Summer, with its usually long sunny days, vibrant colours, scents and sounds is a perfect time to reconnect with our senses. With the recent fluctuations in weather this is particularly true. On a recent walk my five year old was drawn to some giant gauzy viburnum flowers, each bloom larger than his head. The next day after an unseasonal downpour, the milky heads lay heavy and sodden on the ground. This provoked discussion and interest about the why’s, what’s and how’s of nature, but it also gave a different sensory experience. The dancing petals, birdsong and smell of barbecues from the previous day had been replaced by the scent of damp grass, a cool wafting breeze and almost eerie silence. It’s at times like this that we realise the power of our senses and the potential excitement of the outdoor environment.

Sensory play is characterised by deep focus and concentration and if we can make time for it in children’s busy lives,it reaps rich rewards, freeing-up time to creatively problem solve and think. The visual appeal of most children’s toys is readily apparent, but often this is at the expense of exciting our other senses, vitally important for development.

A great sensory-rich activity to try with your little ones is Buried Treasure. Treasure-like objects are buried in sand for children to reveal with brushes and spoons in a mini-archaeological dig. This works particularly well with household and natural objects like a chain, mini-flower pot, smooth cobble, etc. – items typically found in a treasure basket (see note). The great thing about activities like this is that it appeals to children across the ages and being ‘open ended’ they are able to build on their own interests and add their own dimension to play.

Fill a tray or old washing-up bowl with some play sand and secretly bury the objects. With younger children you can leave some partially visible. Collect several brushes (e.g. pastry, tea spout, nailbrush) and a selection of spoons (e.g. teaspoons, serving spoons, wooden spoons) for the archaeological dig. Place these next to the sand tray or give the children the brushes and spoons and suggest they have an archaeological dig, (explaining what this is if needed). Alternatively simply say ‘I’ve heard that there’s a fossilised dinosaur egg in here’. With most children this alone is enough to get them excavating with the ‘tools’ provided! If appropriate, model gently using a brush to reveal the hidden objects. Share their delight and surprise when they unearth a ‘treasure’. Children can use a magnifying glass to explore the treasure further.

Extend play by burying metal objects only and providing magnets to use as mini-metal detectors. Alternatively bury a mixture of objects for them to find (with magnets), reveal (with brushes) and carefully dig up (with spoons). Talk about what happens and why the magnets did or didn’t work. This is great for introducing surprises as the magnet won’t necessarily work with all metals and therefore older children may wish to explore why.

Buried Treasure will ignite children’s imagination and creativity as well as supporting physical development, concentration, problem solving and ‘language for communication’ (EYFS, 2008). For younger children it helps develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination and introduces awe and wonder. Watch children deeply engrossed as they discover and play typically for an hour or more at a time.  Older children often take on the role of supporting younger peers by re-burying objects for them to discover. There’s also something special about the properties of sand when used with ‘unusual’ objects. This can produce unexpected outcomes which are guaranteed to entertain and delight, like the boy still playing after three hours of exploration!

This activity shows sensory-rich play at its best, as apart from sand, no special resources are needed; there’s limited preparation and if played on mats or better still outdoors, there’s next to no mess! Extra sensory interest can easily be added with the addition of dried rice or couscous to the sand. Using coloured sand or lining the bowl/tray with tin foil provides extra interest and surprise. Try adding clean recycled yoghurt pots, margarine tubs and washing liquid measures or recycled packaging to give children’s imagination a free reign. Take the eight year old who discovered a box of packing ‘peanuts’ whilst playing with sand. She decided to roll one in a mix of sand and dried couscous before excitedly holding up the cheesy nibble look a-like that she had created! A flurry of activity followed as the other children tried to make their own pretend snacks and incorporate the packing pieces into their play.

Watching sensory-rich play like this is a magical experience. From the baby enjoying the feel of the sand and objects and discovering that sand sticks to wet things; the toddler accidentally creating patterns in the sand, and pouring, filling and transporting sand from one container to another; to the older child carefully mixing ‘delicious’ concoctions or making up their own games, the wonder of this simple play resource is evident and its play potential and sensory appeal endless.

Copyright Play to Z Ltd, 2005-2011


A Treasure Basket is a basket of natural items and household objects, perfect for age and developmentally appropriate play with children from six months to six years and beyond. Like sensory-rich play outdoors, it offers plenty to stimulate all the senses. After observing a baby or child freely exploring a Treasure Basket (with adult supervision) adults can take a more active role in selecting activities that will appeal to a child’s interests and needs.