Mary Barlow is an Early Years Consultant and Endorsed High/Scope Trainer delivering development programmes for managers and practitioners across children’s early years education and care. With a professional background in nursery nursing she has worked as a nursery nurse across the private, public and voluntary sectors, including management roles in Barnardo’s and Sure Start programmes.

Mary has created and developed a range of cornerstone programmes, which are now being commissioned by several local authorities, nursery chains and private settings across the UK. She has a strong reputation for her Beginning with Babies™ and Fun on the Floor™ programmes. As owner and Director of The Totem Pole, an established and unique training, development and resource centre in Lincolnshire, she is often invited to deliver a range of workshops and provide Key Note sessions at early years conferences. She achieved Nursery World Trainer of the Year Award in 2011.

The learning environment that she has created at The Totem Pole reflects true nursery life with a dedicated playroom that has evolved to demonstrate best practice when supporting ‘vulnerable’ two year olds (renamed ‘Bubbly’ Two Year Olds at The Totem Pole). Typically play and exploration is built on in the playroom by practitioners and reflected back to the nursery for present practice.

Mary provided the keynote at the 1st Early Years Conference held in May 2013 at University Centre Doncaster ‘It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it’.

In this article we will explore how children’s senses can be stimulated though play in your setting. There will be examples of materials to offer and how you can have an influence on the continuous provision in your setting. Recent research about the brain developing in young children tells us that the brain is healthier where young children have the opportunity to explore sensory materials in their play.

Before a baby is born they have started absorbing their world through the five senses; hear, touch, smell, taste and what they see.  Learning about the world through the five senses develops pathways in the brain, the more experiences the baby has the stronger the pathways become. So, by providing babies, toddler’s and young children with a wide range of experiences which involve all the senses, you as practitioners are supporting development of these strong pathways in the brain, which will help then in the children’s learning not only in your setting but into school and then into their adult years.

In your Baby Rooms and Toddler Rooms think about the senses and their relationship to the children’s homes… Young children need the familiarity of home to enable strong attachments to grow with their key person.


Your rooms for very young children should reflect the home environment: Use home furnishings and decorations. Curtains / blinds at the windows. Keep your windowsills free of clutter, use them as you would at home. A sofa to cuddle up on, sturdy coffee tables, rugs to divide the areas all represent the home environment which you can then build on to develop your continuous provision.

Fill clear plastic bottles with coloured water and glitter, buttons, beads, lentils…older toddlers would enjoy finding treasure from around the nursery to put in their bottles. Use mirrors with the babies during tummy time / play peep boo. What happens when you whisk up washing up liquid in a bowl of warm water?  What happens when you blow through a straw into water? A ‘home corner’ offering real fruit and vegetables, real small sized saucepans, plates and cups, a tea towel, cleaning clothes all look familiar – ‘just like mine at home’ – remember less is more and don’t over resource your areas.


Start to use everyday words that describe your areas that the children would have heard at home. Bathroom, Bedroom, Lounge, Kitchen, Dining Room, Garden. ‘Off we go to the bathroom to change your nappy / use the potty’ – rather than ‘off we go to the nappy changing area to change your nappy / use the potty’ – your voice and what you are saying is so powerful. When you are offering the children play opportunities think about what they are hearing… for the babies add things into the collections you offer them, bells and seed pods to shake, papers that scrunch, squeaky balls etc. Wooden spoons and tins to bang, Toddlers will enjoy a collection of noisy objects from around the nursery – household items to shake, bang and rattle. Sauce pan lids, plastic bottles as mentioned above – play soft – loud – fast – slow. Singing to the children – familiar songs as well as introducing new ones. Play appropriate music during quite times in the day. Stand still for a while outside and listen to the noises that surround you and the children… ‘Did you hear that bird? – Was that the sound of an aeroplane?’


Stimulate the children’s sense of touch through the different textures you are offering them in their every day play.  Extend the collections that babies explore into the Toddler Room. The bath time collection of sponges, flannels, nail brushes, soaps that you offer the Babies will be explored in a different way by the older children – for example you might want to add that collection to the water play one day. Fill the paddling pool with shredded paper to sit in, hide things for the older children to find. Add texture to finger paints, sand and rock salt. Pop bubble wrap bubbles. Join together different weights and textures of materials and make a sensory mat to lie on the floor for the children to explore or glue pieces of material onto a large box to give the children a different dimension to exploring the same or different materials. In Small World areas traditionally you would find lots of plastic animals, cars, people, perhaps a house, garages and farm yard. Enhance this area with natural resources – leaves, herbs, small logs, pine cones, small lengths of material – Watch how the children’s play develops once you have offered these natural materials. Playing like this with the children exploring the areas using all your senses adds so much more value to the children’s play and is more interesting for you …You will notice now that the senses start to link up.


We probably all have childhood memories of smells and their relationship to something or someone. One of mine is the smell of lilac in the spring time and the memory it evokes of my Gran’s garden.

All the areas in your nursery lend themselves to introducing pleasing smells… Potpourri in bowls near your Cosy Corner, pots of herbs in the Home Corner, play dough with lavender, vanilla, lemon juice, or cinnamon added, scented water in the art attack area alongside natural collages making rose petal perfume outside or shelling peas on the door step all give the children the experiences they need for the best possible start in life.


Watching young children finger painting with custard, mousse, ice cream would be dismissed by many parents as too messy and not seen as a learning experience. With any sensory play activity controlling the mess can be a barrier. Use washing up bowls, baking trays, to limit the play space. Cooking / preparing snack with the children is a great way of introducing them to different tastes – extended to offering fruits in the Home Corner. Babies will enjoy exploring soft fruits, raspberries and strawberries then scrunching their hands into white cotton material. These ‘pictures’ displayed on your nursery walls together with photographs of the play session will be a great interest to visitors to your setting.

Sensory experiences provide open-ended opportunities for all ages of children where the process is more important than the product; how children use materials is much more important than what they make with them. You will find a benefit in jotting down all the sensory experiences you offer the children in your setting and make a plan of how you can build on the practice already in place… So what is the most popular sensory experience you offer the children in your setting?