Children rarely used the sensory table.
Strategy: Giving children choices of materials to develop play at the sensory table.
- Children’s sensory play was sustained at the water tray with each child staying an average of about 15 minutes.
- When children made sailboats to use at the sensory table, their interest in playing at the sensory table increased.
- When six children used their sailboats at the sensory table, they were interested in propelling the sailboats in the water.
- Children used a continuous stream of language at the sensory table to explain what was happening in their sailboat stories.
- In response to children’s demands for more materials, educators used “question of the day” time to ask children about the new materials they wanted to use at the sensory table.
- Children’s concentration was sustained at the sensory table when they used materials that developed their sailboat play.
- A social pattern was identified from one video to the next that showed how children played together in the same groups at the sensory table.
- Children used language and moved toys to convey meaning in their sailboat stories.
- Sailboat play provided children with opportunities for social, physical, literacy, intellectual, creative and emotional development.
The teaching challenge: children lacked interest in, and rarely played at, the sensory table. Strategy (1) children made sailboats to use at the sensory table; (2) educators asked children to choose materials to develop their sailboat play. When children made, and used, their own sailboats they stayed longer at the sensory table.
Children suggested new materials for the sensory table. Children concentrated longer, were more social, used more movement in their play and expressed more language to create sailboat stories at the sensory table. Children’s action on materials at the sensory table extensively supported their development and learning. New opportunities were created for educators to interact with children at the sensory table.
The action research took place over one semester in a rural Head-Start pre-kindergarten classroom for 4-5 year olds. Full day care was provided to children of all abilities, including those with special learning needs. During the action research, there were 16 children in the class, a lead educator, an assistant teacher, a teacher candidate, and a team leader. The High/Scope curriculum was used in the classroom.
The Teaching Challenge
In a recorded interview, the team identified and described their teaching challenge as the need to address children’s interest in playing at the sensory table during “work time.” The teaching challenge presented itself in the following ways. First, the sensory table was the least-used area by children. Commonly, children played with materials available in the sensory table for a week or so, and then lost interest. There were days when no one played there.
Second, even though a varied range of materials were available, children’s interest was short-lived. To sustain children’s interest, educators changed materials roughly every two weeks. The following materials had been placed in the sensory table: water, dirt, sand, snow, birdseed, popcorn, beads, feathers, and table-top toys. Children especially enjoyed materials that were wet and messy.
Third, a range of tools was made available for children at the sensory table. These included spoons, pitchers, funnels, fishing poles with magnets, and containers with lids that opened in different ways. Educators were perplexed as to why these tools did not hold children’s interest for any length of time.
Fourth, few children played in the sensory table, even though they had regular access to it. It was open on certain days for 45 minutes during work time. Four children had space to play at the sensory table, but it frequently was empty.
Fifth, despite educators’ efforts, the sensory table was unappealing to children. They were more interested in playing in other centers in the classroom, e.g., the house, blocks, listening area, and the art area.
Team V alues Regarding the Sensory T able
Educators’ valued children’s play at the sensory table because it provided opportunities for children to gain new experiences, and to explore new materials that supported their scientific understanding and development. Educators wanted the children to take the initiative to explore new things, and they needed new ideas that would draw children to play at the sensory table and hold their attention there.
Aims of the Action R esearch
The aims of the action research were for educators to, (1) develop the sensory table into an interesting play area for children; (2) increase the number of children who play at the sensory table during work-time; (3) promote and sustain children’s interest at the sensory table; (4) increase the length of time each child played at the sensory table; (5) align educators’ practice at the sensory table with NAEYC standards (2009); (6) improve the teacher candidate’s opportunities to write and implement lesson plan assignments that reflect NAEYC standards (2009).
Alignment of T eachin g C hallenge with NAEYC Standards
Teaching in ways that support children’s interests in their play was emphasized in NAEYC Standards (2009) Standard 1, Promoting Child Development and Learning. In Standard 1a, early childhood practice was to be based on a sound knowledge and understanding of young children. In Standard 1b, knowing and understanding the multiple influences on children’s development and learning is identified as critical to successful teaching. In Standard 1c, using developmental knowledge to create healthy, respectful, supportive, and challenging learning environments is outlined. This includes spontaneous play and guided investigations; challenging learning experiences for each child; and educators encouraging children to make decisions about their own interests.
