A “Holey” Table and Some Magic Moments

Play-based learning is a lot of things. It’s messy, vibrant, and exuberant. When it’s clicking, when it’s really humming, it’s a joy to watch. In short, it’s one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see, if you can really appreciate what you are looking at.

Sensory table with cardboard platform

This is the “touch table” that lives in my classroom. Well, actually, on the back porch that is connected to my classroom. But I digress. It’s a well-loved water table that’s been with our school for probably eons, just like many of the things that we use every day. Most days after snack time is over, I pull it inside the classroom with the help of four or five sets of very very very eager hands who just cannot wait to pull the lid off to see what’s inside. On this day, inspired by the amazing Sand and Water Tables blog, I decided to mix things up a bit. My parent helper and I cut holes in a big piece of cardboard and then secured it over the top of the table with some duct tape. I gave the children a few bowls of apple-colored beans and some regular pinto beans, along with my apple pom poms and some smooth miniature pretend apples we’d been using for various activities. They also got some miniature metal pitchers and buckets for scooping and pouring. Then, we sat back and waited for the children to decide how to use the materials.

Sensory table with cardboard platform

This group was absolutely mesmerized. They poked the different apples through the holes and then tentatively put their hands through to feel around. Once they built up their courage, they pulled items back to the surface and delighted in what they found, commenting excitedly to me, my helper, and each other. They used their pitchers, bowls, and buckets to pour beans through the holes, scoop them up, and pour them again. Then they began bringing items to the table from around the room to test which ones would fit in which holes. They used long items that they found in the kitchen center, such as wooden spoons and fake bananas, to try and reach things they poked through the holes that their little hands couldn’t quite grab. It was so amazing to see all the different processes and learning happening around the table-┬ádumping, filling, testing hypotheses, problem solving, gaining spatial awareness and numeracy concepts, using quantitative vocabulary, and more. Although this group loves sensory experiences, this was by far the most engaging one we’ve had in the classroom so far, and it held some of their attention for a full 25 minutes (they are two). All because of a piece of “holey” cardboard!

Sensory table with cardboard platform

I have to admit, I was pretty excited and a little proud of myself that day. Later that evening I spoke to a group of parents at school about play-based learning, and I pulled this table in to demonstrate to the parents how much amazing learning could happen with something so simple. Naturally, I expected the next day’s group of kiddos to love it as much as the previous day’s group did (I have two classes, one that comes T/Tr and another on M/W/F).

Guess what? It was a total flop. About five minutes into play, we were ripping that top off so the frustrated kiddos (most 3 or close to 3) could get their hands down in those beans. It just goes to show you that each group is different and following the child’s lead may take you in totally different directions depending on the day.


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  1. It’s fascinating to watch young children learn, especially with something most of us would just consider trash! My daughter as a toddler loved playing with a similar box over a bin of rice or sand. It’s almost always the simple things!