Sensory Bins 101 

Truth be told, it took me three years of teaching kindergarten to discover the beauty behind sensory bins. Little did I know at the time, they allowed children to explore, touch, create, communicate and discover while also learning important skills. Yes, learning. That’s what I hadn’t understood just yet. I was going stir-crazy trying to constantly come up with different activities for our sand and water table that would keep students engaged when learning kindergarten skills…until I finally realized they had been learning all along. Whether children are making lemonade, baking muffins or building a shelter for animals, they are scooping, pouring, measuring, counting, building, communicating – they are learning through play. 

Below, you will find a few tips and tricks to help you set up sensory bins for your little ones at home or in your classroom. 

First things first: bin choice! Over the last few years, I have experimented with different types of bins, but I always come back to a deep square sensory bin or a large sand and water table. Not only are large bins sturdy and great for both indoor and outdoor play, but they also give students more room to explore. 

Next up, fillers. White sand has been my go-to for years, but changing your filler is a simple way to keep your learners motivated and engaged. Reusable fillers are a must! Find fillers that you can use over and over again, no matter the theme. I especially love using dry black beans, dry dyed chickpeas, shredded coloured paper and oatmeal (with a dash of cinnamon – yes, it smells delicious!). Mulch, shaving cream, snow and flour fall into my ‘messy fillers’ category and let me tell you, they bring a whole new level of excitement! They’re also a great way for children to discover and manipulate different textures. And of course, you can never go wrong with water. It’s free, simple and can be used in so many different ways. From scooping and pouring to bathing dolls, water is always a hit! 

And finally, manipulatives! Adding manipulatives is my favourite part. In most sensory bins, I add mixing bowls, spatulas, muffin tins and easy-grip tweezers. Depending on my intention, I’ll add more manipulatives such as letters, numbers, pompons, corks, seasonal loose parts, animal figurines and sometimes, I’ll even throw in some blocks! These are just a few ideas. Be creative. Think outside the box.  

Sensory play often doesn’t make sense to adults and that’s ok. Children are exploring, learning and having fun; that’s what’s important! 

Written by Genevieve Landry

Take Science Outside

The beautiful weather at the moment is simply dragging me outside. I have no control over it! If my children want to stay indoors, too bad! Luckily, there is so much outdoor learning to do! Plus, most outdoor learning is inquiry-based, which suits my curious children and, let’s face it, most curious children.

Learning outdoors is a great way to bring science to life! Using Inquiry Learning, you can teach children how to investigate and track experiments, or how to satisfy their curiosity and questions. Why study a picture of a plant when you can watch one grow? You can also observe the eco-system that surrounds it, like the insects, ideal habitat, weather conditions and other factors that affect it.

Having just taught plants and soils whilst ‘Learning from Home’, Inquiry Learning is very much on my mind. Plants and soils are an important part of the science curriculum and so fun to teach; this topic is also a natural choice as we plant our summer gardens. As I sent my grade 3/4 students home with at-home learning packages at the start of the pandemic, I wondered how to teach this unit from a distance. So much of learning about plants and soils is hands-on and many of my students don’t have access to gardens.

My student teacher had the wonderful idea of sending the students home with a couple of bean seeds and a soil pod.

They were asked to plant their seed in a recycled container and followed along as we grew plants, discovering what plants needed through firsthand experience. The Root Vue Farm helped us see how deep and far-reaching roots of a plant are and what happens under the soil as plants grow. Using the app Seesaw, we were able to share videos and photos of our plants, and students were also able to share and add to their online portfolio.

If you have younger children, you can simplify the lesson by checking in each day, seeing the changes, and discussing the plant’s growth, giving opportunities for rich language learning. Children see things that we do not notice and can have lots of fun while developing observation skills. This can easily be applied to your backyard garden, where you can also observe how plants and insects interact with each other. Something as simple as a bee can initiate a lengthy discussion:

“What colour is the bee?”
“Where is the bee going?”
“What is it doing?”
“Where do bees live?”
“How do bee’s fly?”

This is the perfect opportunity to jump into bee research, arts and crafts, flight experiments, pollen-collecting dances, flight of the bumblebee music and the list goes on. It can even cover endangered species and eco-systems for older students!

Child lead inquiry is one of the many skills that ECE’s excel at. We teachers often get bogged down with the need to cover learning objectives and sometimes miss the beautiful opportunities provided by child lead inquiry. Whilst inquiry is guided heavily by adults in the early years, it does not make the process any less valid. Children are learning to answer their own questions.

Whatever method of planning we use, backward design or inquiry, our job as educators is teaching children how to learn for themselves. Learning to be learners is their most important and job and the outdoors is the perfect playground to gather questions!

Written by Chris, a middle school teacher in Manitoba

Fun in the Mud

Spring is hard in daycares. You’ve been stuck inside more often than not all winter, due to extreme cold, icy winds and freezing rain. You’re going stir-crazy and your kiddos are too! Finally, the temperature starts to rise and everything starts to thaw. Everyone is so excited to be out…until the first fall into a mud puddle, which occurs approximately 3 seconds after the kids are let loose. You forgot…spring means mud. And dirt. And puddles. And MESS!

