Allie Ticktin, MA, OTD, OTR/L, SIPT - May 24, 2022
As children, we grew up learning about holes in the ozone layer and the threat of global warming. Now, as parents, we’re raising our children to be aware of different environmental issues, such as composting, green energy and the war on plastic. It’s both more complicated and more important than ever to give our children the tools necessary to help fight climate change.
The issues facing the planet are very real and pressing and it doesn’t need to be Earth Day to find a reason to teach your children about the importance of protecting the earth. And, educating your children on the best ways to do so doesn’t need to be boring. In fact, it can be incorporated into everyday life, without buying extra stuff.
Probably the single most important thing you can do to make your child aware of the environment is to spend time in it with them. It can help to treat outdoor time as family time, and let them be led by their curiosity. If the kids have a question about something that you can’t answer, look it up together. Allow your children to safely explore the outdoor environment by looking for animals, touching plants, and discussing what they see, feel, and hear. This will not only help develop their fine and gross motor skills and language, but it will also teach them to really see and appreciate nature.
And, it may seem mundane, but using a trip to the supermarket can be a great opportunity to talk about how our buying choices affect the environment. Encourage your child to choose loose produce, rather than those in plastic packages. Or, go one step further and dedicate a square of garden, or even a couple of planters, to growing your own fruit and vegetables at home. Touching and examining their food both in the store, and by growing it, will provide further sensory experiences and development opportunities.
You can also always take your child – or a group of their friends – on a regular litter-pick in your local area. Equip them with strong gloves, bin bags and litter-picking sticks, and see what they collect. Consider turning it into a learning opportunity by tallying up what sort of items they gather (e.g. chip bags, cans, bottles), and talking about the materials they are made of, the sounds they make, and how they could be recycled.
Of course, the best way to get your littles to learn about anything is through play. The act of playing is an important tool that influences a child’s ability to learn and develop. Though modern parenting pressures may tell you otherwise, the primary goals of childhood are to grow, learn, and play. It is often through play that children learn to make sense of the world around them. You can think of it like it’s a child’s “job” or “occupation'' to develop physical coordination, emotional maturity, social skills to interact with other children, and the self-confidence to try new experiences and explore new environments.
This is what makes sensory play, specifically, the perfect opportunity to teach kids about how to be environmentally conscious! In occupational therapy, though we use intentional and specific tools and toys to facilitate therapy, we also encourage using everyday objects to encourage learning through sensory play. This is why we love recyclables. They’re naturally open ended, and push creativity and problem solving. Plus, you’re creating new toys every day just by using bottles, cans, paper, etc. In short, you don't need a lot of stuff!
In addition to trying to see everyday experiences as an opportunity for sensory learning, setting up sensory bins at home is a great way to encourage sensory play. They never have to be elaborate, expensive, or time-consuming to set up, but are especially easy to execute with an environmental lesson in mind. Your kids will have a blast searching through the shredded paper to find the cards and sort them into the appropriate bins.
Sensory bins provide children with the opportunity to explore and learn through hands-on tactile play that engages their senses. These bins encourage and support various types of development and are great activities to pass a lazy afternoon with purpose. Sensory bins provide:
Opportunity for Sensory Exploration:Sensory bins stimulate multiple senses at the same time, including touch, sight, sound and smell. You can place small objects in a container of dry rice, pasta, beans or water.
Improve Fine Motor Skills:Sensory bins can increase fine motor skills as children stir, scoop, dig and pour. You can include tweezers, spoons and funnels to encourage tool use and develop grasp patterns needed for handwriting and managing feeding utensils.
Increase Socialization with Peers: Sensory bins can support social skills, such as taking turns, teamwork, cooperation and communication when used with others, including siblings and friends.
Cognitive Development: Sensory bins can support cognitive development as children sort hidden items by size or color. Putting number and letter shapes into the sensory bin can provide children the opportunity to learn the alphabet, their numbers and gain practice with counting and spelling.
Language Development: Talking with your child about hidden items provides an opportunity to expand language and develop vocabulary.
Calming Activity:Sensory bins can provide a quiet activity to help children calm down and play independently.
Sensory bin play can be as open ended as putting objects and materials in a bin and letting your kids lose to explore how they’d like for more open ended play. Or, you can use them for more structured activities like sorting and gathering. If your child is older, they can learn to sort recyclables by materials!
For an environmentally conscious sensory bin, consider swapping your typical materials for recyclables like:
- Shredded paper
- Toilet paper and paper towel rolls
- Egg cartons
- Expired dried goods like beans, oats or rice
- Cardboard boxes
- Packing materials
Add scoops, funnels, tweezers, and other toys to create greater sensory experiences. Above all else, make it fun! Sensory bins are extremely educational and developmental, but they’re also great facilitators of time well spent.