turns into water when it gets warm. You can tell her we have to wear gloves when we play in the snow or our hands will get too cold and hurt. You can tell her that snow packs into a ball and that—if the temperature is just right—we can build with it. Or you can fill a tub with snow and let her figure out all of those things on her own. Sensory play is open-ended, it teaches a multitude of math and science concepts, it’s calming and anyone can enjoy it.
More and more often, smaller sensory tubs—or sensory boxes—are popping up in classrooms, therapy sessions and homes. They are essentially a small version of a sensory table, but they are portable and easy to adapt to a wide variety of themes. They are also a great tool for teaching language.
Once you have your sensory box filled up, the fun begins.
To build a sensory box, you first need a tub. I chose one that’s about the size of two shoe boxes and has a lid that secures with clasps. (I transport my sensory box daily, and I want to prevent spills.) Then you need something to fill it with. I like rice, but I also frequently use corn or beans. Keep your particular child in mind when filling your tub—small pieces can be dangerous for mouthers.
Once you have your sensory box filled up, the fun begins. A quick search on Pinterest presents endless ideas for adding to your sensory box. Throw in fall leaves, pinecones, and pumpkins for fall. Put in blue glass rocks, rubber fish, and seashells to make it an ocean. Add a small barn and farm animals, cars and trucks—the possibilities are endless. You can even add fragrance to add to the multi-sensory experience.
But, how do you use a sensory box to build language? Here are some ideas:
If your child is not yet saying many words spontaneously, but has started to imitate sounds or some words, a sensory box will help him stay engaged and interested while he practices. Play with objects in the box with your child and find some simple words for him to imitate: dig, look!, wow!, pour, up, down, in, out, etc.
If your child is talking a lot, but is hard to understand, you can work on specific sounds. Fill the box with a bike, box, baby, etc. to work on “b.” Check with your child’s speech therapist for the best sounds for your child to practice.
Try hiding something in the box for your child to find. For instance, if you’re working on animal sounds or identifying animals, hide your barnyard figurines in the box. As your child pulls them out, practice saying their name or sound.
Add a step to target cognitive skills, too: Hide puzzle pieces or shapes in the box, and as your child finds them he can complete the puzzle or fit the shapes into a shape sorter.
Work on receptive language skills by making requests: “Pour rice on the car.” “Put the ball in the cup.” “Give me the cow, please.” You can also introduce two-step directions here: “Put the cow in the cup, and put the cup on the table.”
Teach a late talker to point to make a choice. Hold up two items and ask, “Which one should we use?”