Sensory play is essential for the development of young children. Children learn best through engagement, when they are actively watching, listening, or performing an activity. While some children are primarily visual learners, others are auditory or kinesthetic learners. Knowing what type of children you have in the classroom goes a long way in preparing the right learning experience.
Sensory play promotes brain development, cognitive development, language development, and motor skills in all children. This guide details everything you should know about sensory play.
What is sensory play?
Sensory play is any activity that stimulates children’s senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing, body awareness, and balance. Children's senses are usually underdeveloped at birth. Still, as they grow and interact with the world around them, their sensory system matures, ultimately supporting the rapid brain development that occurs in infancy.
Why is sensory play important?
1. Fosters brain development
Sensory play activities stimulate the five primary senses–touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. A child’s brain comprises trillions of cells known as neurons and nerve connections known as synapses.
These cells and nerve connections facilitate learning and adaptation. For example, when a child touches an object, their brain processes the touch as rough or smooth. Then, the brain sends signals back to the body through the nervous system.
Teachers and parents can leverage the power of sensory play to strengthen sensory synapses and functions in a child’s brain.
2. Supports cognitive development
Cognitive development refers to how children think, explore, and make sense of things. It involves knowledge, skills, and problem-solving skills development, vital for children’s survival.
Educators' and parents’ primary role is to support children develop cognitive skills. Daily quality interactions through sensory play are one way they can promote cognitive development in children.
Sensory play supports learning through exploration, curiosity, problem-solving, and creativity. Sensory play activities like finger painting and playing musical instruments stimulates the mind and builds nerve connections in the brain.
Mental stimulation and the building of nerve connections in the brain are necessary for developing cognitive skills.
3. Promotes language development
Children learn best through play and sensory activities help build connections in the brain which in turn helps retain information. Sensory play can engage multiple senses at once, providing rich opportunities for children to expand and explore new vocabulary words that are relevant to what they are experiencing firsthand. These sensory experiences may also support a child’s emotional regulation and focus and therefore their ability to learn. Some fun sensory experiences for language development include: playing with bubbles, sand sensory bins, slime, finger painting, shaving cream, etc.
4. Encourages motor skills development
Sensory play activities help children develop crucial motor skills for physical strength and movement. Children use motor skills daily to move by crawling, walking, or running. They also use these skills to perform tasks like zipping and unzipping.
Fine motor skills are necessary for tasks requiring small muscle movements like zipping and unzipping. Gross motor skills are crucial for activities that require large muscle movements like crawling and running. Sensory play activities like exploring and working with play-dough and putty, painting, and water play are excellent for developing fine motor skills. These activities enable children to develop the ability to use small muscle groups and coordinate movements.
On the other hand, sensory play activities like jumping on a trampoline go a long way to promoting gross motor skills development.
5. Promotes social-emotional development
Social-emotional development for children includes regulating emotions and establishing positive relationships with peers and adults. Sensory play activities like water play and playing in the sandbox can have a calming effect on children while also promoting social interactions. When children are emotionally regulated they are better able to problem-solve and collaborate with play partners.
How to use sensory play
Sensory play should be part of your everyday experiences and learning opportunities for children. You may offer sensory activities throughout the day during unstructured play time and in various learning centers (e.g., block center, science center, art center, etc.). Here are some ways to engage the children’s sensory systems through play.
Tactile play involves exploring objects with hands. It is the most common sensory play strategy and teaches children about textures, temperature, vibrations, and pressure.Below are some fun tactile play activities to try:
You can extend the sensory experience by having the children help with the recipes or taking these activities outdoors.
Vestibular sensory play
The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and is responsible for maintaining a steady balance and body movement. Sensory play activities involving rolling, swinging, hanging, and jumping activate ear receptors responsible for developing a child's vestibular system. Ample time on a playground structure with swings and monkey bars support’s the vestibular system.
Proprioception sensory play
Proprioception sensory play helps children develop bodily spatial awareness and understand how their limbs relate to other body parts. This way, they can voluntarily move their arms and legs without looking at them. Proprioception sensory play activities involve jumping, pushing, and pulling.
Auditory sensory play
Auditory sensory play activities help children differentiate sounds and sharpen their hearing skills. In addition, auditory sensory play establishes the foundation for various tasks like multiple-step directions and distinguishing letter sounds. Examples of auditory sensory play activities include clapping games and reading books with rhyming patterns.
Visual sensory play
Visual sensory play promotes children's vision development. Colors and pattern identification activities go a long way in developing children's visual sensory system. Color mixing activities, shadow exploration, and hide and seek are excellent examples of visual sensory play activities.
