One Big List Of Sensory Bin Fillers

To all of the educators out there teaching in early childhood- the daycare workers, the preschool and kindergarten teachers, even up into first and second grade, this post is for you. First, to salute you for your noble work. Teaching littles can be difficult, emotions run high and logic doesn’t always seem to follow. But at the end of the day, we all know the work we are doing is worth it for those little brains to learn and grow. 

Here’s a tool for my fellow sensory bin lovers, something I’ve searched the internet, Pinterest, and Instagram for a few years now, and I am ready to share my findings with you. My best list of sensory bin fillers!

  • Good old fashioned rice- Fairly common, but always a hit. Dye the rice fun colors for an added twist. 
  • Shaving cream or
  • Whipped cream- make sure your students know which one is edible! 
  • Pom-poms 
  • Cardboard pieces cut up smaller 
  • Water with scoops and cups
  • Ice
  • Playdough 
  • Tissue paper
  • Water beads
  • Shredded paper 
  • Dried noodles 
  • Cooked noodles 
  • Foam packing peanuts 
  • Bubble wrap 
  • Cotton balls as pretend snow
  • A big bucket of snow! What’s more fun than snow indoors for littles? 
  • Dried corn for those fall months 
  • Straw or hay 
  • Fake grass (usually made for Easter baskets) 
  • REAL grass! 
  • Legos
  • Bubble Foam
  • Sand or moon sand 
  • Rocks 
  • Leaves 
  • Buttons 
  • If you’re feeling like you’re ready for a really messy day- Dirt!
  • Feathers 
  • Flower petals/ flowers- either real or fake 
  • Fabric pieces 
  • Beads 

The possibilities are endless! We have had so many successes and failures in our sensory bin activities. Some I find are not interesting right away, but left out can facilitate great play. This list is just a start to items you can find in a sensory table, but my hope is that it can get your gears turning for some fun, imaginative play for littles. 

What are some of your go-to sensory bin activities? What has worked for you in the past? Is there something new on this list that you are going to try in your classroom? 

A child’s play is not simply a reproduction of what he has experienced, but a creative reworking of the impressions he has aquired.

Vgotsky

Do You Teach Early Childhood Ages? This List Is For You

Around the time my daughter was 18 months old, I had an epiphany moment. I was a full-time stay at home mom. The majority of my focus was on raising and teaching her, so I needed to treat it more like it was at least my part-time job. I spent my day running my own errands, dragging her around with me, and when I needed to accomplish tasks around the house I would try to pawn her off to her room to play with her toys. 

Well, her toys eventually were boring to her and she spent more time clinging to me than ever before. That’s when I realized something needed to change. If my job was to raise and teach her, then that’s where I needed to shift my focus. 

I researched age-appropriate, educational activities for her, built up a good stash of supplies, and got to work. In the year I have been doing these with her, I have also come up with a decent list of tips that I believe can benefit everyone, whether you’re also a stay at home mom like me, a working mom, or a teacher of littles. 

Without further ado, here are the crucial tips I’ve learned. 

1. Everything can and will be cleaned up- Sensory bins are messy. Painting for the first ten times is messy. Even playing with stickers can be messy. This was so hard for me and I would have to just take a deep breath and remind myself that it will be cleaned up, but for now, she’s learning. 

2. Cleaning is fun for toddlers, take advantage of that- My daughter LOVED wiping up the table after a small sensory activity. She’s two years old now and still loves it. I’m taking full advantage of her help for as long as possible. It’s also teaching her some cleaning skills. Double win!  

3. Don’t overfill the sensory bin with too many tools- The first sensory bin I did with my daughter was a giant bust. I filled it full of fun tools she could use to play in the water. Right away she became overwhelmed with the number of things in front of her and refused to play with it. Too many options and information can overwhelm any child, even into kinder and first grade.

4. Just because they weren’t very good at a certain activity or bin the first time, doesn’t mean it’s a bust. They’ll get better and have more fun every time you pull it out.  

5. “Taste Safe” does not mean it’s an afternoon snack. It means you don’t need to try poison control when it’s put in their mouths- Especially small kids are notorious for eating EVERYTHING. So taste safe can be best, sometimes even into Kindergarten, because five-year-olds are just as guilty at placing anything in mouths, noses, and ears! This doesn’t mean they have free reign to eat cornmeal. It just means you don’t need to worry when it’s in their mouth, you just need to respond with, “yuck!” so it doesn’t continue happening.  

