As adults, there are many things we take for granted, passing them off as common knowledge. But when you become a parent, you realize that we all start out knowing nothing. How do we get to the point when we know wood has no taste or that paper makes a crinkling, crunching sound?
How do we innately know that water is wet, sand is grainy, and syrup is sticky?
These are all things that are learned and developed through sensory play as a child.
What is Sensory Play?
You may think that sensory play is all about touch. However, it involves so much more than just picking things up and feeling their texture.
After all, there are four other senses to take into consideration, and children learn with all of their senses.
Any activity that stimulates any of your child’s senses is considered sensory play. The definition can even be expanded to include activities that engage movement and balance through gross and fine motor skills.
In short, sensory play facilitates exploration and encourages children to problem-solve or use other scientific processes through playing, creating, and investigating.
As your child grows, sensory play changes depending on the stage they are currently in. Some examples include:
- Babies: feeling different textures against their skin, listening to the crunching of plastic, or watching bubbles float through the air.
- Toddlers: observing light and shadow, watching finger paint colors mix, or making patterns in the sand with their fingers.
- Pre-school children: creating with Play-doh, making music with instruments, or playing with a water table.
Through these simple activities or tot schools, children learn some of the most basic – yet profoundly important – skills and bits of knowledge that we often don’t think twice about as adults.
The Science behind Sensory Play
The first three years of a child’s life are some of the most important, particularly when it comes to brain development.
Our brains are made up of trillions of neurons (brain cells), which are all connected by synapses.
When an infant is born, they have about 50 trillion synapses, and by the time they reach their third birthday, they have about 1000 trillion (1).
That’s a lot of brain growth in a short period of time.
As a parent, you want to help promote healthy brain growth in these early years so you can set them up for success in the future.
In addition to healthy diet and sleep cycles, one of the best ways to do this is by helping to develop strong senses through sensory play.
Everyone – children and adults alike – have innate sensory needs.
These needs incorporate all five senses, and few other senses that are often overlooked. These include the need for:
- Tactile stimulation (touch)
- Oral stimulation (taste)
- Auditory stimulation (sound)
- Vestibular output (movement)
- Proprioceptive input (body awareness)
- Introceptive awareness (internal body functions)
There are various forms of sensory play (2) that help children develop each of these core needs and skills.
- Tactile play: what most people think about when talking about sensory play. This involves children exploring with their hands.
- Vestibular sensory play: this helps to develop balance and movement. Activities may include rolling, hanging, swinging, and jumping.
- Proprioception sensory play: this helps to develop spatial awareness. More specifically, it helps them understand where they are physically in a particular area and how their limbs relate to the rest of their body.
- Auditory sensory play: this develops your child’s sense of hearing. Banging objects together and yelling are both ways your child explores sound.
- Visual sensory play: this helps to develop your child’s vision and sight. They are watching everything around them and learning as they observe.
- Olfactory and taste sensory play: these are pretty obvious, learning through taste and smell. It could involve your infant putting their toys in their mouth or a young child sniffing a flower.
Most adults seek to meet their sensory needs in (generally) socially acceptable ways, like pen clicking, foot tapping, or fingernail biting.
However, children don’t always handle things this way, nor should they be expected to.
They seek to meet their needs in the most convenient ways, like yelling in response to a loud sound. These responses can often seem erratic, but they are simply a part of being a child and learning as they grow.
When they are younger, they may not know how to process everything that is happening around them. The world is a busy place, and for a simpler brain, it can be overwhelming. This is called sensory overload.
A child may not know how react to certain stimulants. They may withdraw, zone out, or hyperreact. Ages and stages are especially important to consider when trying to understand your child’s reactions.
It is important that you offer appropriate sensory activities for your child’s current stage so that you help them develop these skills, not hinder them.
Benefits for Toddlers
The benefits of sensory play for toddlers go beyond the development of the senses discussed earlier. There are a number of important life skills that will enhance their awareness and development in the following areas:
As previously mentioned, sensory play has a huge role in developing little brains. It helps develop all of those little connections that play a crucial role later in life.
