Keeping a busy preschooler’s attention for more than a hot minute can be a challenge. The good news is there’s so much more to sensory play than children simply making a mess! Not only is this type of play a lot of fun, it also helps to stimulate the senses, where children become immersed in the sight, touch, smell and sound involved in their activity. “This stimulation helps to strengthen their neural connections and supports overall brain development,” says Dr Monika Krajcovicova, Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at The University of Notre Dame Australia, of the benefits of sensory play. “Sensory play often requires children to use their hands and fingers, helping to develop and refine their fine motor skills.” 

Organising a sandy alphabet hunt is a great sensory play idea for preschoolers to get a head start on some early learning and letter recognition exercises in the lead up to starting primary school. The best part? You can do this DIY at home, just like digital creator and primary teacher Kayla did with her two children. It’s as simple as setting up a mini sandpit and hiding alphabet beads inside. 

Your child will find so much delight in sifting their hands through the sand and matching up their findings. “Pouring, scooping, squeezing and manipulating encourages hand-eye coordination,” says Dr Krajcovicova. “Through sensory play, children explore concepts such as cause and effect, measurement, volume, texture and temperature. This hands-on exploration aids in cognitive development by fostering curiosity, problem-solving skills and scientific thinking.”

What You’ll Need

A GIF series of sensory sand play products, shown on various brightly coloured backgrounds. Products include things like magic sand, alphabet beads and kids’ tweezers.

SEE ALSO: STEM Activities for Preschoolers that Teach Problem Solving


Suitable for age 3+

Parental supervision recommended  

A woman and young boy sitting on a messy mat, emptying sand into a container as part of their sensory sand play setup.

Step 1: Simply remove the lid from the tub of magic sand and there’s your ready-made sandpit. If your sand doesn’t come in a plastic tub, you can use a deep bowl or box to place the sand inside. Keep in mind that there needs to be enough room for your child to dig using both their hands and elbows. If you’re doing this activity indoors, lay down a messy mat for a swift and simple clean-up.

Step 2: Open the packet of alphabet beads and pour them into the tub. Use your hands to hide and conceal the beads, making sure to get the beads into the bottom and corners of the sandpit. (Please note, the beads are not suitable for children under 3 years due to small parts that may be a choking hazard.)

A young boy and girl use their hands to dig in a small sand box to find letter beads. In the background is a piece of cardboard with the alphabet written on it.

Step 3: Take a large piece of cardboard and a black marker. Write down the alphabet in upper case from left to right across the cardboard, leaving a decent amount of space between each letter.

Step 4: Explain to your child the aim of the game, which is to find the beads using their hands, tweezers or sorting bowls, and to match them to the corresponding letters on the cardboard.

A young boy and girl sitting on a messy mat, matching letter beads to letters written out on a piece of pink cardboard.

Tips to Help Learning

Encourage letter recognition 

“Identifying letters is the first step in learning to read and write,” says Dr Krajcovicova. “Children need to recognise letters to understand the connections between sounds and symbols, which form the basis of reading and spelling. Learning letters helps children understand the building blocks of language.” 

Consistency is key

Dr Krajcovicova also believes that both repetition and consistency is important: “Consistent exposure to letters through repetition helps reinforce recognition. Incorporate daily short sessions dedicated to letter recognition activities.” 

Give positive reinforcement

Just as important as the play itself is positive reinforcement and praise. “Encourage and praise children for their efforts and successes in recognising letters. Positive reinforcement can motivate continued learning,” says Dr Krajcovicova.

SEE ALSO: The Top Mess-Free Activities For Your Little Ones