You can probably name all the main senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. But do you know why they are so vital and why they are even more important for children as they grow?
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Sensory play focuses on activities that engage your child’s senses, helping them develop language and motor skills. It also helps with cognitive growth, promotes social interaction and encourages experimentation.
Sensory play can also address two often overlooked sensory systems: our proprioceptive and vestibular systems.
Our proprioceptive sense refers to the awareness of one’s body. It helps us know where body parts are in relation to each other and tells us how much force we need to exert when holding, pushing, pulling or lifting objects.
Our vestibular sense, also known as the sense of motion or the sense of balance, allows us to maintain balance while engaging in activities.
Examples of sensory play include riding a bike, playing with slime, or even just listening to music.
Recreation therapist Leah Young, CTRS, and occupational therapist Suzanne Messer, MS, OTR/L, explain why sensory play is so important and what sensory activities you can easily do at home.
Benefits of sensory play
Sensory play plays an important role in the development from birth to infancy. It helps establish nerve connections in brain pathways, which can help your child complete complex tasks.
“When your child engages in sensory play, it helps their brain develop and learn about certain aspects of their environment,” says Messer.
Here’s how sensory play can benefit and help your child.
Help with language skills
Your child’s language skills develop naturally through sensory play.
“When a child participates in any type of play, including sensory play, they learn through experiences in their environment and learn different ways to communicate their emotions, wants, and needs,” says Messer.
By using their senses, your child will learn to describe what they are doing and feeling, eventually using more descriptive words to communicate.
Help with fine motor skills
Sensory play can help your child develop fine motor skills, like tying shoes, writing, and zipping up their coat. Through tactile play focused on building, pouring and mixing, your child builds on their ability to use small muscle groups and coordinate movement.
“Touch play is a great way to approach and integrate a child’s fine motor skills in a fun way,” says Young. “Allowing your child to freely explore small sensory content like dry pasta, dry cereal, rice, or even playdough or modeling clay can strengthen and develop their fine motor skills.”
Helps with gross motor skills
Gross motor skills include sitting, crawling, jumping and running – activities that use your child’s large body muscles in their arms, legs and trunk (stomach area).
Whether your child is learning to walk or trying to throw a ball, the key is to give them enough time to practice these skills freely.
Aids in cognitive growth
Asking questions, thinking about how things work, experimenting, and analyzing the results are all part of healthy cognitive growth. This is how we learn something new and understand things. It’s also how we solve problems.
“With sensory play, your child works on problem-solving skills,” says Messer. “It encourages them to explore how to play and engage in different experiences as well as how to deal with challenges they encounter, things like how to get rice from one container to another or how to stay balanced on a swing. “
Has a calming effect
Your sensory system can help you calm down. This is especially important for children during their development.
“Sensory play can be used to help regulate your overall arousal level,” says Messer. “You can use it to stimulate a child who might be a bit lazy. On the other hand, sensory play can help a child who may have hyperactivity or difficulty concentrating.
The pressure of hugs, weighted lap pillows, and sensory seats can help soothe and signal that it’s time to stay put.
Promotes social interaction
By engaging in sensory play with siblings or peers, your child begins to develop social skills. They will learn to communicate, solve problems and adapt to the way others play.
“Whether you’re at the park on the swings or playing with building blocks, sensory play is something everyone can participate in,” Messer notes. “It’s very inclusive.”
Ideas for sensory games and activities
Young and Messer say it’s easy to find activities that stimulate your child’s senses. Here are some ideas.
Use a plastic bin or a large container and fill it with different objects like sand or shredded paper.
Other ideas include:
- The water.
- Make pom poms.
- Cotton balls.
- Easter grass.
- Packing peanuts.
Young likes to create sensory bins using dried rice, pasta or beans. You can even add tools like small toy shovels or buckets. Depending on your child’s age, small toys or figurines can also encourage imaginative play. Just make sure you use items that are not choking hazards and provide supervision when using smaller items like these.
“Let your child explore and get used to potentially unfamiliar textures,” suggests Young. “There is no need to direct the room. Take a step back and let your child explore and experiment freely.
painting with fingers
Sure, it can get a little messy, but finger painting is a great activity for infants and toddlers. If you’re doing this with a baby, help him paint his hands and feet with a soft paintbrush, then make prints on a sheet of paper. If you’re feeling creative, turn their prints into works of art for a sweet keepsake. For toddlers, it can be a relaxing activity and help them express their feelings.
To start, create an area with paper and finger paint. You can do this outside on a nice day to reduce clutter inside the house or lay down an old blanket or sheet for the child to work on. Then let your child dip, mix and swirl as they please.
“It helps kids get used to that sensory experience and the texture of the paint,” says Young.
Using modeling clay or slime works just as well.
Play with food
The next time you want to tell your child to stop playing with their food, think again. Playing with noodles or dry cereal can help develop your senses in a number of ways.
“At four to six months, your child is ready to learn about food,” says Messer. “Whether it’s touching food or even just watching family members eat.”
So let them taste, mash and smear while learning about texture, taste and smell.
When the weather warms up, make sure your kids head out to the yard to play. This is especially interesting for toddlers. Think playing in the sandbox, running or even rolling around in the grass – these are all forms of sensory play.
Older children can play hopscotch, use the swing or ride a bike.
“Anything that makes them jump, crawl, roll or push is awesome,” says Messer.
Filling the tub for bath time has more benefits than just cleaning up your child. Everything from bubbles, toys and splashes can be a sensory experience.
“It can be as simple as adding different smelling bubbles to the water,” says Messer.
Listen to music
Even just listening to music can pay off in terms of your child’s development. It can help with vocabulary, improve their mood and even help strengthen coordination.
Beyond just listening to songs, you can have your kids use household items as homemade musical instruments — think wooden spoons and pots.
There is no set amount of time your child should engage in sensory play. But be aware that a lot of sensory play happens in their daily lives and activities. Here are some tips for getting the most out of playtime.
- Look for ways to add more meaning. Even something as small as having your child sit on a pillow while playing with their blocks can engage their balance system. “As a parent or caregiver, think about ways to really amplify sensory experiences,” says Messer.
- Don’t think about it too much. You don’t have to buy any special items or equipment. There are plenty of activities you can already do. “So many of these things are already in your house,” Young notes.
- But be creative. Try to mix up their experiences by giving them a new food or trying a new activity – basically try to keep things interesting and engaging for your kids. “For example, try making bath time a little different,” Messer suggests. “Whether it’s using a different washcloth to show them a different texture, or showing your baby what the splashes look like.
“Sensory play is a way for your children to become more flexible and adaptable in other areas of their lives,” says Messer. “By engaging their senses and developing those skills, the world becomes a lot less scary because they’ve developed the right tools to handle anything that comes their way.”