Olfactory and taste sensory play
Olfactory sensory relates to the sense of taste and smell. Teachers and parents can help children develop these sensory skills by engaging them in tasting and smelling activities.
Some smell and taste sensory activities for toddlers and preschoolers include: smelling items like flowers, lemon juice, cinnamon, and coffee. You can also offer a variety of foods to taste like citrus fruits, honey, rice cakes, raisins, nut butter, cucumbers, etc.
What to consider when planning sensory play
There are endless opportunities when it comes to planning sensory play. Below are things to consider when designing sensory play activities!
1. Determine what senses you want to engage
Sensory development is 100% dependent on the primary human senses. You can plan sensory play activities primarily targeting one or two sensory experiences like finger painting (sight and touch) or multi-sensory experiences like baking bread.
It all depends on your overall goal! So, you’ll want to figure out senses to engage with specific sensory play activities.
2. Type of sensory play activity
Preschooler and toddler sensory activities fall into four main categories:
Playing with messy sensory materials helps children develop a curious and natural sense of exploration. Finding dinosaurs in taste-safe mud, a fizzy cloud dough experiment, and balloon painting are excellent examples of messy sensory play activities.
Edible sensory play activities promote a multi-sensory experience. Some examples include making granola or rice Krispies treats, or trying marshmallows.
Some sensory play activities are best done indoors, while others are outdoors. Depending on your specific sensory play activity and goal, you can opt for an indoor or outdoor setting. For example, light and shadow exploration is best done in a dark indoor environment.
Also, gross motor skills are best done outside, with ample room for big body movement. More importantly, there are logistical implications to consider. For example, some activities may need access to water or a sink. So, you’ll want to think about these logistics before settling on a setting.
4. Promoting social-emotional skills
Having children work in small groups during sensory play is a great way to support their social-emotional skills. A simple activity like making play dough encourages turn-taking while adding ingredients, stirring, and kneading the dough.
Sensory play ideas and activity examples
So, now that the basics are out of the way, it’s time to look at some sensory play ideas you can implement:
A sensory bin is one of the best ways for children to have fun while participating in sensory play. Creating a sensory bin is simple since you don't need sophisticated materials or equipment.
You can use a tub or container and objects from nature like leaves, sand, pebbles, and rocks. You can also use food materials like rice, pasta, beans, and kitchenware such as tongs, spoons, and measuring.
Next, fill the tub or container with all the materials and allow the children to explore them.
This is an excellent time to support language development by introducing new vocabulary to your younger children. Smooth, rough, soft, and slippery are examples of vocabulary you can introduce depending on their experience.
You should ask older children questions about what they’re feeling, noticing, hearing, or smelling. This works since most of them know how to express themselves.
Sensory experiences are not limited to play in class. Young children can have meaningful sensory explorations during meal times by engaging with foods with various textures, tastes, and smells. Infants and young toddlers will enjoy the additional benefits of tactile explorations as they use their hands to eat.
Playing outside goes a long way when looking to develop gross motor skills like walking, running, and jumping. The best part is that you don’t require special play materials like bins or tables to make the activities fun and engaging. Some possible locations for outdoor sensory play are parks, backyards, nature trails, and beaches.
Making music and singing songs is a multi-sensory experience supporting language development, social-emotional regulation, fine motor skills (i.e., finger play songs), or gross motor skills (i.e., if dancing is involved.) You can take things a notch by helping them make musical instruments using kitchen equipment like spoons and bowls.
Art sensory experiences
Art experiences offer a variety of sensory experiences just by exploring different mediums such as crayons, paint, colored pencils, pastels, watercolor, and markers.
Finger painting is an excellent place to start since it’s an inclusive activity for all ages (as young as 6 months old). Children are typically intrigued by the colors, the soft texture, and the cool temperature of paint on their hands. Children can explore cause and effect with color mixing, experiment with different finger strokes, and express creativity.
Other sensory art activities include marble painting, shaving cream and glue art, sand pictures, and paper bag puppets.
You can never exhaust sensory play activities to try out with children. Here are some more ideas to try out:
- Sound tubes
- Water play
- Play dough
- Balance beam
- Puffball games
- Taste challenge
- Jumping fun
- Frozen toys
- Calming sensory bottles
Our sensory system is what helps us make sense of the world around us. The more practice and exposure we have to different sensory experiences, the more developed our senses become. Therefore, sensory play is essential to the development of a young child and should be made available daily. It supports all areas of development and it promotes creativity, confidence, and curiosity, which are all necessary for a positive learning disposition.
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