My mom recently mentioned some of the activities my grandfather is doing at a rehabilitation facility after a hip replacement. Not only are they working on his hip, they are also working on his sight, sensory perception, and eating skills as a bonus. She mentioned that one activity includes mixing small items in with dried beans and then finding the items in the mix. It helps with sight, touch, and visual and tactile discrimination. I immediately thought of the sensory activities we do with young children! We do a similar activity around Halloween, mixing in Mr. Potato Head parts with beans inside of a hollowed out pumpkin (fake--I use it year after year). The children can then decorate the Pumpkin Head. They are working on those same skills, such as visual and tactile discrimination as they search through the beans to find the Mr. Potato Head parts.
In this sensory drawer (half off at the ReStore of Elkhart County, costing $1.50 for a nice little tray) leftover from our apple studies at Nurturing Acorns, we had the fixings for apple crisp, with oatmeal, cinnamon sticks, and red, green, and clear beads and baubles. These could simulate apples, leaves, water, etc. There was even a misplaced frog, army man, and golf tee! In the past, I've also included small bits of sand paper to draw on with the cinnamon sticks. It smells great!
As my son was playing with this I pulled out several small stainless steel little cups (Sam's Club--about $5 for 12?). These became tools for categorizing his finds, scoops for the materials, and hiding places for the frog. Small additions like this make a huge difference in how the materials might be used. I once found a bag of plastic scoops from drink containers and such for 50 cents at a garage sale--what a find! And, yes, we use them! Toddlers and preschoolers are naturally drawn to scooping, pouring, and categorizing. This "play" is learning time, building connections, and strengthening cognitive bonds.
We left the bin accessible on the table for a few days. While it was designed for our two-year-old and his friends, I will say that I saw all the boys, ages 5, 8, and 10, scooping their hands in the mixture over the days. I wonder if we need more "sensory work" as adults. I really wanted to say sensory play as adults, but wondered if we really embrace the concept of play as adults. I'll keep thinking on it! Let me know if you have ideas!
While we did this inside, I still consider this nature play. It uses mostly natural items, allows for inquiry and exploration, and is open-ended. I call these "invitations" or just sensory play. While some basic materials are curated for play, the child is allowed to do with it what he/she pleases. Some may see these as a "substitute" for time outside, I just see it as an addition to the great nature play we have outside. It's another trick to have up our sleeve to keep toddlers off the television. :-)
When done, I just poured the items in a plastic ziploc to use for the future, reserving our little bowls for rotation back in our dishes. After all the little boy hands in the oatmeal, it wasn't something I wanted to cook with again. However, I'm sure we'll bring this out again with different items throughout the year for more sensory play.