Your child learns through everything they see and do.
By banging things together and stacking blocks, they learn about cause and effect relationships.
By watching the fan spin they learn about movement. And by listening to you sing and talk to them, they learn about language.
And this brain development doesn’t stop after childhood. Practicing crucial brain development skills as a child helps to kick start the brain development that will continue into adulthood.
Starting out poorly will only hinder your child as they grow.
Not only does sensory play promote the development of brain connections, but it is also great for developing and enhancing memory.
Promotes independent learning
Not all learning needs to happen in a formal classroom, and not everything needs to be a pointed lesson.
Through sensory play, your child will begin learning on their own without even realizing it.
It pays off to put a decent amount of thought into the types of toys and activities your child engages in. By giving them the right tools, they will explore on their own and learn without you needing to actually teach them.
Choose open ended toys, like blocks, Legos, dolls, cars, magnets, and drawing materials.
Anything that promotes exploration, creativity, and imagination, is great for learning and developing sensory skills.
Of course, auditory skills are very important, which leads to speech skills.
So, talking your child through what they are doing is very important for their development. It helps them to understand what they are doing and develops their vocabulary.
Just let them lead, and you stay by their side for the journey.
Encourages creative problem solving
As your child begins to engage in sensory play and explore new things, you may notice a bit more frustration.
They may be angry that they can’t hold water in their hands or that their sand castle washes away with water.
Through these sensory activities, they are learning to problem solve. Where they may get frustrated at first that the water slips through their fingers, they will soon learn that they can scoop it with a cup.
Creative problem solving can also help them regulate their emotions better.
Where they may have been frustrated before when things didn’t go as planned, or even upset that they may be dirty, they have learned how to find a solution and overcome those big emotions that are so new to them.
Descriptive language development
Children pick up their vocabulary from those around them, whether it is parents, caregivers, or even older siblings.
By engaging with them in sensory play, they can develop much more beyond the use of simple words. Their descriptive language can grow by leaps and bounds.
They may not know how to ask with words at first, but they will have questions about the new activities and textures they are exploring.
With your help, you can ask the right questions and help them come up with the descriptive word they are looking for.
Try asking questions to help them find different ways to describe what they are playing with, eating, or using:
- What does it feel like? Squishy, scratchy, soft, fuzzy, hard, cold, wet, etc.
- What color is it?
- What is it made of? Wood, metal, paper, cloth, etc.
- What does it smell like? Sweet, sour, stinky, etc.
- What does it taste like? Salty, sour, sweet, etc.
Their language skills will also grow by leaps and bounds as you encourage them to engage in pretend play.
Children copy what they see, and when they engage in this sort of play with other children, they develop pretend scenarios which will also tremendously help their social skills.
As your child is allowed to explore and create through sensory play, it encourages curiosity. By introducing your child to different types of materials, they can begin to discover different textures and uses for everyday objects.
Through exposure to the world around them and allowing them to explore with all of their senses, they will begin to build connections that will open a new world of pretend play for them.
They may begin to build something with wet sand or mud, realizing it sticks together and will hold a shape.
They will also find new uses for everyday objects like metal cans that turn into rocket ships and cardboard boxes that are protective forts.
Develops fine motor skills
Fine motor skills are developed when children use the tiny muscles in their hands and fingers to do activities.
It starts when they are young as they develop their pincer grasp learning to feed themselves. Then as they grow, they can start learning more complex movements and fine tuning them through sensory activities.
Developing these muscles is crucial when your child is young. These muscles play a huge role when it comes to handwriting, cutting, and using utensils.
To help your child develop these fine motor skills, try activities like stringing beads, cutting with scissors, squeezing and squishing playdoh, and more.
Just make sure they activities you choose are age appropriate; you don’t want to give your child something that poses and choking hazard.
Sensory play is important for children, starting from infancy all the way through early childhood.
They have so much to learn in those first few years before school, and the best way to do that is to expose them to as many new things as possible.
Allow them to explore and try new things. Give them plenty of outdoor time. Let them make a mess.
And even expect things to get a little loud at times. These are all signs that they are learning and growing.