As a student in MacEwan’s Early Learning and Childcare Program, Melissa Steinke was tasked with creating a magical play space. Based on the children’s interests, she decided on an airport, complete with child-size cockpits. Necessity truly is the mother of invention so, as a loan from a local airliner seemed to be out of the question, she went about creating one herself.

“Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” – Jean Piaget

She began by putting a call out on Facebook: “Looking for your beautiful junk — switches, knobs, buttons and anything you’re not using anymore.” As items poured in, she chose her favourites and fastened them to small tabletop which she attached to a stool. She had created her first ‘busy board’ and it was truly magical. The play that she witnessed was imaginative, intriguing and engaging.

Children playing with Melissa’s airport-themed busy boards.

A busy board, also known as a sensory board, is a variety of real-world objects and loose parts transformed into an inviting, interactive and sustainable play experience. Hands-on play with busy boards supports opportunities for children to develop fine motor skills, experiment with playful exploration, problem-solve, investigate cause and effect and much more. This play directly fosters fluid thinking, problem solving, ingenuity and creativity.

Melissa, who was first exposed to busy boards as a student, now brings that same creative thinking to her work as curriculum facilitator at Terra’s Child and Family Support Centre at Braemar School. She encourages the educators she works with to think outside the box when they choose and create play opportunities for the children. She has built a variety of play materials using loose parts at the centre and she recently shared her knowledge in a hands-on team-building session for Terra staff where teams built busy boards for different locations across the agency.

Make your own busy board

Busy boards come in all shapes and sizes, can be wall mounted or geared for tabletop play and are inexpensive to build. You can source materials from many locations: check your garage, junk drawer and ask your friends. Fantastic second-hand finds are available from the City of Edmonton’s Reuse Centre, Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore and other similar places. Be creative as you search out items. Ask yourself, “How can I use this?” Then ask yourself, “How else could I use this?”

Loose parts are open to interpretation. They can be redesigned, reimagined, recreated and repurposed.

What you’ll need


  • Drill and drill bits
  • Screwdriver
  • Screws
  • Wood glue
  • Velcro (optional)
  • Pencil

Real-world items or loose parts

These are just some ideas – there is no right or wrong about what can be attached if it’s safe!

  • Locks
  • Knobs and handles
  • Electronics (i.e. old calculator, small remote)
  • Push lights
  • Jean pockets
  • Spiral door stopper (make sure to glue the plastic tip on)
  • Mirrors
  • Wood scraps and hinges

Wood base

  • From hardware store
  • Old cutting board
  • Old tabletop
  • Lazy susan
Step-by-step instructions
  • Design prior to construction. Arrange and rearrange — you can take photos as you go. Older children can help with this, too.
  • Clean all materials. Those used knobs harbour lots of germs!
  • Make reference points. Use your pencil to mark the spots where you will need to drill or screw.
  • Drill pilot holes. A pilot hole is a small hole drilled as a guide prior to inserting a nail or screw or for the drilling of a larger hole. Pilot holes prevent the wood from splitting and cracking when you drive in the screws. If you have a drill, this step is recommended.
  • Be aware of your drill depth. You don’t want to drill through your project into your work surface. If you are planning on drilling through your board, you can cantilever the spot you’re drilling over your table or place a wood block underneath the spot where you intend to drill.
  • Apply a dab of wood glue into holes prior to inserting screws. This will increase the longevity of your build. Clean up extra glue immediately.
  • Use Velcro to adhere items that need to be removed (for example, when you need to change the battery for a push-light) or to items you can’t drill into.