Spring has been off to a mostly gray and rainy start, but I hope this hasn’t stopped you from exploring with your kiddos. Just today, I bundled Estelle up and we went to a nice trail and splashed in the water to her heart’s content. At the end of the walk, I literally dumped water out of her boots, but we left the trailhead smiling and laughing.
I have summers off so in this post you’ll notice I talk mostly about being at home. I wrote the last sensory play article when I was home on winter break, but I think you’ll be able to easily adapt these activities to fit into your programs.
I'll share some activities for wet or hot days, standards to fit the activities for those of you who are working in places where you need to have them, and finally some tips and tricks to hopefully make messy spring and summer play a little easier.
I talk a lot about preparedness, and I’ll continue to do so here! You should be prepared for anything when it comes to sensory or outdoor play.
I keep our backpack stocked with band aids, extra clothes, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, baby wipes or even a towel, and a plastic bag for trash or wet clothes.
If we are heading out to the back yard, I like to have an outside basket that I can carry with me (our backdoor is far away from the rest of the house, and I don’t like to leave Estelle alone out there). In our outside basket I bring the supplies for that particular day or activity: bubbles, chalk, materials for water play, snacks, sunscreen, swimsuit, water bottles, etc. It’s helpful for me not to run in and out of the house. This is probably the same for you if you work in a center or other child care facility.
Try to be open minded and flexible if things don’t go as planned or if kids take it in a different direction. Have an idea in mind of what you’ll do if the kids don’t go for the activity, or if it only lasts for ten minutes.
Have rules and boundaries in place. This is helpful if you’re in an open space, if you’re doing these activities at your program, or perhaps if you’re attempting something really crazy and messy. I’m pretty lenient with sensory play at my house, but I have some rules such as, chalk is only for the sidewalk, keep the water contained if we’re in the house, ask others before you get them wet, and stay in the boundaries or check in if you have to leave the boundary. (Notice how I keep my rules positive instead of saying, “no chalk on the house!” I tell her what TO DO with the chalk)
Accept that not all children will enjoy or participate in sensory activities. Find something that works for them like a brush instead of finger painting, wearing an apron so they don't get wet, or giving them their own workstation with space to explore slowly and cautiously to be away from children who are splashing and exploring with more big body movements.
My number one sensory material: WATER! You can add water to anything and from my experience kids will go for it. My daughter is in a developmental stage where she loves to dump, scoop, and pour. She could do it for hours. I mix it up by adding different types of containers, coloring the water, adding bubbles, or adding old flowers or paint to make potions.
This is one instance where I love recycled materials. I like to save fun containers, jars, lids, especially plastic spice containers. Add a sprinkle of spice to various containers, then add some paint and water to others. Add droppers and spoons. Kids can experiment with making their own soup, potions, medicine, whatever they decide! I also like to save all my bouquets of flowers and let kids cut up the stems, pick the petals, and add these to the water table or to their fairy potions.
Water table play. I highly recommend a water table! You can do so much with one. Ours was an older hand-me-down and we honestly use it every day in the summer. Check your local Facebook Marketplace or craigslist!
Water the yard! If you’re not afraid of wasting a bit of water, kids always love to hold the hose!
Don’t forget puddle jumping and worm hunting on rainy days. If you want to get really crazy and you have some good puddles in your own yard or on a safe street, have your kid bring their buckets and toys to the puddle for some messy water play!
Food coloring and cornstarch = chalk paint! Mix together in a cupcake pan and give children some brushes. This washes off materials easily with water, too.
Car wash/bike wash/toy wash. Gather up some toys, or bikes, or even move your car into a spot where children can wash (if you’re trusting of their abilities!). You could invest in some cleaning materials like sponges and brushes from the dollar store and then add soap and water to big, plastic bins.
Baby doll or animal wash! Add bubbles to your water. Make a scrubbing station, a rinsing station, and a drying station.
Rock painting. Go on a rock hunt, wash them, dry them, and then paint! You can even invest in some modge podge or some clear coat sealer to save the masterpieces. Go even further and hide your rocks in the neighborhood for others to find.
Outdoor play dough/sand/slime play. If you have an outdoor table I would take any typical in-home activities outside and let kids play in the sunshine!
Taste safe sand
2 cups flour
¼ cup water
3 oz vegetable oil (6 tablespoons)
Add flour to an oven safe tray. Add food coloring to the water and pour into the flour, mix. Then, mix using hands in a back and forth rolling motion. Preheat the oven to 300, bake flour for 5-10 minutes, or until water is dried up and it begins to feel more sand like.
Frozen water play; the opportunities are endless. Freeze animals or other toys in different sized tubs to rescue them. You add food coloring for colored ice. Add ice cubes or other frozen items to your sensory bin for a unique sensory experience.
Use an ice cube tray and then add a few drops of paint or food coloring then top it off with water. Put foil or plastic wrap over the top of the tray. Use popsicle sticks to pierce the top of the wrap and put them into the paint mixture. Put in the freezer for a couple of hours until frozen. Remove and let kids paint on paper or add ice paint sticks to your water table to change the color of the water.
Neighborhood water exploration. This one might be highly localized for those of us in Missoula, but in late summer we spend a lot of time in the creeks and the river. We wear our suits, bring our own toys, and spend hours splashing around in the water, making mud castles or putting on mud sunscreen, rock hunting, and building with rocks.
Not only are these activities fun but they also meet Montana Early Learning Standards!
MT Early Learning Standards that apply to most of these activities:
Standard 1. 5: Children demonstrate a belief in their abilities.
Standard 1. 6: Children manage their internal states, feelings, and behavior, and develop the ability to adapt to diverse situations and environments.
Standard 1. 9: Children interact and build relationships with peers as they expand their world beyond the family and develop skills in cooperation, negotiation, and showing empathy.
Standard 2.1: Children develop small muscle strength, coordination and skills.
Standard 2.2: Children develop large muscle strength, coordination, and skills.
Standard 2.3: Children use all the senses to explore the environment and develop skills through sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound.
Standard 4.1: Children develop imagination, inventiveness, originality, and interest as they explore and experience new things.
Standard 4.2 Children develop an eagerness to engage in new tasks and to take risks in learning new skills or information.
Standard 4.3: Children develop the ability to focus their attention and concentrate to complete tasks and increase their learning.
Standard 4.5: Children develop skills in causation, critical and analytical thinking, problem solving, and representational thought.
Standard 4.12: Children apply mathematical skills in data analysis such as counting, sorting, and comparing objects.
Standard 4.17: Children develop an understanding of the physical world (the nature and properties of energy, non-living matter, and the forces that give order to the natural world).
Standard 4.19: Children develop an understanding of the process that assists people in designing and building.
What would you add to this list? Please feel free to share your favorite spring/summer sensory play activities you do with your program or at home.
Meghan is a born and raised Montanan, mama to a rambunctious toddler and a bonus mom to two amazing preteens. She recently earned a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education. In addition to her position as an Early Childhood Specialist at the University of Montana, Meghan enjoys a variety of odd mix of jobs; nannying, creating and selling travel play dough kits, making essential oil blends for kids, providing families with child guidance on Facebook and Instagram, and now providing ideas and tips to child care providers in partnership with Raise Montana! Meghan is also a content contributor for 406 Families, a site dedicated to connecting families to local events and resources.