Studies have shown that babies, toddlers, and children of all ages learn best through their senses, which makes sensory play not only fun but so vital during the early years. From birth to early childhood, children use all of their senses to explore and comprehend the world around them.
There are many ways to engage your child in sensory play, no matter what age. The beauty of sensory play is not only the benefits for early childhood development but also the endless fun activities that can keep your child busy and entertained whilst learning.
What is sensory play?
Sensory play involves any activity in which the senses are stimulated through hands on activities. Taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing are the five main senses, though we commonly forget body awareness and balance.
Why is sensory play important?
All these senses are crucial to brain development, as sensory stimulation builds nerve connections within the developing brain’s neural pathways, which trigger a child’s inclination for, and ability to, complete more complex learning tasks.
Sensory play in the early years allows children to refine their thresholds for different sensory information helping their brain create stronger connections to sensory information, allowing children to process what is important, and to also identify what information can be filtered out.
Lack of sensory stimulation early in life has been linked to the presentation of sensory processing issues, which can affect children throughout their life.
What are the benefits?
Cognitive growth: Sensory play challenges young minds, encouraging scientific thinking as they are exposed to a variety of new experiences. As they hypothesize, discover, experiment, problem solve, and explore cause and effect, they further develop executive functioning, relevant to building autonomy and independence as they grow older.
Fine and gross motor skills: As children manipulate materials they exercise small muscle groups in their bodies, for example when squeezing and rolling playdough. Large muscle groups are also used, which are associated with gross motor play. When engaging in experiences that encourage body awareness and balance, children are directly experiencing scientific concepts, such as physics, in action. By engaging in cause and effect activities children are able to improve physical abilities such as body control, poise, balance, and hand eye co-ordination.
Personal development: Sensory play can be used to allow children to explore their senses without expectation. For example, for a child who is a fussy eater and doesn’t like wet textures, playing with spaghetti allows them to connect to the food in a positive manner through touch, sight, and smell. This builds trust and understanding of the texture and helps build positive pathways in the brain that say it is safe to engage with this type of food.
Emotional development: Through intentional and planned activities, educators and parents are able to build independence in children by encouraging decision making and navigating choices, which encourages a positive attitude towards new experiences and fosters children’s natural curiosities. Where children engage in intentional learning with the assistance of an educator or parent, they are often observed displaying pro-social skills during sensory play as they are encouraged to engage in turn taking as part of the experience.
Enhanced learning and development
Sensory exploration is a child’s way of examining, discovering, and categorising. Sensory play can be calming for many children, so if your child experiences anxiety or behavioural issues, sensory play provides an escape for children to unwind, relax and engage in play that stimulates their senses whilst also enhancing their learning and development.