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An essential to most primary classrooms is a sensory table of some kind, whether it’s a traditional sandbox or another variant such as lentils, bubbles, or water. Sensory tables provide an excellent opportunity for students to experience their senses in a free-play setting, but they can also be a great occasion to encourage using natural materials for play.

Last year, I decided to overhaul my class sandbox in favour of almost-exclusively natural items. Pinecones, pieces of bark, sticks, chestnuts, rocks, and shells are just a few of the objects I introduced to the sensory table, while also rotating through sets of plastic animals—depending on what season we were in. The overall neutral colours of the sensory table also now matched the more neutral tones of my classroom, since transitioning from what my kindergarten classroom looked like before.

While the sensory table was still a popular choice during centres last year, I often found there was a cycle to it: at the end of the day, I would reorganize the sandbox to resemble a forest or nature scene, students would mindlessly shove all of the items to one side of the sandbox as soon as centre time began the next day, and then I would reorganize the items again. I didn’t have to rebuild the forest scene every day, but I felt like students were partly missing the idea if all they saw were disorganized items in a sandbox.

Instead, I changed how we utilize the sandbox. Students knew that the intention was to use the natural items to build homes for the various animal figurines. They also knew that at the end of each day they would have to clear the sandbox of all the items they used. These new guidelines were a great way to incorporate lessons on habitat and animal behaviours, as well as a type of formative assessment.

Since making these changes to the class sensory table, the sandbox has become a more productive, creative, and tidy centre. Students love the task of building homes for animals, and I get to observe them using nature as tools/building materials within our own classroom.