When I think of sensory play and art, I don’t think of them interchangeably because each is so uniquely valuable. I guess that this distinction is not really an important one to make in most circumstances. I do think it is useful for adults to consider the two separately because the expectations of the two can be very different, especially when they are set out for infants.
Aside from the benefits of experiencing different textures, smells, sounds, sights, and yes – even tastes – sensory play is great for babies because of the way we adults think about it.
Children will outgrow finger painting but not outgrow playing with sand. I think its fair to say that adults believe that children will eventually use art materials to express ideas (draw something, paint something, make something). While adults may accept and even encourage some exploration with art in the early years, such as letting children paint themselves or squish play dough between their toes, the expectation is that this type of exploration will evolve as children age.
The same is not true of sensory play. The expectations are different. Sensory experiences encourage children to sift through sand or wade through water and to ultimately use their hands to play. This expectation stays the same throughout childhood and in some cases across a lifetime (I’m thinking sand castles).
In sensory play there are no final product expectations. Even in simple open-ended art experiences such as watercolor and paper, the result is some record of a child’s play, something most of us – including myself – want to share, frame, save, or somehow keep as a token of this time and experience. I keep all of the daughters’ art and file it or save it for them to use another time but preserving their efforts in this way doesn’t even cross my mind with sensory play.
When we offer children sensory experiences, like a tub of water, there is really nothing to save. There is less of an expectation for a “finished” product with sensory materials. While a cornstarch/water mixture and paint may both spread by fingers or brushes across paper, adults less often influence the final look of something that is not likely going to hang on the refrigerator.
If a baby eats this . . . well, at least it is natural. I prefer not to offer infants art materials that may eat because I’d rather wait until they no longer taste things instead of interrupting their play to keep them from eating art materials. From natural clays to beeswax crayons there are many natural and non-toxic art materials available for children. With infants though, who may try to eat paint by the fistful, I feel far better knowing they ate a natural material like rice, even if if is something they should not eat. For toddlers (or children that are no longer tasting everything) dried beans, rice, peas, corn, birdseed, sand, cornmeal, dry corn, sand, water – to name just a few – can be fascinating to play with and not made with unpronounceable ingredients.
Sensory materials can be used again and again. Caring for the materials in the sensory bin offers my children one more experience with learning to care for something that they value. Sensory materials are a limited resource that will run out or need to be thrown out if they are not used with care and stored responsibly. As I just mentioned, I offer natural materials whenever possible and don’t really bother with one time use materials (shaving cream) for that reason.
When I first read about water beads here, I was on the fence about trying them out. They looked so great that I was eager to give them to my daughters, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to buy something synthetic. Even though water beads aren’t natural they can be used multiple times. This batch lasted more than a few months.
For a natural alternative try this.
Sensory play is the one exception to my “no food in art” rule.” Since this isn’t art, I guess it all falls into place. I don’t worry about using food when it gets used multiple times, because then at least it doesn’t seem as wasteful as a one time activity (e.g., fruit prints).
Sensory set-ups are a conduit for play. Sensory materials are intended to be used but not in a prescribed way. As much as I like to provide open-ended play experiences for children, few materials lend themselves to allowing a child to determine their worth and purpose. Will it be poured or fill different types of containers? Can you bury your hands in it or let it run through your fingers? Can it be dripped, sifted or piled? Does it become incorporated into other aspects of the child’s existing play? For this reason sensory materials are uniquely beneficial to play.
All this being said, I have not set out sensory play experiences as often as I have art. I find it harder to think of things to set-up and simply do not stock up on these types of materials like I do with art. How about you? How do you balance sensory play and art with your children?