What is sensory play?
Sensory activities involve all senses such as taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight. These activities are messy, engaging, fun, and easy to follow. There are no rules. It is totally on a child’s imagination and creativity—the more senses that are engaged, the more information they can retain.
We often talk about the five senses. These are:
Taste – the stimulation that comes when our taste receptors react to chemicals in our mouth.
Touch – the stimulation from touch receptors on our skin that respond to pressure, heat/cold, or vibration.
Smell – the stimulation of chemical receptors in the upper airways (nose).
Sight – the stimulation of light receptors in our eyes, which our brains then interpret into visual images.
Hearing – the reception of sound waves via mechanics in our inner ear.
However, there are two other that are commonly missed but equally as important senses:
Body awareness (also known as proprioception)-the feedback our brains receive from stretch receptors in our muscles and pressure receptors in joints enables us to understand where our bodies are in relation to space.
Balance – the stimulation of the inner ear’s vestibular system that tell us our body’s position in relation to gravity.
Why sensory play is important for brain development?
Sensory activities engage the body and mind in a way that builds critical neural pathways. When children do something, and the environment around them reacts, new connections and associations are formed in the brain. Research shows that sensory play builds nerve connections in the brain’s pathways, which lead to the child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks. We all need feedback to grow and thrive, and this is particularly true for young children. Most children by the age of 13 or 15 months start enjoying sensory play. However, you can begin to introduce sensory play as early as 4 – 6 months of age.
There are several benefits to sensory play. These are just a few of them.
1. Supports language development
One can use the opportunity to ask questions and introduce vocabulary such as squishy, slimy, smooth, cold , etc. You can also introduce some action words like mix, scoop, pour, stir and many more. Tongue muscle movement and stimulation has been related to the development of language. That’s why eating solid foods (a sensory experience) introduced at the right time will help develop speech.
2. Cognitive growth
These are skills we use when we solve problems and develop new ideas from existing ideas. It begins with observation and noting the characteristics of objects. When children have sensory experiences, they store their whole body experiences in their “sensory memory.”
They use their sensory memory to begin the process of understanding and gaining knowledge. For example, a child pouring water into bottles will eventually come to the realization that each bottle can only hold so much before it begins to spill over. This is an indirect preparation of understanding scientific and mathematical concepts of volume and measurements. Another example would be playing with different sized blocks; while touching them the children get a feel of what large and small is. This leads them to “feel” the distinction between sizes.
Some other skills can be enhanced through spatial awareness and pattern recognition with objects in the sensory tray. When the children observe, experiment, draw conclusions, predict and playfully learn about the natural and physical world, it strengthens their cognitive understanding of their environment.
3. Fine and gross motor
Playing with sensory activities such as play dough, slime, pipettes, goop and many other activities help children strengthen their fine and gross motor skills as they pick, squeeze, roll, pinch, and pour.
4. Social interaction
The children communicate and make decisions together which can lead to teamwork. In turn, this cultivates empathy, creativity, confidence, and language skills.
5. It’s a great calming activity
A child with anxiety can easily calm down when he/she is provided with a sensorial experience. It reduces the stress and agitation that can lead to meltdowns and behavioral changes. For instance, children with Autism have difficulties with communication, flexibility and understanding other people’s behavior. Many also have problems processing sensory information. This is often called SPD or Sensory Processing Disorder. Thus, certain sensory activities tailored to meet each child’s unique SPD can help stimulate the brain and improve sensory processing systems, social skills (especially communication), coordination, fine and gross motor skills, and they in turn induce calming effects.
Sensory Play at Little Scholars
At Little Scholars, we do lots of sensory play activities from the early age of 1-year-old to 6. The following will give you a glimpse of how we incorporate sensory play in our daily activities and themes.
Ages 1 to 3 Years (Bunnies/Kittens)
The children play with taste-safe activities at this age, such as water play, sandpaper numbers, goop, shaving foam, sensory walk, chalk painting, play dough, and spray painting. While doing the activities, the children mainly focus on creativity, strengthening fine and gross motor, language development, and social interaction.
Ages 3 to 4 (Crocodiles)
At this age, the children learn to write and use their body awareness (proprioception). To make phonics fun to learn, the children make their very own sandpaper letters. The sandpaper allows them to remember the formation of the letters. Additionally, before writing numbers on paper with pencils, they use different sensory activities such as marbles, shaving foam and rice to memorize the formation of the numbers/letters. In this class, the children play with sand, shaving cream, slime, play dough, frozen painting, salt painting, blindfold food tasting, smell bottles, music and water play.
Ages 4 to 5 (Elephants and Giraffes)
In this age group, the children are exposed to a different form of sensory. They are involved in lots of science experiments. They also learn themes as well as sight words using sensory activities. There are various activities that the children do in this age group. For instance, when they learn about Dinosaurs, they can engage in activities like freeing frozen dinosaurs or making dino fossils. When learning about the continents, the children make water slime and sand continents. When learning about plants the children spend their time exploring the school garden observing different trees, plants, leaves, and flowers. They also learn the parts of the tree through music and singing.
When children are involved in doing the activities, they remember much more. As the saying goes, “You tell me, and I forget, teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I learn.” Thus the Elephants and Giraffe classes use different sensorial aspects to make learning exciting and fun at the same time.
Ages 5 to 6 (Lions)
As they get older, the sensory activities are incorporated into themes, math, art and creativity. The children make their own galaxy to learn about the solar system and use oreo biscuits to learn about moon phases. The Lions use play dough to learn about fractions. In the construction theme they build structures using recycle items, play in the sand with diggers and pretend to be mechanics. All these activities make learning fun and engaging as well as help to retain information.
Please note that sensory play activities can change within each class. There are many ways to experience the world of sensory stimuli. The activities mentioned above are just examples!
What can you do at home?
By the age of 4 months children are ready for sensory play. Some of the activities that you can do for your babies are;
Babies below one year olds
Taste safe activities for babies such as :
- Goop play (one part of corn flour, one part of water and food color)
- Homemade play dough.
- Finger painting (flour, salt and food color)
- Mud play (cocoa and water)
- Sand play (crushed cornflakes)
- Moon sand (one part flour and one part oil)
- Jello (gelatin, water and food color)
- Ice play
1 to 3 year olds
- Blowing bubbles
- Tearing paper
- Shaving foam
- Homemade play dough
- Water play
4 to 6 year olds
- Play dough
- Oobleck balls (water beads)
- Goop/gloop play
- Ziplock bags with gel to encourage sensory writing.
- Science experiments like vinegar and baking soda.
- Kinetic sand
To learn more please click on the links below;
- Sensory activities for toddlers who love to play|Lovevery.
- Why Sensory Play is Important for Development.
- Exploring the Benefits of Sensory Play for Children.
- Exploring the benefits of sensory play. Good start early learning.
- Sensory Processing Development Chart.
- BENEFITS OF SENSORY ACTIVITIES FOR CHILDREN WITH AUTISM.