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Zoomazium to You: Fun with Sensory Play

Posted by Janel Kempf, Early Childhood

We’ve all been home for a while now, and some of us are starting to get a little antsy.

For those of us with a houseful of early learners (and just one early learner can be a houseful!), getting a little antsy probably started around day two. Just like growing bodies need new clothes on a regular basis, growing brains need new experiences just as regularly. 

We’re not the only smart species in need of lots and lots of sensory input! Ambassador Animal Lucy is a raccoon, a super-smart and curious critter. If you’ve ever had the good luck to see Lucy working with her keepers at the zoo’s Alvord Broadleaf Theater behind Zoomazium, you’ve probably seen her recycle—gathering up objects and putting them in a recycling bin. One of the most delightful things about this behavior is that she does it with her hands! A raccoon’s hands (okay, technically their front paws) are incredible tools, similar in many ways to our own hands. And they are very sensitive—their sense of touch is one of the main ways raccoons explore their world. In her behind-the scenes home, Lucy’s keepers give her many different surfaces to walk and climb on, and a huge variety of toys to touch and manipulate to keep her senses and mind engaged.

One of the things we do in Zoomazium is provide for early learners what Lucy’s keepers provide for her—novel sensory experiences. But we have a lot of different young minds visiting, and everyone needs different things. That’s why we started Sensory Friendly Fridays! Once we reopen, if you have a youngster who needs a calmer sensory environment, Fridays are the days for you. We keep the strangler fig climbing structure closed to keep the noise down, the lighting is changed to be calming, and we make sure to have lots of soothing sensory activities available. One of our key staff members helping early learners on Fridays is Rom Giles, who has sensory sensitivities of his own. “I see a lot of myself as a young kid in these kids,” says Rom. “Sensory Friendly Friday is so important because it helps kids who might normally feel intimidated by Zoomazium to feel included. One of my favorite things is helping with the sand and flaxseed sensory tables--you don't have to direct the kids, just show an interest in what they're doing and they'll take it from there!”

With your early learners at home now for an extended period of time, consider these suggestions for providing sensory play experiences that may be new to them!

Photo by Anna Pavlin on Unsplash

Fun with Sensory Play

What you need: See individual suggestions below
Time: However much you have!
Age Range: Birth to 3 years

Photo by Franco Dalino on Unsplash

Babies in the grass: Not all babies love being in the grass, but some do, and some just aren’t used to it. If your baby or toddler is used to being on a blanket, put one down. But put some toys off the blanket, and let your baby choose to venture off the blanket to reach them. When they do, smile and encourage them—if a baby isn’t sure, their special grownup’s reaction is key. If your baby or toddler likes the grass, leave an area un-mowed. Let them experience the differences between the short grass and the long.

Sensory bowls: Get creative, are there some items in your home that you can use in a sensory bowl? Put out a blanket indoors and offer your baby or toddler a big bowl of shredded paper, rice or beans to play with. Let them use spoons, measuring cups, or anything else to scoop and pour. Give them objects to bury. If the weather is nice, put a pile of cotton balls and plastic lids on the patio or lawn. What can they do with smooth shells or pieces of cloth? Follow your child’s lead—they’ll try things you never thought of!

Photo by Leo Rivas on Unsplash
Homemade play dough: You can’t go to the store to buy anything new right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make some new art materials with what you already have! In a mixing bowl, combine 1 cup flour and ¼ cup salt. In a microwave-safe container, combine a scant ¾ cup water and 3 tablespoons lemon juice (the water and juice together should be ¾ of a cup). Heat the water and lemon juice in the microwave until it just begins to boil. Gently pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and stir until it starts coming together. Pour 1 tablespoon of cooking oil over the dough, and mix until a ball forms. Then you can turn it out onto a clean surface and (after checking to make sure it’s cool enough) help your child knead it into dough!

Extension for early learners ages 4 and up: Think about new experiences for the senses. Have you ever laid on your backs in the grass and watched the stars with your child? How long has it been since you’ve tried to make shampoo horns in the bath? Or when you make that play dough, what happens if you change the recipe—try it, then dig your hands into the results together! 

Photo by Lubomirkin on Unsplash

For previous week's Zoomazium To You activities, click the links below:

Play Like An Otter: March 16

Creature Feature at Home: March 23

Relax with Springtime Bug Yoga: March 30

Caring for Neighborhood Birds: April 6

Have you and your family tried any of our Zoomazium to You activities yet? If so, we'd love to hear how it went! Tag us @WoodlandParkZoo and use #ZoomaziumtoYou to share photos, stories or videos of your own Creature Feature sessions.