Planning a Successful Sand and Water Center

Girl playing at water table

The sand and water center, sometimes known as the sensory center, is a great place for young children to explore, experiment, and practice fine motor skills. Playing with sand, water, and other sensory materials helps promote development and teach math and science skills. This center provides the opportunity for children to explore with all their senses.

Setting Up a Sand and Water Center in Your Classroom

  • Location: The sand and water center, or sensory center, can be set up either inside or outside. If the weather is pleasant, doing sensory activities outside can be an effective way to reduce cleanup. Ideally, the sand and water center should be near a sink, hose, or other source of water to simplify setup and cleanup.
  • Display: Sand and water tables are commonly used in child care settings. If you don’t have a sand and water table, use plastic bins, buckets, or dishpans for sensory play. Avoid placing the sand and water center on a carpeted area. If you are going to set up water activities indoors, place mats or towels on the floor under the area to reduce the risk of children slipping and falling. Set up a table, shelf, or bin nearby to display toys and materials for use with sand, water, or other sensory materials.

Choosing Sensory Equipment and Supplies

The following are examples of sand, water, and other sensory materials that will encourage exploration and keep children engaged. Keep in mind that these are only a few examples. Be as creative as you wish in coming up with other sensory experiences for children to explore.

  • Measuring cups, plastic bottles, shovels, spoons, rakes, ladles, funnels, sand wheels, and sifters to use with dry sand
  • Shovels, spoons, scoops, and molds to use with wet sand
  • Egg beaters, plastic tubing, funnels, spray bottles, plastic aquatic animals, sponges, liquid soap, and washable baby dolls for use in the water table
  • Sensory materials such as beads, jewels, crystals, plastic packing peanuts, rice, beans, cornmeal, unpopped popcorn, and dirt for exploration
  • Snow or ice cubes to add to sand or water
  • Plastic smocks to reduce mess (may be shared with art center)

Keep in mind that some of the sensory materials mentioned above could be choking hazards, especially for children under age 3. Always select materials based on the age and developmental level of the children in your group, and supervise children carefully when using any sensory material. Very close supervision is especially essential during water play because children can drown in only a small amount of water within just a few seconds. Assign at least one adult specifically to supervise water play, and insist that the adult not leave the water play area. 

It’s also important to recognize that some people do not approve of using food items (such as rice and beans) as play materials for children because it is wasteful and teaches mixed messages about playing with food. Be sensitive to the cultural and economic backgrounds of the families in your group, as well as any allergies that might prevent children from playing with specific materials. If you are unsure whether a food item should be used for sensory play, choose a non-food item instead.

For More Information

To learn more about sand, water, sensory play, and other learning centers, take a look at the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles:

Photo by oddharmonic / CC BY