6. Don’t underestimate their abilities. 

7. Messes mean their learning. It’s hard, but it’s true.  

8. They don’t have to do an activity exactly how you envisioned for it still to be fun for them.

9. Some activities are a bust, and that’s okay. Try again later. 

11. Tape. Construction paper. Markers. You don’t need a lot of supplies, or even expensive supplies to make it fun and educational. In fact, the activity on repeat in our house is painting with water on construction paper. This takes construction paper, some sort of paintbrush, and a cup to hold water. So. Easy.

12. 1-2 drops of food coloring is all you need. 

13. Water play is the cleanest play. Nervous about sensory bins in your house or classroom because they are notorious for being messy? You’re not alone. If you have access to a non-carpeted area, water sensory bins are great because they can only do the floors a favor when all it needs is a good mopping when it’s over. 

14. They’ll never learn the responsibility of playing in a sensory bin or with messy activities if you never give them the opportunity to. 

15. You don’t have to understand what concepts they are learning, you just have to understand that it’s important that they really play. I used to be nervous about making hands-on activities for my daughter because I wasn’t exactly sure what she was learning or how to explain it to her. The good news is- you don’t need to either. In this photo, my daughter is experimenting with baking soda and vinegar. She doesn’t need to know that what’s happening are the hydrogen ions within the vinegar react with the bicarbonate in the baking soda, causing a reaction, creating new chemicals, which lead to a second reaction. All she needs to know is that when the vinegar hits the baking soda, it makes bubbles. Don’t feel daunted by the minute details. Just let them play. 


Kinder Prep Frenzy Continued: On Redshirting Kindergartners #TeacherMom

I have written before about the kinder prep frenzy, but as I prepare to register my second kindergartner, I’m finding the exact same headlines, debates, and anxieties continue to circulate.

Most recently in my state, an op-ed was published about how parents really ought to just go for redshirting if they are on the fence. But I appreciated insight from one reader who commented:

“I noted the author said the older kindergarteners in her class could form cursive letters, and I just cannot see how teaching cursive writing to a 5 or 6 year old is appropriate or necessary. How frustrating that could be for a child who is developmentally typical for his or her age but does not have the necessary fine motor control for cursive writing.
I think instead of making kids wait until they are ready for kindergarten, we need to make kindergarten appropriate for 5 year olds.”

~comment by “arfeiniel”

What’s more, an analysis on EducationNext reviewed claims regarding the benefits of redshirting, finding them to be shaky at best. For instance:

“This initial advantage in academic achievement dissipates sharply over time, however, and appears to vanish by high school

…The positive impacts of being more mature are offset by the negative effects of attending class with younger students.”

~Is Your Child Ready for Kindergarten?

The authors go on to discuss the fact that children of parents with more advantages tend to be redshirted at higher rates, presenting a potential equity issue when it comes to the many parents who do not have the luxury to choose.

They do note, however, instances in which redshirting might be appropriate, such as trauma or extreme developmental delay.

Overall, redshirting seems to involve too much fear, too much short-term, and too much “not-enough-ness.” Barring extreme circumstances, we would all do well to start from a place of trust and confidence in our children, and deal with challenges that arrive as they come. As always, we must respond to the needs of the children, not the other way around.

Maybe I’m just biased as an August birthday here. Or maybe these strong inclinations toward courage and pushing back against the status quo were, in fact, shaped by always being the youngest in school…

featured image: Howard County Library System

What We’re Signing Them Up For & Why #TeacherMom

Is it bad that as I attended a training meeting for an online preschool, I was:

1) reading Free to Learn by Peter Gray, and,

2) internally rolling my eyes while the trainer extolled promises of kindergarten readiness and motivation tips for consistent use from our 4 year-olds?

I probably didn’t earn any gold stars at any rate.

But I’m not in it for performance anyway. I’m in it because my son has started to exhibit interest in letters, and I wanted to see whether this program might further his interest. It is not to replace or even complete with our story time, library trips, or casual chats related to literacy.

If he’s not motivated, it’s not because I need to do more to motivate him — it’s because he’s not developmentally ready for it.

If he’s not “performing” on later tests, it’s not because I didn’t do enough to drill ABC’s with him in PreK — it’s because standardized tests are an inherently poor measure of authentic learning.

These are truths whether we face, as Kristine Mraz put it so eloquently,  lowercase “s” struggles (ordinary variation of learning pace) or uppercase “S” STRUGGLES (systemic barriers that disproportionately impact families and students of color).