Baseline A ssessment
At the start of the action research, a 20-minute video was recorded over a period of days to form a baseline assessment of the teaching challenge. The team created a video analysis checklist that included characteristics of children’s current play at the sensory table. The frequency of each characteristic observed in the video was noted.
|Number of children at the sensory table (over 4 sessions)||11|
|Average time spent per child (in minutes)||10|
|Number of social interactions between children||5|
|Physical manipulation using tools and materials||41|
|Language use at the sensory table||18|
|Intellectual skills demonstrated||15|
|Creative skills demonstrated||6|
|Table 5.1: Baseline analysis of the teaching challenge|
The video revealed that the sensory table was not used by children in the classroom during three out of four work-time sessions. The sensory table had a small amount of water in the bottom of it, with a range of play materials lying in the water. The materials included fish, containers, jugs, and laundry container lids. The sensory table was positioned with no available storage space nearby. This meant that materials were permanently in the sensory table. The sensory table was positioned near the sink so it could be easily filled and emptied.
In footage shot following a mid-term break, the video showed 11 children played at the sensory table during one morning session. There were five girls and six boys. Individual children spent an average of ten minutes at the sensory table.
Children’s social interaction was recorded on five occasions. Although groups of children played around the sensory table at the same time, much of the play was in parallel. Children showed the fish they caught using magnetic poles to other children at the puzzle table. Children left and joined the sensory area at their free will, indicating a steady flow of children through the area.
Forty-one instances of physical play were recorded. Children held fishing poles with magnets attached to them, twirled fishing lines, untangled fishing lines, poured water from containers, opened jar lids using their fingernails and teeth, unscrewed jar lids, filled containers, emptied containers, placed magnets on sea creatures, placed and lowered “caught” fish in jars.
There were 18 frequencies of children’s language that commonly related to the fish they had caught. Children often spoke to themselves saying, “Oh look, I’ve got a pink fish!” “Hey, I’ve got another fish,” and “I got a crab!” Another warned, “You leave my fish alone!” Children spoke about their fishing poles saying, “This cord came off.” “Gosh, I can do this,” and, “Oh no, I’m tangled!” Occasionally, children spoke directly to each other. While placing a magnet onto the metal ring on a fish, one child said, “Watch this, Hal. I have a fish!” While pouring from a jug into another child’s jar, and holding up a crab, one child said, “Look at this!” They were all clearly excited to share their successes.
15 examples of intellectual play were recorded as children demonstrated their knowledge of counting, “I have two (fish).” “I didn’t catch any.” Children’s knowledge of capacity was revealed when they observed a jar was full of water; used a lid to fill a jar up to “the very top;” and, observed when a jar was “half full.” One child commented, “I only want a little bit of water.” Another child showed his understanding of spatial concepts by saying, “My fish are on the inside (of the jar).” A child investigated motion as his fishing line twirled around his fishing pole. The child studied how it came to a standstill and asked, “Can you undo it?” As his fishing lines became enmeshed, a child attempted to untangle his. Children showed their exploration of magnetism deducing that the magnet was only attracted to the metal parts of fish. Children showed interest in buoyancy, as they noticed how fish they collected in jars floated on the surface of the water. In vain, children attempted to push fish down into the water. One child noticed that when he looked at his fish through the jar, it was magnified. He asked, “Why is it turning bigger?”
Six frequencies of creative play were recorded. While pretending to be on a fishing trip, several children stored fish they had caught in separate containers. One child fleetingly joked, “A crocodile, I’ve got a crocodile in here for the jar!” Another child asked, “Can I go fishing?” to which another responded, “Go fishing with animals!” Another child laughed and said, “I almost got the fish!”
Six examples of emotional development were shown when two girls shared jars. One girl remarked about another, “Chelsea was right over here. Chelsea, that was mine.” Chelsea explained to the teacher saying, “I want one jar for my fish and one for the water.” Chelsea was attempting to copy the play of others who after catching fish, stored them in a separate container. The teacher emphasized that children had to share materials at the water tray.
