Sensory Tray Activity for Cognitive Skill Building – Reflection Pool

sensory tray starter kit

Creativity is all around us in our daily life. To some, it may come more natural than to others, especially young children who have no inhibitions. As we grow older, many of us begin to lose sight of our creative abilities as they are overtaken by day to day responsibilities. Often times when a participant is asked to use their imagination for an activity in a senior living facility or craft program, their response is, “I’m not creative,” or “I am no good at this,” and they walk away from the activity. 

So how do you engage others in creative expression in their later years, especially when they have this unforgiving disease called dementia, and are robbed of many past skills and abilities? Well first off, here’s some good news! Creativity lives in a part of the brain that can still function, even if other parts are declining. And, creativity is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more you have! So how do we tap into it? By offering more open-ended sensory stimulating activities.

Benefits of Sensory TRAY Activities

Through my extensive work with adults with dementia, and other cognitive challenges, I have found that open-ended sensory stimulating activities can be quite rewarding, for the participant AND the facilitator. 

When an activity is open-ended, meaning that there are no directions to follow or expected outcome, both parties can experience the joy of being in the moment and seeing what comes about naturally. You don’t need to know ahead of time how your participants will engage with the materials at hand. And they don’t either! They can decide and interact with the materials in a way that makes sense to them as they go along. The materials might provoke memories or stimulate new thoughts or conversation. Or the materials may be so engaging that they are so absorbed in their work that they are silent and “in the zone” only to come out of the experience more refreshed and joyful. Ultimately, it does not matter how they use the materials – as there is no right or wrong! The activity is process-oriented with no expected outcome.

reflection pool sensory tray

And by offering a variety of sensory stimulating materials, it gives your participants more opportunity to connect with the activity at hand. Not all senses may be available to them, but the hope is they will connect with some of the materials on some level.  Perhaps their interest will be peeked visually. Or they will like the way something feels, or the way it sounds as it moves across the tray. Or something might have an aroma that sparks a memory.

Please note: The only sense that is not encouraged is taste and occasional reminders that materials are for hands only may be required.

Reflection Pool – Sensory Tray Kit

S&S and Tray Play have partnered to bring you Sensory Tray Starter Kits so you can begin bringing open-ended sensory stimulating activities to those you care for right away and begin strengthening that creative muscle once again.

Reflection Pool is one of three sensory tray starter kits available. Kinetic dirt and succulents instantly give it a garden feel. Wooden planks and cubes can be assembled to create a bench, a trellis, a fence, or what have you. The owl replica brings intrigue to the scene. “Why is he here? What is he doing? Is he real?” And then the brightly colored mosaic tiles introduce a pop of color along with the pompoms. 

Remember, there is no right or wrong way to use these materials and everyone has their own story to tell. As long as they are engaged, they are right on target! So imagine, being able to take someone on a journey, from saying, “ I’m not creative” to designing a scene that everyone can admire.

So hopefully you are inspired to take action and begin providing sensory tray experiences to those you care for today. Celebrate what they can do and help them unleash their creativity! Once you have your sensory tray combination, it’s time to give it a go.

  1. Find a participant.
  2. Provide a large white tray to define their workspace in front of them.
  3. Offer the materials one type at a time in a small white dish, or simply place select materials in their hands. Then have them add it to the tray anywhere that looks good to them.
  4. Be open to conversation that arises and go with the flow. Release all expectations and simply have fun!
  5. Marvel over your participant creating something so charming and beautiful.
  6. Consider capturing the final tray expression with a photo.
  7. Disassemble the tray and place materials back in the box to be used at another time.
  8. If final work was photographed, consider putting it in a frame, up on a bulletin board, or in a newsletter.

sensory tray cognitive

Additional Tips & Activity Ideas

I recommend introducing sensory tray work first as a one-on-one activity, offering one type of material at a time to help guide them through the experience. This type of activity will most likely be new to them, so you want to be able to gain their trust and know that they will be in fact able to do what you are asking of them. Distributing materials one at a time also helps guide your participant through the experience without getting overwhelmed and can receive encouragement and assistance as needed.

Once your participants get more comfortable with the concept of open-ended sensory stimulating activities then consider moving into a small group scenario as this can be really fun. In a group setting everyone receives the same materials, but each tray expression looks different as we all have our own thoughts and ideas. Working one-on-one first also allows you to assess whether or not the activity is appropriate for them. IF a participant continuously recognizes the materials as food, and does not respond to gentle reminders that materials are for the hands only, then it is best to find an alternate activity. 

Professional Development Course – Sensory Trays

sensory tray online course

If you are interested in continuing your knowledge in sensory activities, check out this online course from Sensory Engagement Specialist Nicole Root called Introduction to Engaging Sensory TraysCreating Meaningful Activities for Older Adults. 

About the Author:

Nicole Root Tray PlayNicole Root is a Sensory Engagement Specialist in Charlottesville, VA. Her passion is to increase the well-being of adults with dementia through creative expression. She spends her days facilitating Tray Play sessions, engaging tabletop sensory experiences, in long-term care settings in Charlottesville, VA. She is inspired daily by her participants’ creations and level of engagement. She received her BA in Psychology from the College of Wooster, and her MA in education at Wheelock College.

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