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It is often said that students–especially our youngest–learn with all of their senses, and the art room is a wonderful place to let them do so. Art inherently offers many of our students the chances they need to use their different senses, but what if we were to open up those chances on an everyday basis? What if sensory exploration were a focus in our classrooms rather than an afterthought? To get some suggestions on how to help students explore using all of their senses, I talked to Rebecca Davis, an elementary teacher from Illinois.
I met Rebecca in AOE’s class Rethinking Kindergarten, where I was impressed with a plan she developed to bring sensory exploration stations into her classroom. Students in Rethinking Kindergarten dive deep into the Reggio approach of education, and Rebecca’s idea fit perfectly. Rebecca was nice enough to answer my questions about how and why she runs sensory exploration stations in her room.
“My son was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (sensory integration) at a very young age,” Rebecca said. “He has to touch everything around him to discover how it feels and how it makes him feel.” Some of Rebecca’s experiences at home made her take notice of what was happening in the art room as well. “I began to notice patterns in certain children’s behaviors based on the art materials we were using. Some children were excited about paint while some were relieved to see crayons. I noticed some children rubbing oil pastels between their hands, yet there were others that didn’t even want to touch the oil pastels.”
That observation made Rebecca start to question her art room environment and how her students reacted to that environment. “I had learned that my own son’s behavior was often a reflection of his environment, often triggered by his senses,” she told me. “An art room can be an overwhelming sensory experience for some students, yet others crave art to satisfy their sensory needs. We all have certain sounds that drive us crazy or calm us down, and we are repulsed by certain smells yet drawn toward others. Aren’t kindergarteners the same way? They just might display their reactions in a different manner.”
Setting up stations has helped create a happy medium that allows students to experience different types of learning at their own pace. “Sensory stations allow sensory experiences to be isolated to certain areas and certain lengths of time,” she explained. “The stations are there when students need to satisfy a sensory need, but they are not overwhelming the room. As sensory needs are being met, opportunities arise for exploring, creating, and learning from art. As teachers, we know that hands-on learning can make a world of difference.”
Touch is the sense to which sensory exploration stations most appeal. Modeling compounds, such as Bubber, play dough, clay, and Playfoam, allow students opportunities for deep pressure when they are squeezing, shaping, rolling and twisting. Sand is perfect for this station because it comes in different textures and hardnesses. In addition, rollers, cookie cutters, and sensory stones are fun additions that can make for great practice with fine motor skills. Lastly, she has baskets of loose parts: an ever-changing set of materials that appeal to kids in many different ways.
Sound can be a difficult sense for kids to explore when it comes to art materials, but it is something that they do seem to explore naturally on their own. “We all know that children often find their own ways to create sound,” Rebecca said. But blocks of beads, sand, and water create a good variety of sounds in her centers, and she has recently added a rain stick as well.
The sensory station dealing with sight is a great way for kids to learn about colors. Rebecca’s favorite tool for visual stimulation is a light table because students can explore colors, shadows, and reflections. Though they can be costly, there are some DIY options as well.
Windows are also a great way to explore colors and prisms. Sunlight shining through different objects can be very interesting to students. In addition, students respond well to mirrors, lights, and reflections. Therefore, mirrored blocks are a great option here, too.
In Rebecca’s words: “Scented markers are a fun and easy way to add smell to sensory stations. Kindergarteners have fun smelling each marker and their paper, and it is even fun to mix different scents on the paper to create a new scent.” Scented bins are also a possibility, such as a fall bin with cinnamon, pinecones, and pumpkins.
Rebecca encourages kids to try each station but notes that it is important to let students choose what they want to do. Sensory stations can affect the classroom environment, producing a calming effect with kids so they can focus on learning without overstimulation. This is perfect for kids who need a break, or who struggle with transitions. The stations are a place to help them reset and refocus, which will help with managing the art room in general. Most importantly, sensory stations can open up endless learning opportunities for students. They’re a great asset to the art room!
Have you ever tried sensory stations in your room? How did your students react?
What sensory materials would you love to add to your classroom?
Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.