Team R eflection
On watching the video, educators were not surprised to see that the sensory table was often empty. Following the mid-semester break, when new materials were added, more children played at the sensory table. Some children stayed for up to ten minutes, whereas others stayed only three or four minutes. One child played alone for longer. While appreciating the range of learning opportunities provided at the sensory table, educators judged that because children had just returned after the break, the sensory table was again novel to them. Based on past experience, educators thought children would soon lose interest, and their play would not be sustained. Educators were not sure why children lost interest so soon. The teacher candidate added that she had never seen a single child play at the sensory table. Consequently, she was not aware that one even existed in the classroom. Educators commented that although children initially played with materials, they soon became bored.
Despite the fact that educators introduced many different materials at the sensory table, children stayed interested only for the first week or so. Existing materials included fish with and without magnets, fishing poles with and without magnets, crabs, containers with lids, laundry detergent caps and pitchers. Educators thought it was necessary to regularly change the materials to stimulate children’s interest in playing there.
The team was surprised at how children used the fishing materials to solve problems in play, rather than to explore magnets in water. This was not how educators intended or expected children to play. Rather than explore scientific concepts relating to magnets in water, children were interested in creating a scenario where they stored fish in containers with twist-on lids. This suggested to educators that children were not merely interested in exploring materials, but were more interested in acting on them. Children did this by using materials, tools, and accessories to serve a purpose and to solve problems in their play. This triggered a change in educators’ understanding about the nature of children’s play at the sensory table.
Educators were impressed with children’s perseverance in their play. Children did not give up as they attempted to attach the non-magnetic fish to a magnetic fishing pole. The video revealed that when children were interested and curious, they played for longer periods of time at the sensory table. Educators noticed how two children, in a dispute over jars with twist-on lids, managed, with adult assistance, to overcome problems with sharing materials.
With the librarian’s assistance, the teacher candidate selected the following articles for the team to read and to identify one appropriate strategy to overcome their teaching challenge.
(1) Church, E. B. (2006 Jan/Feb). Experiment with Water and Ice. Early Childhood Today. Vol 20 (4) 4.
(2) Dorrell, A. (2007). Early Childhood News. Sensory experiences can be messy fun.
(3) NAEYC. (1997) Water play, A key to children’s living-learning environment. Young Children Vol 52 (2),33.
(4) Szeckely, G. (2003 June). Water artists.Children’s Art Diary.
The team reported they had already implemented some of the strategies suggested in the articles. Some experiments with water were appealing because they encouraged children’s creativity. Educators commented, “Lots of good ideas to try, but a lack of materials, particularly funnels, sponges, tubes, sieves, and spray bottles prevents immediate implementation.” The team was interested in trying a new strategy suggested in Szeckely (2003), Water artists. Children’s Art Diary. Children made sailboats of their own design and then took them to the sensory table to relive actual scenes and events from their own lives. Educators commented that making boats of their own design would provide children with opportunities to recall what they had done at the water’s edge over the summer. Educators would not impose upon the children any existing or predetermined ideas about the boats. In addition, educators concluded that the children could practice their cutting and language development skills through boat making. Children making sailboats and then taking them to the sensory table brought about a change in educators’ practice. Until this point, educators, and not children, made decisions about materials used in the sensory table.
Team members agreed that the teacher candidate could lead the implementation of the strategy. By writing lesson plans for small-group activities, in which children made boats to take to the sensory table, the teacher candidate could fulfill part of her Practicum assignments. The teacher candidate would implement the strategy after the spring break, and would also set up the video camera, to record the impact of the strategy on children’s response at the sensory table. The team would watch the video to reflect on the impact of the strategy on their teaching challenge and on children’s learning.
Developmentally Appropriate P ractice
Using Wood’s (2007) Yardsticks text, educators checked the developmental appropriateness of the boat making strategy with children aged 4 to 5 years. Wood’s description of 4 to 5-year olds as active explorers and adventurers ready for everything was encouraging. The fact that children enjoy hands-on activities, manipulating materials, using tools, and exploring themes such as transportation, led the team to think that boat-making was a developmentally-appropriate strategy to increase their interest. Educators were also pleased that this strategy fitted easily into the “plan-do-review” High/Scope routine used in the classroom.
