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Exploring the senses

By Shann de Smidt

In preschool circles, as well as in the early years in classrooms, we hear of sensory integration problems, tactile defensiveness and perception difficulties, a list that stretches on and on.

At Woodhill Foundation School, we took time to consider why there appears to be an increase in the difficulties children are experiencing. Knowing instinctively that sensory stimulation of some kind is what children need – but not having much spare time on an average busy school morning, or enough equipment, was our challenge.

During one of her talks to a group of early childhood development educators, entitled ‘How senses can change the world of play’, specialist Gaye Dorkin inspired us to take a long hard look at how we could develop the senses of children in a planned, regular and exciting way.

Experiencing objects in new ways

On that day, we adults once again became children. We dutifully gathered in groups on mats and each group was given a box. These contained delightful collections of items such as sensory bean bags, textured material and an eclectic collection of spheres. Without being specifically directed as to what we should ‘do’, we each tentatively picked up an object, explored it and then began talking about what we held in our hands. Naturally, we had to follow the golden rules of taking turns to talk, share and listen to the teacher, but we learnt a lot while doing the very opposite of what many children are told – “Don’t touch”, or “look with your eyes and not your hands!”

Inspired to create sensory boxes and environments

Once back at school, we asked ourselves what we could do about this new project and, armed with lots of ideas but limited resources, began putting ideas on paper. We knew that the focus of our planning and work over time must be to get the children in our classes to have as many opportunities as possible to touch, taste, feel, smell and see. Our ever-creative staff made a number of sensory boxes containing musical instruments, CDs on which were recorded random and varied music and sounds, brushes, mats, trays that contain many different textures for children to walk on, sensory bags of differing textures and weights that crackled, as well as things to smell and taste.

These can be packed away when not in use, and just as easily unpacked when needed. Curtains made from chiffon, silk, beads, fabric and corks, made by parents, were strung up. Wind chimes and mobiles built from many interesting materials gave further depth and height to the room. Once the equipment was in place, using it became an integrated part of our teaching programme.

Children are regularly given the opportunity to crawl, walk, lie, wiggle, stroke, look at, listen to and experience learning through as many senses as possible.

The Sensory Room is proving a useful diagnostic aid

Our Sensory Room is proving to be of particular benefit to the child who does not require formal therapy, but who does need extra sensory input. Listening skills, language development and the level of participation by particularly the shyer child, are just a few of the other areas where improvements have been noted. During the time spent in the Sensory Room, teachers have also been able to accurately identify children who show signs of being tactile defensive or needing referral to an occupational therapist for sensory integration.

Shann de Smidt is Principal of the Foundation School at Woodhill College, Pretoria.


Category: Winter 2011

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