At their core, sensory tables aren't much more than Rubbermaid storage bins with legs.

But their use has proven advantages in a child's cognitive, social, physical and emotional development. As children stand around sensory tables-tables with depressed centers filled with anything from water to sand to dry rice and beans-they learn to manipulate their environments, make discoveries, practice fine motor skills, work cooperatively and explore new materials.

"The table looks like fun, but it is more than that. The sensory table provides relevant, meaningful learning experiences for children from toddlerhood through preschool," writes early education expert Debra Hunter in a 2008 publication for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

Sensory tables and their cousin, the sensory bin, originated in occupational treatment centers, then moved into preschool classrooms. Now, sensory tables have gone mainstream. Log onto Pinterest or almost any mom blog, and you'll find a plethora of ideas for creating sensory play experiences at home.

Therapeutic Origins

"It's been in the OT world forever," says Brigid Baker, director of outpatient occupational therapy services at The Treatment and Learning Centers in Rockville.

The center uses sensory tables and bins as a form of therapy for children with sensory motor, neurological and physical challenges.

"Its use is variable depending on the child we're working with," Baker says. "That's one of the great things about our sensory tables. To our children with extreme tactile sensitivities, we would have them exploring, and sometimes, it might just be developing the ability to be in the same environment as those materials."

For children with motor skill challenges, the center might take an more active approach, having the child use tweezers and tongs to pick out items from the bin.

"It's very much related to this idea of constraint," explains Dr. Kyle Snow, director of NAEYC's Center for Applied Research. "When you have a child who is struggling with their motor skills, controlling some of the variables of how they interact with their world is very helpful. They don't have to worry about things falling off the table, picking them up and starting all over again. It reduces the burden on these children and their developmental motor skills."

A Change of Context

Though sensory tables have their roots in the occupational therapy world, you might find a group of children working together at a table or bin at preschool centers throughout the area. In this context, it encourages teamwork, cooperation and sharing-in addition to the inherent developmental benefits.

Now, as parents bring sensory tables into their homes, the context changes once again. Sensory tables at home are being used as a way for parents to engage with their children, Snow says.

"It answers the question of, 'How do I work within the context of my life as a parent to provide my kids with the opportunity to explore things in the world, where I can ensure they're safe-and to be blunt, not have a huge mess to clean up?'" he says. "So the carefully planned therapeutic approach, which was at the beginning of sensory tables, where you didn't really have a sensory table without a therapist there, has changed."

Snow has seen a move away from a motor focus to a more social and emotional focus, he says.

Still, there are nothing but benefits to allowing children the opportunity to explore sights, sounds, smells and touch. And because of their simplicity, sensory tables and bins are accessible to everyone.

"With all of the expense of electronic toys, with iPads and things that require financial resources, these are great things that almost any family can use," Baker says. "... Any type of exploration [or] positive exposure to play, that can all improve a child's overall confidence and self esteem. … It's a great social activity."