Creating an Assessment Tool
The team created an assessment grid to provide the team with a consistent focus as they viewed videos and assessed the impact of the strategy. The team identified and designed the assessment criteria that were aimed at improving the original teaching challenge seen in figure 5.1… the absence of children at the sensory table.
I mplementation of the Strategy—First Stage: Children Make Sailboats
The team viewed a 20-minute video of children playing at the sensory table with their boats. The video was analyzed for examples of children’s improved interest in using the table. The results of the impact of the strategy were thus:
|Number of children playing at sensory table||8|
|Children are interested||8|
|Play is sustained||8|
|Attention is held||8|
|New materials explored||4|
|New experiences gained||5|
|Children use new language||5|
|Table 5.2: Assessment grid analyzes the impact of the strategy on children’s interest|
Team reflection after video is viewed:
- Is the strategy working? How?
- Is the original teaching challenge being improved upon? How?
- Is children’s learning improving? How?
- Is your understanding of your teaching changing? How?
- Is your teaching changing? How?
- What do we do next in our teaching? How?
Video Recording D escription
Throughout the 20-minute video, eight children (six boys and two girls) played at the sensory table. Children played together in groups of five, four, three, a pair, and one child on her own. The demand to play at the sensory table was so great that it was necessary for educators to limit the number of children to four at any one time. All eight children were highly engaged in play at the sensory table. They moved their sailboats, manipulated rocks, shared and positioned other toys in the water while maintaining a continuous narrative about what was happening. Children’s play was sustained with each of them staying an average of about 15 minutes. With the addition of the sailboats and other materials, children’s interest was fully held with no behavior problems.
Children explored new materials. They investigated the properties of rocks by dropping them into the water to see how much of a splash resulted; banging rocks on the sensory table base to hear the sound created; and turning rocks over in their hands to feel the surface area. Children made movements in the water that had not been seen before. A girl repeatedly moved her hands to propel the sailboats forward; steer the sailboats between rocks; create rough water during a rescue; and explore how water had been colored blue. Children gained new experiences as they used and shared other toys in the water to create play plots. In a rescue, children worked together to move people from island to island (represented by rocks) and then load them onto rescue boats. Children held silver coins in their hands to represent treasure found on the ocean bed.
Children spoke in a continuous stream to narrate their story plot. This allowed educators to understand what was happening. Hal said, “I’m crashing, May Day, May Day! I’m crashing against the rocks. Ah, you took my man. Get on my boat guys.” Jack replied, “Help, mine is stuck (on the rocks) too! I can’t get over.” Hal replied, “No, you can’t go underwater either, that’s where the sharks are! He’s stuck!” Jack cried, “Help, help!”
Team Reflection on the Video
The sailboat strategy was successful in increasing children’s interest at the sensory table. Eight children played for almost 30 minutes during work-time. Four children made this their first choice during work-time. Boys tended to stay longer than girls. One boy spent 40 minutes playing there, and refused to come away at clean-up time. The sensory table was now used with the same frequency as other play centers.
The original teaching challenges identified were improved by the sailboat strategy. When children were given more control over their own play, their interest at the sensory table increased. Providing children with opportunities to come up with their own play plots and choose the materials they wanted to use was seen as crucial in developing children’s interest.
The quality of children’s learning improved at the sensory table. Children’s play was more social and more animated. Language opportunities increased when children assumed their roles. Children’s use of rocks at the sensory table illustrated how their learning improved in developmentally-appropriate ways. Not only did science content exist as educators had thought, but also math, literacy, creativity, and social science. Children’s interest in using rocks differed from educators’ ideas. Children cleverly used rocks in fantasy play to represent islands that functioned as rescue stations during shark attacks.
The team saw how the sailboat strategy sustained children’s interest. The sensory table was now busy on all days when it was open. As time went on, fewer children played there, but they stayed for longer. Educators understood that a waning of children’s interest was a signal for them to ask children what new materials they might want to further develop their play.