However, when we look again at this program with the lens of STRUGGLE, it becomes clearer why we might hope it will aid in closing socioeconomic achievement gaps. After all, it’s free, home-based, and equipped with personal consultants for each family to support their children.

But even so, I would caution all users against being overly dazzled by promises of future academic performance. I would probably be more enthusiastic if the introductory folder (full of opt-in sheets for motivational texts and tips for establishing user routines) also included information on the local library and tips for establishing meaningful literary routines. (I’d like to be clear, I am grateful for the resource to be able to help my son investigate his growing curiosity about letters in a new way; I just don’t attach the same weight to it all that the program seems to expect).

No matter our background, and no matter our kids’ ages, books > programs. Connecting with a good book is much more likely to produce readers than drilling skills.

For other parents worried about kindergarten readiness, here are some other posts you might enjoy based on our experiences with my now 3rd grader:

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

3 Fabulous Rhyming Picture Books & Their Powerful Impact on Reading

A recent favorite read-along is the beloved classic, “Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. After just a couple listens, I would find my 3 year old chanting the phrases during make-believe play, marching up and down the halls.

This kind of small adoption into personal speaking and listening have a major impact on literacy development. From fluency to comprehension that words are made up of small sounds (known as phonemic awareness), rhyming and or lyrical books can be powerful for our youngest readers.

Here are three of our recent rhyming reads that have become instant hits with my kids:

A Greyhound, A Groundhog by Emily Jenkins and Chris Appelhans

This delightful tongue-twister immediately had me thinking of Dr. Seuss. I especially loved the gorgeous artwork as brown and grey swirls as fluidly as the wordplay. Incidentally, research shows that such tongue-twisters take the power of rhyming/lyrical reads up a notch when it comes to that above-mentioned phonemic awareness, so go ahead and check out “Fox & Socks” again with your preschoolers, too!

When’s My Birthday? by Julie Fogliano and Christian Robinson

This one isn’t technically a rhyming book, but it is oh, so lyrical. Not to mention on the very topic that most young kids everywhere continually obsess about. “when’s my birthday? where’s my birthday? how many days until my birthday?’ launches a beautiful countdown to kids’ favorite celebration. My kids especially loved the birthday chart at the very end of the book.

Gone CampingA Novel in Verse by Tamera Will Wissinger and Matthew Cordell

This outdoors-loving girl adored this book the moment I had it in my hands. In delightfully varied forms of poetry, follow the story of Sam and Lucy’s camping trip. Individual chapters are particularly valuable as short reads to build fluency with your older students (see a discussion and specific strategies from Russ Walsh here). And of course, the handy reference at the back on rhyme, rhythm, literary devices, and poetic forms makes the perfect companion for any poetry unit.

What are some of your favorite rhyming and/or lyrical reads with your kids?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Preschool, Kinder-Prep & 3 Things Kids Need Most #TeacherMom

It’s January and I have a 3 year-old that will be 4 by September. Translation (according to modern society): I should be in a panic because preschool application deadlines are upon us. And of course, after preschool comes kindergarten, and we’re told that academic success in kindergarten corresponds with future earnings.

No pressure.

Yet, when it comes to all that kinder-prep frenzy, I learned the hard way that that pressure does very little to produce a desirable effect, and I have no wish to repeat the experience.

For the sake of my friends and acquaintances in the same stressful boat who feel their sanity hangs by a thread, I want to share a few thoughts once more on this kinder-prep phenomenon.

First, recognize that as a loving, involved parent, you are enough. The scarcity mindset comes from a place of fear — fear that there’s something out there that we don’t have enough of, and it is the deal-breaker between success and failure (for us and our children). But as Brene Brown wrote,

I thought of this same principle when I saw this lovely post from Kristina Kuzmic:

Of course, this NOT intended to be mean preschool isn’t valuable and even necessary for many families. Programs like Head Start play a particularly valuable role, providing support for children that may not have as many advantages.

What this does mean is that we should never underestimate the impact of a loving and involved parent. As I’ve shared before from one of our local university preschools,

“You parents are already doing a great deal to insure success in kindergarten for your youngster. You read to your children, you go on family outings, you model a love for learning, but most of all you are very involved in the lives of your children. This will make kindergarten a wonderful time for your child, and start him/her on the road to a good education.”

Second, recognize that excessive focus on the future robs us of today’s opportunities.

