In every Kaplan classroom you will find a sensory table along with plenty of other opportunities to play with sensorial materials (playdough, beads, cotton balls...) and you may have wondered why is that, or even if it is really necessary. I'm here to tell you that yes, it is very necessary for young children to have plenty of opportunities to play with materials that stimulate their senses.
A sensory table is a very special tool in a preschool classroom, it is a place where a child can have pretty much total control over his actions and experiences; where it is rare that a teacher needs to intervene to alter the way in which the materials are used: children can grab as much moonsand in their fist as they can possibly hold, no need to share; they can pour sand through a funnel over and over again, no need to change activities; push playdough into a tin for the sake of feeling its resistance against their fingers, no need to produce any finished object... They can guide their experiences based on their sensory needs, which is what makes it an ideal place for a distressed child (think separation anxiety, difficulty during a transition...) to calm down.
It is also a place for exploration, where a child is encouraged to naturally use scientific processes such as comparing, counting and making predictions (will this skinny cup hold all the water in the short fat one?, how many cotton balls can I line up on this edge?). All this manipulation is also a pathway to develop specific vocabulary related to the physical qualities of the materials (heavy/light, soft/hard, wet/slimy...).
As a child pours, spoons and grabs materials, she is developing hand-eye coordination and refining fine motor skills that will be essential when she is learning to write.
And if all these weren't enough, sensory experiences create specific, new neural pathways in the brain, which is why tracing a letter in the sand with your finger is a much more effective way to learn to write that letter than starting directly with a pencil. That shape and the proper directionality of letter formation become imprinted in the brain much more effectively through touch than through the use of a tool.
It is easy to think as sensory play as an essentially tactile experience, but the sense of touch is not the only one that comes into play when we plan these activities; often we will scent play dough or moonsand or choose naturally scented materials like pine needles or herbs to add another dimension to sensory play. The senses of hearing and sight are also engaged in these activities, as most materials will make some kind of sound when manipulated (think of rice flowing through a funnel and tapping a metal recipient as it falls into it).
Furthermore, just as children learn and practice social skills, language development and so on through sensory play, their brains also learn and develop through it, making them become more perceptive the more they use their senses.