Educators reflected on how the strategy changed their understanding of their own teaching. Instead of educators making decisions about play, the children did much better when allowed to make decisions for themselves. Through decision and choice making, children became thinkers, talkers, and problem-solvers.
Educators’ teaching roles changed as they became listeners and interrogators of children. Listening to children as they played was “a real eye-opener.” For the first time, educators heard children’s own imaginative ideas for fantasy play. When educators asked children questions, they became responsive to children’s requests. New materials were chosen by children to fulfill specific purposes in play. Chosen materials created a new dynamic quality to the play. Observations of play provided the information educators needed to ask children relevant questions. When educators asked relevant questions, they, in turn, became effective supporters and sustainers of play.
Educators identified what they wanted to do next in their teaching. They were concerned they had not clearly explained the procedure they had used during circle time to help children choose new materials.
Evidence suggested that NAEYC Standards (2009) 1a, b and c were met by the sailboat strategy.
Implementing the Strategy: Second Stage
Educators thought they supported children’s play more effectively when they listened, asked questions, gave choices, and helped them make decisions about materials they wanted to use. The procedure for children choosing new materials democratically consisted of educators listening to children’s requests, responding by asking children to vote for requested materials, recording the number of votes cast, and announcing that the majority vote would determine which material was chosen.
Educators changed the “question of the day” to include a rotation of materials to provide children with variety. After a period of time, educators removed rocks from the sensory table, and instead, children chose to use another material. Educators explained that the material receiving the most votes would go into the sensory table. Shells received the most votes.
A 20-minute video of children playing at the sensory table was analyzed by educators. The results of the impact of the strategy of children playing at the sensory table with shells were:
|Number of children playing at sensory table||5|
|Children are interested||5|
|Children’s play is sustained||5|
|Sensory table holds children’s attention||5|
|Children explore new materials||5|
|Children gain new experiences||5|
|Children use language skills||4|
|Table 5.3: Video analysis shows the impact of using shells at the sensory table|
Combinations of five children played at the sensory table (supplied with shells) which was fewer than the number that played there when the children had chosen rocks (see fig 5.3). At times, the sensory table was so full, that one child had to wait until there was an open place, which taught patience.
All five children showed interest as they played with their boats and with shells in the blue colored water. They cupped water in shells and tipped the water over each other’s hands. Children made waves in the water as they steered their boats, grabbing handfuls of shells and piling them up on their boats. As they searched for shells, children said, “Look what I found,” and, “You look in here.”
Children’s play was sustained, as on average they stayed for approximately 12 minutes each. They each brought their own boat and pretended to serve drinks to each other, like imaginary lemonade.
Children’s attention was maintained as they held and observed the shape of shells. Looking at clamshells, children opened and closed the hinges. Children picked shells up out of the water, swirled them in the water and blew on them. One child felt a shell against his lip for a better sense of its texture. Children turned the shells over and, nesting them inside each other, piled them onto their boats. They gained new knowledge by comparing shells to objects with which they were familiar. One child said, while cupping water in a shell, “Looks like a medicine cup,” and looking at a spiral shell, another commented, “The shell looks as if it is coming out.” One child asked another to smell the shell. The child replied, “No way, I’m not smelling that!”
The sailboat strategy was determined to still be working. Original teaching challenges continued to be improved upon. Regarding children’s interest in playing at the sensory table, the team reflected that on days of the week when the sensory table was closed, children asked for it to be opened again. This indicated that the sensory table was now a popular play area in the classroom. On average, children stayed for about 15 minutes. Some stayed for the whole of work time, and others stayed only a few minutes. Children now played at the sensory table on a regular basis and engaged in sustained play over time.
Educators determined that children’s learning was greatest when they were able to ask for and choose materials they wanted to use in the sensory table. Examples of this included asking for the water to be colored blue, and choosing rocks and shells as accessories to their boats. Regarding children’s use of language, their play with boats and shells did not generate the same quantity, or richness of language, that their play with boats, rocks, and people had.