Despite frying your last sane nerve, it would be easier to remain indoors until the weather dries up. Being outside, however, is so beneficial for children (and for adults, too!). There is so much to see, explore, touch, and learn outdoors. Climbing, jumping, and other forms of outdoor play encourage risk-taking and improve kids’ balance, coordination, and sense of confidence. The list of benefits of being outside goes on and on. So how to enjoy the outdoors without having multiple toddlers completely destroy your house every time they go in and out?

Tip 1: Dress for the Weather

Invest in proper outdoor weather gear. Tall rubber boots (without cracks along the soles!) are essential for surviving puddles and muddy playgrounds, and one-piece splash suits are more than worth the initial cost. Buy a set in multiple sizes, all in one colour so your kiddos are easy to spot, and you won’t have to worry about parents remembering to send splash pants. Multiple pairs of spare mittens for cold mornings are also a good idea.

Designate certain toys as “outdoor toys,” and be ok with them getting dirty or possibly broken. Pick durable, hard-wearing toys that are designed for fun outside and easy to clean; they are even a selection of play-learning toys specifically made for your mud kitchen. Instead of play food that could get destroyed or cracked, use the new Fruit or Vegetable Sensory Play Stones that can hold up to the elements.

You can also use materials found outside like sticks, branches, rocks, bark, pinecones and more in non-conventional ways; enlist the children’s help in a scavenger hunt and have them help decide how to use the items they find!

Tip 3: Get the Kids Involved with Cleanup

Allow the children to help you clean toys and themselves before heading indoors. Provide a tub of warm soapy water and encourage them to wash the cars, animals, or any other toys that have made their way outside. If you can, keep a boot tray right outside or inside your door for muddy boots to dry. Teach your kiddos to hang their mittens and scarves to dry (simple clothespins on a string work well), and keep a mop handy near your entrance.

Getting outside in the spring does take extra effort and planning, but in the end, it will be well worth it, for you and your kiddos. Happy puddle jumping!

Written by Erin Rifkin, owner of a Reggio/Montessori daycare in Ontario

Coding in Real Life

Picture this: it’s springtime and the kids are outside enjoying the sunlight on their face and the fresh air in their lungs. What does this mean for you? A bunch of happy children… and muddy clothes.

After their fun but (begrudgingly) messy day, their clothes get tossed into the washing machine – you set the washing machine to normal and adjust the temperature to warm, then go on with your day. What are we left with? A fresh pair of jeans that are ready for all the upcoming days of stomping around in rain boots and a fresh sweater ready to wick watery mud off their brows… into the wash, they go again.

Now, let’s dig a little deeper. How did we get from squeaky clean to needing a wash to clean again? As much as I am sure we all wish we could get from one end to the other in an instant, as with everything in life, steps must be taken in between in order to achieve our result.

Something even as habitual as laundry also requires steps! We get dressed, we go outside to play, we come inside, we notice our clothes had a bit too much fun, we put the clothes in the washing machine, we set the washing machine to our desired settings and the final product is clean clothes ready to get dirty once again.

It seems like such a simple idea that a certain number of steps would be needed in order to achieve a result, that exact same principle can be applied to many facets of life, including… Coding!

Arguably, coding and coding literacy are some of the most important skills for future generations to learn. Every task requires directions to complete, utilizing the fundamentals of coding. Daily, we’re surrounded by technology that requires coding to work, whether that be your average appliance or coding specific toys such as Botley The Coding Robot.

Botley teaches the basics of coding through active play, providing a foundation for what will be necessary for our children in their future endeavours and everyday lives!

Botley is 100% screen-free to limit screen time and includes a 45-piece activity set with fun and interactive features such as the ability to detect objects – and move around them, follow looping commands, navigate obstacle courses, follow black lines and even has additional hidden features to unlock!

Botley is also only one of the many coding products we have available that will equally benefit your children and their familiarity with coding, such as Coding Cards, Pre-coding Penguin Activity Cards and Coding Critters Ranger & Zip. Any of these products would be beneficial in furthering your children’s knowledge regarding coding.

With the ever-changing times and the development of new technology, it has never been so important to rely on parents and early childhood educators to stimulate and educate our youth. Let us make sure that they are ready to take on life’s challenges regarding this new technological age, encouraging them to become bright individuals with even brighter futures.

The Joy of Reading

We tend to fondly remember our favourite books from early childhood. What is it about those books that make them unforgettable? For me, it was Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I am still unsure if it was the joy of eating through all those gorgeous, bright, appealing foods or if it was the dramatic butterfly ending that made me return to this book repeatedly. It may have simply been the clever holes that matched up on each illustration as I turned the page. Whatever it was that sparked joy for me when reading the hungry caterpillar, it was still there as I read it to my children over twenty years later.

Books are such a wonderful access point for children and stimulate learning in many different areas. Traditionally we taught a theme and pulled out the books related to that theme. Now with more child-led learning, we jump on individualized learning and then try to provide books based on a child’s personal learning preferences. This requires more books or access to more books, and this is where local libraries can be invaluable. Let’s face it, we can’t always store twenty books on one topic but if a child has a particular interest, a local library will be able to provide books to stimulate further investigation and learning.

