Sensory “Art” Group for Infants and Toddlers


The Infant/Toddler Art Group is Back! Now that the weather is more predictable, I plan on hosting an art group each month.


This month instead art as usual, a friend had the inspired idea of a sensory “art” group. She provided most of the sensory bins but I brought a couple too.


Available tools included various sorts of containers and spoons.



Tools?  Why hands  . . .



and feet, of course!



Aside from the moon sand, sand, waterbeads and rice bins pictured above, there were also bins of corn/wheat mix (hen scratch), whole corn kernel, natural materials and a water bin (not pictured).




This is my friend’s enviable collection of rocks, shells, driftwood, and a lone feather.


This was a collaborative effort so there were more sensory bins than I would have offered were I to host this one alone. If you are considering hosting a playgroup like this it would be just as wonderful on a smaller scale. Despite the many choices, the children did not seem overwhelmed. I think that having the freedom to choose which bins to play with and being able to at them for as long as they wanted was key to making this a playful event.

Play is Enough

A teacher friend that I just told about the blog shared with me that she knew what to do with preschool aged children, but was wondering if she was doing enough with her infant son.


It was such a touching moment in an otherwise rushed conversation. Z’s mama was essentially telling me that she didn’t know if she was doing all that she could for the son whom she loves so dearly.


Then I wondered, do other parents wonder if they they offer enough play stuff for their children?


I share the thought processes behind many types of our parenting decisions. I write about the play that my daughters are doing, the toys/materials they use to share what works for us, and why.  There are no templates for following your child’s lead, because all our children are different.


Play is about giving children chances. Knowing that children, even very young children, are capable of many more things than we give them the opportunity to do. Chances to pour their own water or to use a paint brush. Chances to be something else, or at least look like something else.


I recently shared these thoughts about sensory play, but all of these materials are really unnecessary if your child has a safe interesting play space. If I hadn’t offered the girls extra materials and instead took them outside to play (as I often do), their sensory experiences would be just as rich. Everything from the prickly feel of grass blades to the grit of coarse sand, children who experience life experience learning.



I’ve written before about how I hold off on lots of experiences because I think that while I want my daughters experience all the wonderful things in this world, I don’t think they need to experience them all right now.


As much as I love art, I’ve looked to my daughters to clue me into when they are ready for more. My eldest daughter has been using paint for about two years now, but it was just this last month that I offered her more than three colors (pre-mixed) at a time.


Toys, art, books – all of these material things are conduits of play. They are props designed to help the children’s ideas come to life and keep them playing their ideas in their own way. This is why I believe that they are just as occupied with pine cones as they are with fabricated toys.


The most important learning they do really has nothing to do with the kind of paint they use or the books we read together, but rather with the values conveyed to them by just letting them play. Learning to trust themselves, speak their minds, show generosity, and problem-solve may happen through activities, but it is the opportunity to play that makes this possible.



Offering our children activities is a joyous part of parenting, but I don’t think of it as being an essential part of what she’ll need to love life.


The next time you wonder if you are offering enough art, science, or whatever else, remember that play is enough.


How Sensory Play is Different Than Art

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?

Trusting in Exploratory Play: First Experiences with Glue

With the toddler art group on hiatus until we are able to find a suitable place to hold it these wintery months, I decided to step back to look at Greysen’s art experiences. What mediums has she used, and what has she not? The list of haves is considerably shorter than the have-nots. So, where to begin? Since we have a few new art mediums that came under the tree, I thought about what things we had not tried yet. I wondered if she may be ready for glue.





Initial experience with materials are about exploration – a time for children to touch, taste, smell, examine, and/or listen to a material, discovering its various properties in the process.


I was eager for Greysen to get glue on her hands, as I imagined it offering the most opportunities for her to understand what glue can really do. Initially, I had several ideas of how to introduce the glue to her but in the end I decided to go with what I usually do when I’m not sure what I’m doing.


1.Keep it Simple.


Rather than giving her glue and collage materials for gluing, I decided to only offer her glue and something on which to spread it. I put the glue in a small glass bowl so that she could see the glue and easily grab it should she want to.


2. Start with the familiar.


Greysen is used to painting with liquid watercolor from glass jars, so I gave her glue in the aforementioned glass bowl instead of the squeeze bottle it comes in. I also gave her a brush and a dark piece of paper to contrast to the white of the glue.


3. Let go of my agenda.


Maybe she’ll learn something about glue, or maybe not – we’ll see. I had an idea of what I hoped she would learn about glue – that it adheres two separate things together, but what was she interested in learning about it?


4. Allow time for exploration


I was admittedly very curious to see how Greysen would approach the glue. I wanted to show her how glue works and how it differs from paint. I stepped aside and watched her play.


Let the Gluing Begin

Glue really drips! I guess I knew that, but it was not at all in my mind as one of the things that I would have chosen to teach Greysen about would I have taken the lead in this play.


She brushed the glue like paint for some time, always going back to letting it drip. After a while a happy accident occurred – she just so happened to glue a sheet of paper to the wax paper.




She kept gluing, and I continued to sit and watch her play without commenting.


Before long, paint wound up all over her hands. She made no comments while feeling the drying glue on her hands, but her face said it all.


This was unexpected.


Distracted by the dry glue on her hands, she stopped gluing. She spent some time picking at the crackling glue on her fingertips. Eventually, she confessed, “sticky”.


The following day I showed her the paper she had glued and pulled at it a bit, thinking she may notice it was stuck to the wax paper. Instead, she ran her fingers over the dried clear glue. AGAIN, I had not thought about the fact that glue looks and feels different when its dry.


Greysen took her learning into her own hands. I feel obligated to offer her the glue in a different ways, and really have no clue on what to do next. Any ideas?


I take comfort in the possibility that perhaps all she needs is some more glue to really explore this medium again.


As Greysen grows she is becoming ready for new toys, art materials and experiences. The curriculum coordinator in me is so eager for her to try new tools and materials. Every now and then, this excitement gets the best of me and leads me to have expectations of where her learning may go. However, in reviewing the pictures of Greysen’s gluing experience I was surprised to see how much of her learning was about some of the properties of glue that I had not expected her to learn about. I’ll try to remember this next time.