Educators believed that children’s play was sustained for longer when toy versions of both people and animals were added to the sensory table activity. Children did not show the same level of creative thinking, narrative, and story plots when only inanimate objects were present. Educators believed, and rightly so, that children’s attention was best engaged when the play was purposeful. The rocks enabled children to explore and be creative. The shells enabled them to use their imaginations, visualizing and using them as ballast in their sailboats, treasure, money, and medicine cups. Children gained new experiences through exploration using their senses.
Previously, children had played in parallel at the sensory table, but now educators could see them socializing and sharing. Attending to the children’s use of language, the educators observed, was important. They listened to what children asked for, and noted their choices at circle time. Educators were more aware of who the askers and choosers were. They commented that responding to children’s choices was “so different for us, so much more than before, when we had no clue about their ideas.”
If some of this seems intuitive, it is. Their understanding blossomed from full participation in the solving of these challenges, which is the essence of the ELC.
Educators determined that: NAEYC Standard 1a-c, Promoting Child Development and Learning; Standard 3 a-d: Observing, Documenting and Assessing to Support Young Children, and elements of Standard 6b-d: Becoming a Professional were also met.
The team decided that the next stage of the action research concerned children’s ability to simultaneously choose multiple new materials to add to the sensory table.
Implementing the S trategy : Third Stage
A 20-minute video showed three sequences; (1) at circle time when children chose materials from four choices and voted to add sea creatures; (2) a group of boys playing at the sensory table and; (3) a group of boys and girls playing at the sensory table. The video clips were analyzed using the assessment grid criteria. The results of asking children to choose new materials were as follows:
|Number of children play at sensory table||8||Two groups of four|
|Children are interested||8||All fully involved|
|Children’s play is sustained||6||With more materials|
|Sensory table holds children’s attention||6|
|Children explore new materials||8|
|Children gain new experiences||8|
|Children use language skills||8|
|Table 5.4: Video analysis shows impact of children choosing new materials|
During the two video clips taken at the sensory table, eight children were seen playing there. The number of children that played with their sailboats was highest when toy people and animals were made available. All eight children showed interest in playing simultaneously with sailboats and sea animals like crabs, fish, sea horses, shrimp, and sharks. Boys collected their sailboats before coming to the sensory table. One boy made two boats, a second boy exclaimed, “I’ll get my new one,” and a third boy made engine noises as he steered his sailboat through the water. The boys showed interest as they “fished” for sea animals. One said, “I’m going fishing. I caught something.” They piled sea creatures on each other’s boats which naturally elicited some complaints. Children’s active play was enhanced when the plot was dynamic.
Children’s play was also sustained. Some children stayed 15 minutes, while others stayed only ten, but then returned later. Others stayed just three minutes. The same children were seen repeatedly on the video. This suggested that these were regular players at the sensory table who continued their play with the same friends from one session to the next. This suggested that those same children developed their play plots over time. When children heard music that signaled the end of work-time and time to clean up, one said, “Oh, we were doing fine. We had fun”. This showed that children wanted to continue to play there for longer.
Children’s interest and attention were held throughout their time at the sensory table. Interest and attention appeared to be maintained through social interaction between children as they noticed that some fish “were the same.” Others made up and narrated stories of hammerhead shark attacks that “cut” into their boats. One child’s interest and attention was held as she searched for treasure in the water and sorted it into different piles on her boat. Children did not explore the toy sea creatures in the same way that they had with the rocks and shells. Instead they used sea creatures, specifically sharks, to make up stories about shark attacks.
Children’s new play plots were significant because of what they did with the toy sea-creatures. They knocked their own heads with the hammerhead sharks, symbolizing how an attack would take place. Children placed the hammerheads under their boats, symbolizing an attack, and one child even placed a person on the top of the sail mast of the boat, to represent an escape route! A boy played with a seahorse and said “giddy up” as he attacked another child’s boat!
The play shark attack gave the educators a chance to observe the children’s language skills and their ability to convey meaning. One child said, “The shark will catch me.” A second replied, “What do I do? The shark is in the boat!” A third added, “The shark’s going to cut my boat. Help me, the shark will catch me. Ah, ah, the shark is biting my fingers!” A girl exclaimed while searching for treasure, “Oh no, I’ve dropped my treasure. What can I do?”
