From birth through early childhood, children start using their senses to explore and make sense of the world around them. To assist in their new discoveries comes sensory play. By encouraging the use of a child’s senses through play, you support cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interaction and problem-solving skills. Especially when children are young, frequent exposure to activities that stimulate all their senses allows them to explore new materials and concepts on their own. It is one of the most natural and basic ways a toddler can make sense of what is going on.
So, What Is Sensory Play?
Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates your young child’s senses. All children can benefit from sensory play. There are certain groups, like children with autism or those who have sensory integration dysfunction disorder, who need extra help organizing the stimuli that come at them via their senses. However, all children need help learning to use their senses. From day one, children are designed to explore the world via their senses. This is why babies and toddlers touch everything and put everything in their mouths. It is also why your child spins in circles until they’re so dizzy that they fall and then gets up and does it again.
When talking about the senses, these five come to mind.
Taste – the stimulation that comes when our taste receptors react to chemicals in our mouth.
Touch – the stimulation that comes from touch receptors in our skin that react 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, via mechanics in our inner ear.
However, there are two more to keep in mind as well.
Body awareness (also known as proprioception) – the feedback our brains receive from stretch receptors in our muscles and pressure receptors in joints which enable us to gain a sense where our bodies are in space.
Balance – the stimulation of the vestibular system of the inner ear to tell us our body position in relation to gravity.
The Benefits of Sensory Play
Sensory play encourages naturally encourages children to use scientific processes when they create, play, investigate, and explore. While playing, these activities also help their brains to create stronger connections between processing and responding to sensory information. An example is an example is a child who is particularly fussy with eating foods with a wet texture such as spaghetti. Using sensory play can assist the child in touching, smelling and playing with the texture, getting them used to the sensations in the hope that it would help their eating habits. Sensory play also helps shape positive and negative connections with the brain, shaping the choices children make and impacting behavior. The result is the ability to work towards more complex tasks, strengthened language development, improved problem-solving skills, and supported cognitive growth.
Strengthened Fine Motor Skills
There are two types of motor skills your child develops; fine motor and gross motor skills. Gross motor skills deal with the coordination of large muscle groups and are responsible for activities like walking and running. Fine motor skills are those that require the ability to use and coordinate large small muscle groups. These muscle groups are essential when it comes to writing, tying shoes, buttoning, and zipping. Sensory play activities often involve touching, pouring, sorting, and moving actions. When preschoolers use their hands to explore, they build upon their fine motor skills that will later be used for these activities.
Social and Language Skills
Through the use of new tastes, smells, and textures, children discover new ways to describe the world around them. A rock is not just a rock after they inspect it. Now it is smooth or rough, and cold to the touch. Foods can be described due to their sweet, salty, spicy, or crunchy taste. These descriptions build a child’s language base and give them more ways of talking about the world. These language skills come into play when interacting with adults or other children. Preschoolers will watch how others use the same materials and learn from them. Children also communicate with each other of ways they can use different materials and how to discover new ways to shape, move, hold, or manipulate an object.
At Little Angels Child Care Center, our program prides itself on achieving the highest standards of care for young children. We provide developmentally appropriate activities for children in all groups. Group activities and individual exploration combine to make each child’s day fun and full of learning opportunities. We firmly believe that, with teacher facilitation and extension, children learn best through play.