My absolute favorite type of activity to do with little ones is sensory fun! I just love to roll up my sleeves, break out the finger paints, and then stand back and watch the minds of my charges create beautiful and unique masterpieces. But as much fun as it is, it is also a phenomenal learning experience for the growing minds of children.
Children learn through experiences using their 5 senses and young children learn predominantly through the sense of touch. So, sensory experiences give them a wide array of knowledge through simple activities. A bowl of cooked spaghetti noodles, playing gently with worms in a bowl of dirt, and other sensory activities teach children that things that are slimy can be safe and fun to touch. The worms especially teach them how to be gentle with living creatures. A sensory activity that consists of a large bowl of water, measuring cups, a funnel, and a ladle can teach your little ones a whole different set of skills: helping them learn about volume differences in the various cups given, practice wrist and hand control in scooping and pouring, and learn hand-eye coordination when dumping from cup to cup to bowl.
As a nanny, I like to ask some thought-provoking questions to my charges: how does it feel? Is it cold/warm/sticky/squishy/thick? What colors do you see? Can you fill all the cups? What happens if you mix yellow and blue paints? And so on and so forth.
The biggest lesson in sensory activities, at least in my experience, is that it is okay to let go of our inhibitions for a short time and really explore, experience and enjoy getting messy! Many children are not comfortable having dirty hands or clothes; creating a controlled sensory activity for them where they can safely have fun helps to draw the child out of their comfort zone and into a great learning encounter.
Here is a list of some of my favorite sensory activities (be aware of what’s age appropriate and what could be a choking hazard for those under 3):
● Shaving cream on a cookie tray/placemat: I like to use toy cars to “drive” through the shaving cream mounds
● Finger paint on a window, paper, sidewalk, etc.
● Cooked noodles: play with tongs, forks, etc. to pinch them
● Rice/beans: Scoop with cups and spoons
● Soap bubbles: Use the kitchen sink and a stool and scoop bubbles!
● Feet painting: Put paper on the ground and squirt paint to walk all over it
● Jello (regular or unflavored): Toss in a few small animals to “swim”
Great sensory activities are best enjoyed by adults and children when they have been set up and designed well. (Think easy clean up!) My former Mom Boss used to tell me she didn’t know how I could handle finger painting with 3 toddlers, when markers were sometimes a stretch for her patience. My response: “it’s all about your controlled environment!” Set up your activities with purpose and let the environment be another teacher. Be sure to lay out your sensory activity with cleanup in mind. If the weather is nice, have your fun outside! If not, then you should keep a spare shower curtain on hand to put on the floor under your child’s seat. Use cookie trays as placemats for activities; the rimmed edges of the trays will help to contain the mess. I like to put down an opened up brown paper bag to cover the table surface area, right under the cookie sheet. Use an art smock to cover clothes, or simply have your child strip down (there will be little complaints there, trust me). Then after the activity you can move the fun to the bathtub, or use an outside hose for water cleanup. Containment is your best friend here; plan out the activity so that you can easily keep it from getting all over your home.
If things do get messy, don’t panic! Remember that finger paint, dirt, shaving cream are all non-toxic! Most things can be washed off and are no worse for the wear. So let your imagination run wild and your child explore his senses and you will both make fun memories!
Britney Fredrickson is a nanny of six years with a B.A. in Child Development. She lives in the Napa Valley with her husband, Great Dane/Border Collie mix, and orange tabby. Having begun as a preschool/infant teacher, Britney now uses her experience and education to specialize in nanny shares, predominantly working with toddlers under age three. When she isn’t wrangling kids, she can be found reading, sewing, and noshing on goat cheese. For real time tips and anecdotes follow her on Twitter @sisternannies.