It’s wonderful to want to ensure our kids can face whatever their futures hold. But sometimes we should pause and ask ourselves: are we focusing so much on the future that we forget to focus on their current developmental needs?

In other words, is it about the developmental needs of a 3-4 year-old, or is it about fear for what they might not be ready for when they turn 5?

This fearful approach might include excessive academic drilling, worksheets, or other highly-marketed programs that guarantee hitting every “kindergarten readiness” checklist item. For the most part, rich social interactions are what preschoolers developmentally need most at this age — playing outside with other kids, helping out with siblings, etc. Incidentally, such interactions are the very things that will best prepare them for future success in school anyway.

Third, recognize the importance of letting your child take the lead. 

If your preschooler is indicating interest in learning to read, by all means, pursue that. But if she is resolute in her passion for dinosaurs, please don’t abandon that because you are stressed about kinder-prep checklists. Follow their curiosity, because that precious zeal for learning will serve them far longer than the ability to identify all 52 upper & lower-case letters on the first day of kindergarten (also, keep in mind that there are about a thousand ways to create rich learning experiences that revolve around dinosaurs).

Following our kids’ lead also involves a greater emphasis on self-regulation. Helping our kids develop skills in stress-management and expressing their feelings will also empower them to take ownership over their lives and learning.

One more disclaimer before closing. Speech delays and learning disabilities are absolutely real and parents should be on the look-out for signs and resources to provide their children the support they need. I just wonder if sometimes we start from a place of assuming there is something wrong if our kids are not yet interested in counting and shapes when they are 3.

As we look toward the beginning of formal education, let us do so in a manner that will cultivate curiosity, joy, and ownership.

Relevant posts related to this topic that might be of interest:

Recommended Books & Resources:

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

5 Crucial Lessons My Kids Have Taught Me On Play #TeacherMom

One of my favorite parts of family vacations is that we are ALL together ALL the time (incidentally, by the end of the week, that also becomes one of my least favorite parts, but we don’t need to focus on that…)

It is delightful to watch my kids play together and to learn more about the ways they are learning through play.

Here are a few lessons they have taught me about play that I can apply to the classroom when I return.

1. Sometimes, they really do need ALL those toys. In my tendency to get overwhelmed by clutter, I’m often tempted to go into edict-issuing mode. Only one bin of toys may be played with at a time! If a new toy is desired, the first bin must be cleaned up first! But over time, I’ve come to realize that when I make it solely about my preferences, I can stand in the way of valuable tinkering, connecting, and, well, learning. See photos below.

The dreaded pile of ALL the toys ready to be sorted. Again.

The kinds of interconnection that’s often the result of having all those toys out.

2. Sometimes, they DON’T. When we recently babysat another 3 year old, I thought about getting out the bin of play food/utensils, but I got distracted. By the time she left, I discovered that the preschoolers exercised resourcefulness by using the loose parts box that was out. I loved how this gave them the opportunity to think creatively and use their imaginations.

3. The richness of play lies in its foundation of connection and relationships. In The Importance of Being Little, Erika Christakis writes, “Indeed, playing games and laughing together are far more educational than drilling kids on their ABCs on the way to daycare.” The most meaningful moments with my kids are when my daughter and I try to “out-pun” one another, or when my son and I chant and act out “Peel, bananas, peel, peel bananas,” or when my baby and I play peek-a-boo. I believe this is all because these moments are all about each of those kids — finding ways to surprise and delight and engage them — rather than about me and my agenda.

4. Interaction through play is where we can “gain confidence” in our children’s learning. I recently came across an advertisement for a kindergarten preparatory program that included this parent endorsement: “I am so confident in my child now and know that he is 100% ready for kindergarten.” Far from providing buy-in, I found this to be a heartbreaking statement.

Of course, I, too, was once enveloped by the kindergarten readiness frenzy, so I understand the way it can blind us from the very learning taking place before our eyes. I also understand the worries of being a working parent and not being present for that learning as often as we’d like. However, I’ve found that if we treasure any opportunities we get to play with our children, we will grow in our confidence in their capacity to learn and grow.

5. Time for play is an investment we’ll never regret. It isn’t always fun to be chastised that I’ve put the wrong car in a “garage,” or that I’m using the wrong kind of voice, or, heaven forbid, that I’ve assumed the wrong pretend name. But ultimately, these prove to be our best moments filled with learning, love, and invitations to remember what matters most.

What lessons has play taught you? How can we apply it to the classroom?

featured image: Mackenzie Brunson