Showing mastery in sensory-rich play and treasure baskets

July 7, 2016

Rachel Stewart, Chair of Grow Big, reflects on the success of a pilot project set up to provide unique, sensory-rich, play experiences for young children living in poverty in Calderdale, West Yorkshire.

Sense: ‘A creative project all about sensory play’

Sense was a pilot project run by Grow Big, across six Children’s Centres in Calderdale from September to December 2015. Funded by Calderdale Council and the Big Lottery, the project aimed to increase the personal, social and emotional development of children aged three and four, and their attitude and aptitude to learning. A team of volunteers worked with 96 children aged 3-4 from areas of deprivation. Six 40-minute sessions took place weekly inside a specially created inflatable pod, incorporating a variety of experiences and mini-worlds (e.g. woodland/seaside), which made use of a wide range of sensory materials, treasure baskets and storytelling.


Grow Big became a charity and delivered its first pilot project, Sense, in 2015. Our project is really inspired by our experiences of parenting young children and all that it brings. We, as trustees and parents, wanted to develop an approach that would really help children problem solve and build confidence in a creative, open-ended way. Developing each child’s personal, social and emotional skills, in particular, prepares them for future challenges. We know this is such a crucial age as the brain is developing rapidly.

GrowBig2Offering children a range of sensory materials may look like an easy task, however, we found that it required a lot of time, energy and research if it is to be done well and achieve genuine, lasting results. Understanding, and then implementing, the Sensory Play Continuum was a key learning goal for our team members. We enlisted the help of Sue Gascoyne (early years author and educational consultant) to develop and deliver bespoke training for the project. Sue’s knowledge and experience was really important in giving our team a strong foundation in child-led sensory play. More about the benefits of sensory play can be found on our website:

The evaluation, completed by Earlyarts, highlights the key findings:-

“The project was successful in enabling children to demonstrate an improvement in personal, social and emotional skills with confidence, resilience and communication all increasing throughout the project”.

When we first embarked on this project we really didn’t know the extent to which each child would benefit. I think in some ways we have been surprised about what can be achieved in just six weeks.

GrowBig5The project improved the children’s ability to learn. We found that space and time in the pod, in particular, helped the children to become immersed in imaginative play using their senses. The deeper the immersion in the activity, the more opportunities the child experiences for learning.

“All centres reported an increased sense of calmness when children were in the pod “

The inflatable pod is our trademark and we soon discovered that the orange glow and lighting inside led to an increased sense of calmness. Even the most hyperactive children demonstrated periods of extended concentration inside the pod. Of course, not every child was comfortable to enter the pod for the first time, especially those with anxiety or low confidence, which was something we supported the children’s carers to help them with.

Playing sounds in the pod were also found to be calming and helped the children to settle – whether this was the sound of waves crashing or birds singing.

“Using treasure baskets to engage older children worked well”.


Our baskets contained almost 60 items picked for their colour, texture, shape and weight, including felted rings, drawstring bags, bamboo bee tubes, wooden combs and metal measuring cups, to name a few. We also played guessing games with the items and made up stories.

Our research so far has shown that treasure baskets are underused for this age group, with nurseries tending to focus on this type of provision for babies and toddlers. The benefits for older children are significant. I have also found this on a personal level as I would ‘borrow’ a basket from the office for my 3 and 5 year old boys. At the end of a long day the offering of a treasure basket calmed them down, encouraged co-operation and led to much deeper learning than that experienced by playing with other toys or watching TV.

The basket really did provide endless opportunities for play. Who knew that a chain hooked onto a pastry brush would become a fishing rod? Or that a felted ring would be cut up with a wooden butter knife for the cat’s dinner?

“74% of parents now feel more confident about setting up play activities at home that will encourage their child to explore the different senses”.

The children all took home a free goodie bag and a set of sensory play postcards. After the project had ended we hoped that parents would feel confident to offer sensory play at home. It was at times difficult to engage with parents and in future we would like to look into engaging with them in a more flexible way, including the use of social media when face-to-face contact is difficult.


The future for Sense

  • We’ve recruited our first team of sensory play workers to deliver our Children In Need project in 2016. We will collect data on how children with mild to moderate learning difficulties benefit from the project as well as children living in poverty.
  • Developing longer programmes (up to 12 weeks)
  • Extending our age range to include 2 year olds
  • Designing new mini-worlds including Space ……5-4-3-2-1, Lift Off!
  • Marketing a sensory play package for commissioners of children’s services, nurseries and pre-schools.
  • Continuing to map outcomes against the Early Years Foundation Stage framework and extend our learning to include Experiential Education (EXE).
  • Spreading the word about the benefits of sensory play, especially for pre-schoolers!


If you would like to find out more about Sense or read the full Earlyarts evaluation please contact or visit


Like this post?
Get opportunities and blogs delivered to your inbox

Subscribe to our monthly early years e-bulletin