As our homes become more tech-focused and children read online more, the debate for having books is one this educator does not even consider worth having. There will always be a place for paper/card/board books, especially in daycares and schools. Digital books are a wonderful tool to increase access to reading but do not take the place of paper books. As our children move through the school system, some like to read online but many still prefer to pick up a paper book. This love for reading and choosing to read for pleasure starts at a very young age.

Children need to see language modelled and books provide the perfect example both as listeners and later as readers. Books demonstrate proper sentence structure and this provides a format for the listener to follow and sometimes repeat. Reading builds vocabulary and opportunities for learning at every new read. The discussion that happens around a book can often be as much fun as the actual book and stimulate further learning.

I remember Peter and Jane books from learning to read; Mother cooked breakfast while father sat reading the paper. Peter played with cars and Jane played with dolls. Hopefully, our books are less full of stereotypes and more open-minded now but as educators, we need to be ready to address issues that arise from book discussion. Choosing social stories that explain a situation and how characters dealt with problems can be a useful way to model positive behaviour. Some children find it easier to understand and relate to characters in a book, than direct behaviour discussion. A storyline with characters facing problems similar to what our children face every day can help to build empathy and understanding among children.

Having books as accessible as toys for young children encourages children to copy the behaviour they see modelled. As an adult, I choose the books I see selected and displayed by librarians. I know they have been highlighted because somebody loved them and this encourages me to explore what they have to offer. Having books available as part of our seasonal or thematic learning encourages children to makes links and develop further understanding. Books on engineering beside the block play area, books on how cars are made beside the car bin and cookbooks beside the kitchen play area are examples of how we can use books to complement the beautiful spaces we provide for our children.

Having dramatic play options related to books we read provides an opportunity for embedding understanding. Reading about a visit to the doctor and then role-playing with a doctor’s kit or reading about Little Red Riding Hood and then using wooden characters to retell the story allows children to explore the language in a book and use it authentically. Flannel boards are also great options for bringing the story to life. Providing these opportunities to practise using concepts and a language in a book helps to embed learning and understanding.

Sharing well-loved books are one of the many joys of teaching young children. Seeing children’s rapt faces, anticipation building and then understanding dawning after a good book, is a privilege educators all over the world understand and love.

Written by Chris, an early years teacher in Manitoba

The Value of Hockey

A month into the school year, teachers start working out the kinks in their lesson plans for the rest of the year. We look at our students and figure out what will work best for this group. Like most teachers, Phys-ed teachers play to their strengths, highlighting sports and activities they enjoy or think have important skill sets for students to know. I personally align my basketball unit before basketball season to try to convince students it’s a great sport to participate in and try to get more numbers out for my team. Other sports, like hockey, I do not have a great wealth of knowledge in because my parents didn’t want me playing it growing up. Even though it is not my strong suit, I do see the value in hockey as a part of the bigger physical literacy puzzle.

There have been multiple articles about the negative effects of focusing children in one sport at an early age. I was reading an article on ESPN titled “These kids are ticking time bombs: The threat of youth basketball” by Baxter Holmes (2019). In this article, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi talks about athletes entering college sports saying, “kids are broken by the time they get to college.” As kids train to become the best at a particular sport, they go through a motion over and over again, breaking down the body, so that by the time they get to the college level they are very prone to a major injury. Parents put kids in a sport early and make them focus on it to get them to elite levels in hopes of them making it big. Multiple studies have shown that having children play a variety of sports throughout their youth makes them better athletes overall because they have strengthened a more diverse set of movements and don’t break down joints or muscles because of focused repetitive use.

When I think of hockey, I think of it, as a unique skill set that kids should learn to build a complete movement library. The use of the hockey stick as an implement adds to the complexity of movement, thinking and decision-making. There is finesse in handling the puck (or ball) and it is an easy to learn but difficult to master type of skill. It is not an activity that should be just focused on but should be a part of the bigger picture when it comes to building a complete athletic student. A lot of skills cross over from sport to sport and can add to each other in ways that a single sport by itself cannot. Most importantly, hockey has a unique set of movements, which if added to a larger set of skills, help prevent major injuries down the road.

One thing that I am always cautious of in hockey is the physicality that comes with it. As it is a contact sport outside of the classroom there will be those who try to bring that part of the game into the gym. Some students will try to show their strength either through using their body or trying to hit the ball as hard as they can at the goalie.  There is physicality in all sports and it is up to the teacher to create a positive and safe classroom where increased aggression is not tolerated. Hockey can be daunting for students who are not good at it because the ones who are good at it usually play it outside of school, and therefore are also more physical because it is a normal part of the sport to them. This can be said for almost any sport, however, and it shouldn’t be a deterrent for any teacher wanting to bring it into their physical education class.

Hockey is Canada’s favourite past time and many of my students love it. Well, I may not be grabbing a stick and hitting the rink any time soon, the benefits of hockey on promoting teamwork, dexterity and a well-rounded athlete are why it’s an integral part of my phys-ed curriculum each year.

Written by Brenden Kroeger, a Phys-Ed teacher in Saskatchewan