Children's Librarians are Experts

Librarians are Experts in Sensory Play

Nearly two years ago I wrote a guest post for ALSC entitled “Sensory Shenanigans! Starting a Sensory Play Time at Your Library.” I’ve planned and led many sensory play times since then, and have learned a few tricks to keep this program sustainable.  Needless to say I was a bit idealistic when I first started: I thought it would be entirely reasonable to lead such a program once a month, and maintain the one hour set up and one hour clean up.  I’m now going on three years of Sensory Play Time and many, many iterations of the program.

Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned:

  1. Messier isn’t always better

Because I branded this program as “all of the messy stuff you see on Pinterest and don’t want to do at home,” I worked myself into a corner.  I felt like I needed to have the messiest and most impressive sensory stations to truly excite children and be worthwhile.  I still do messy things, but I’ve cut out the activities that created the most messes to clean up afterwards, specifically sand, slime, and cereal. I was pleasantly surprised that none of the kids seemed to miss the materials I removed.  The water and rice tables still provided interesting sensory exploration. Removing the messiest stations shortened my clean up time, and my stress levels, in half. Even putting out one kiddie pool instead of two made a significant difference.

  1. Use as many reusable toys as possible
A toddler walks on liquid tiles as part of a Sensory Play program
Liquid tiles

I started phasing out perishable and one time use materials, like jello and dry pasta.  Replenishing those materials every month took up too much time, especially the jello that needed to be made in advance. I invested in unique and interesting sensory toys that could be put out each time without much preparation.  My manager discovered these Liquid Fusion Tiles and the kids love them! I also bought a sand table that I exclusively use as a rice table.  I store it in a closet and it’s very easy to pull out the day of the program with no special set up needed. I would also love to purchase a Light Table one day!

Plastic table clothes to protect the tables also fall into the category of one time use materials that were getting tough to keep up with.  I’ve switched to using butcher paper to cover the tables: one roll lasts 5-6 programs and is a onetime purchase.

  1. Integrate “loose parts”

“Loose Parts” is a concept developed by architect Simon Nicholson to expand children’s opportunity for open-ended, sensory-based play. Simply put, it’s a collection of loose parts of various materials and textures for children to play with. Because of their open-ended nature, children can decide how to play and build with them. You can learn about Loose Parts in this article by the Penn State Extension Office and in the definitive book on the topic, Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children. Loose parts’ reusable nature makes them a great addition to sensory play time.  An obvious concern is the size of the parts, so be sure to be mindful of what you choose to include.  Large pom poms in a bucket are a great starting point, with Jumbo Tweezers and Scoopers to build fine motor skills.

  1. Find your rhythm

Deciding to take a break from a successful program can be hard, but it’s a necessary step to keep from burning out. For me, this looks like taking June through August off from Sensory Play Time.  It gives me time to reevaluate the program, investigate new materials, and reenergize so that I am ready to hit the ground running in September.  Integrating a sensory station into an existing program can also be a way to take a break while still meeting expectations from patrons.  Maybe bring out a rice bin during playtime, or have a water element during storytime. Find out what works for you and don’t be afraid to set boundaries so you don’t end up dreading a program.

  1. Share with caregivers

One of my favorite parts about this program is that it models cheap and easy sensory play for parents. I often receive questions from parents about a specific tool or station and have found that e-mail is a great way to share resources.  I initially used handouts but they rarely survived the program, ending up at the bottom of the water table.  After each program, I e-mail parents with a list of stations I used, along with supplies or a link to a blog post with instructions.  It’s so much fun to see parents embrace sensory play and bring it into their home.  One parent even took home the shredded paper after a program to use for a shredded paper bin at her toddler’s birthday party.

  1. Tools over toys
Using jumbo eye droppers

I spent last summer investigating new tools to use in sensory play time.  I was specifically looking for tools that could be used at multiple stations, and be adapted for various activities.  Using multi-use tools is another strategy to reduce on costs that has served me well. Here are some of my favorites:


  • Set out bowls of water colored with liquid watercolor, and have kids use the droppers to mix colors
  • Have kids use jumbo droppers with liquid watercolor to “paint” a sheet of paper
  • Use jumbo droppers to saturate cotton balls with water
  • Funnels


  • Water table
  • Rice table
  • Small pom poms
  • Confetti
  • Sponges


  • Water table
  • In a cleaning station (have kids use sponges to wash plastic toys)
  • As a painting tool

These are just a few of the tricks I’ve acquired to make sensory play more manageable.  I’d love to hear your tricks as well, so please feel free to leave a comment and share your own expertise.

(Photos courtesy of guest blogger)

This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competency: Programming Skills

Headshot of guest blogger, Katherine HickeyToday’s guest blogger is Katherine HickeyKatherine is a children’s librarian at the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Library System.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at


  1. Amy Steinbauer

    Great minds think alike! How funny that we both posted about sensory on the same day! Would love to hear what sand table you have— I have been thinking of purchasing one!

    1. Katherine Hickey

      Hi Amy! This is the water table I have. Could you share a link to your blog post on sensory play? I’d love to read it!

      1. Amy Steinbauer

        thanks– i was looking at a similar one, but it has wheels. Sure– my post was from earlier that day: Enjoy!

  2. Debbie Arenas

    Hi Katherine,

    Do you offer a short storytime prior to sensory exploration? How many kiddos and their caregivers do you usually have?

    Thanks, Debbie

    1. Katherine Hickey

      Hi Debbie! No, I don’t do a storytime, just because I want kids to have as much time as possible playing. Some kids spent the whole hour at one station because they are so focused, and I would hate to have to separate them from that for a storytime… I limit registration to 25 kids 🙂 Let me know if you have any more questions!

  3. Kelly Doolittle

    Thank you, what an inspiring post! I’ve been thinking about doing something like this since we took our sensory storytimes on outreach instead of in-house. I’m nervous about time requirements and you’re tips are very helpful!

    1. Katherine Hickey

      So glad I could help, good luck with your program!

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