The team reflected how the strategy had increased children’s use of the sensory table over the course of the action research. At the start, few or no children played there, but their numbers had increased to an average of eight children each session. There had been days when the sensory table had been completely full. The number of children tended to peak by the third day and then trail off. To maintain numbers at the sensory table, educators knew to ask children what materials they wanted to add next.
Educators remarked that the original teaching challenge had been improved upon. The key to maintaining children’s interest lay in offering them choices for what they wanted to play with at the sensory table. Educators said children were only interested in the sensory table for short periods of time. However, the boat-making activity, for instance, had extended the interest of all children who played at the sensory table.
“Question of the day,” where children were asked to choose and vote on materials had been successful. It appeared that providing children with choice and decision-making opportunities was instrumental to maintaining their interest. Children’s play was sustained at the sensory table from about ten minutes per child to about 13 minutes per child. Both boys and girls now chose to play there regularly and stayed for longer periods of time.
New materials also increased children’s attention at the sensory table. Educators said the children learned more and used all five senses, making up imaginative stories, with increased social involvement and more use of language. Children’s exploration of these materials was a major feature of the project. The educators wondered why they had added different materials to other centers in the classroom, but not to the sensory table. However, children’s own input was what had made the difference, along with educators’ belief about the importance of hands-on learning, investigation, and active learning. The critical element included educators asking children questions about the materials they wanted.
Educators remarked that they had to support children’s ideas by changing aspects of their own teaching. Children gained new experiences by coming up with their own ideas and then using them at the sensory table. Educators already knew to observe children and follow their interests. They now realized they also needed to get children’s input to determine what aspects of practice would benefit from change.
Educators’ improved practice, brought about by their deeper knowledge and understanding of young children’s thinking in fantasy play, resulted in a sound base for responsive practice. The influences that affected children’s development and learning were better understood, resulting in children choosing and acting on materials to reveal the plot and meaning in their play. Respectful learning environments resulted in beneficial support, challenge, and opportunities, with each of these enabling children to make decisions in their play. The video camera showed educators the real activity of children at the sensory table and helped educators promote positive learning outcomes. Educators became professionals when they engaged in collaborative action research, and when they were able to reflect and express their new understanding of their teaching.
The teacher candidate benefitted from the improved consistency that existed between the content learned in college classes, and the practice experienced in the Practicum classroom. Participation in the action research gave her consistent knowledge, confidence, and the support to carry out lesson plan assignments designed to improve children’s learning opportunities. Evidence suggested that NAEYC Standards (2009) 1, 3, and 6 were met by the sailboat strategy.
The aims of the action research were fulfilled. The boat-making strategy was successful in making the sensory table a more interesting and frequently used play area. The number of children at the table was increased by the implementation of the boat making-strategy. Children’s interest was sustained as they developed their own fantasy play plots, and groups and individuals played at the sensory table for longer periods of time.
Alignment with NAEYC standards was improved when educators worked with a deeper understanding of the characteristics and needs of 3 to 4-year-old children. Educators worked more closely with children by providing them with opportunities to choose materials for the sensory table. However, children’s free choices were not guaranteed until educators gave them daily access to the sensory table, and multiple materials were stored and made accessible in close proximity to it. Healthy, respectful, supportive, and challenging learning opportunities were provided to support spontaneous play. However, more opportunities to use content knowledge were needed to further develop children’s learning. Closer alignment with NAEYC standards, in both college courses and in Practicum, created consistent opportunities for the teacher candidate to design and implement high quality assignments.
Team values changed incrementally over the action research. Educators retained their values about the importance of children learning through exploration of materials. However, new values were formed when educators learned that children had highly creative ideas of their own for their play. Children needed to have access to a broad range of resources that they could utilize to give their play meaning. These ideas enabled children to develop new skills in language, imagination, plots, purpose, investigations, decisions, and problem-solving. The team realized that their role was to expose children’s ideas in play, and support them in their endeavor to build concepts during sensory table play at circle and work-times.