What are the Benefits of Sensory Play?


What is Sensory Play? Sensory play activities are not new. A baby banging on a pot with a wooden spoon, a toddler making mud pies, and a preschooler trying to pump their legs on a swing are all engaging in sensory play. What is new is the realization that these activities are vitally important parts of child development and that babies and children begin learning about the world through sensory experiences from a very young age.

Sensory play includes any activity that engages one of the five senses, along with activities that involve movement and balance. As you might imagine, this is a huge range, so there’s probably a good chance that even if they have not heard the term before, most parents are already involving their children in some type of sensory play.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget first put forward the concept of sensory play as a building block of child development in 1936 in his theory of cognitive development. He declared that between birth and two years of age (the ‘sensorimotor stage), children learn about cause and effect as they explore with their senses through play. It was further developed by Italian doctor and educator Maria Montessori, whose play-based education method is currently enjoying widespread mainstream popularity. “Play is the work of childhood”, said Jean Piaget, and it’s true – play is actually serious business!

Types of Sensory Play

Sensory play, appropriately enough, refers to play that involves the five senses – touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight – along with two additional senses, balance and proprioception (awareness of body movement and position).

Touch, or tactile play, most commonly comes to mind when thinking about sensory play. Any type of play that involves exploring an object with their hands is tactile play. Popular tactile play includes sand and water tables, playdoh or clay, and touch books with various textures for babies to experience.

Auditory play involves exploring sound. Musical instruments or banging a pot lid with a wooden spoon helps children differentiate sounds and learn about volume (tap the spoon gently for a quiet sound or really bang it for a loud one!).

Olfactory (smell) and taste sensory experiences are frequently initiated by children with no encouragement from adults! Children who put things in their mouths are exploring the world through their taste and smell senses. To ensure that this stays a safe experience, take care not to leave young children unsupervised around objects small enough to swallow, and purchase nontoxic art supplies just in case!

Visual sensory play is closely connected to the auditory and vestibular systems and helps to develop your child’s sight. Identifying colors and patterns and sorting activities can be a fun way to engage in visual sensory play.

Vestibular play refers to your child’s vestibular system. Located in the inner ear, it is crucial to our sense of balance and movement. Getting a child’s head into as many different positions as possible by rolling, hanging upside down, swinging, and jumping will all help to strengthen the vestibular system.

Proprioception play is an awareness of where your body is in space and how different parts of the bodywork together. Pushing, pulling, and jumping will all help your child develop spatial awareness and coordination of their body.

Benefits of Sensory Play

  •  Brain development. Research has shown that sensory play can strengthen the brain’s neural pathways, which leads to strong memory skills and builds a foundation for language and problem-solving skills.
  • Cognitive growth. Exposure to new experiences, observing, and manipulating materials combine to expand a child’s thought process. They will practice pre-math skills such as comparison, sorting, matching, and pattern building organically through sensory play.
  • Motor skills. Both gross and fine motor skills benefit from sensory play. Pouring, pinching, and manipulating small objects will exercise the small muscles in their hands, which are crucial for learning how to write. Gross motor skills will develop in their arms, legs, and torso through running, jumping, crawling, and climbing.
  • Social skills. Through sensory play, children will find themselves experiencing new situations where they must figure out how to adapt, especially in a setting with multiple children. Situations like multiple children sharing a sand table mean that children will have to figure out simple social contracts such as moving aside to make room for others, sharing, and cooperation. They can gain empathy and learn how to see a situation from someone else’s point of view, which is an invaluable skill.
  •  Language development. Children participating in sensory play together will learn both verbal and nonverbal communication as they work together and share ideas.
  • Problem-solving skills. When presented with open-ended activities and an assortment of materials, children can practice their decision-making and problem-solving skills. What happens when I pour water into the sand? How about when I pour water into another cup? What if I pour the sand into the water? As they see the results of their experimentations, they can adjust their strategies to see if they get different results.
  • Creativity and imagination. When children are left to their own devices and not guided by an adult’s vision, they can develop some amazingly creative ideas. For example, in open-ended art projects, the process is often more important than the finished product when it comes to creative sensory play. It’s okay if the child’s creation doesn’t look like it belongs on Pinterest!
  • Emotional regulation. This is a benefit that can often be overlooked, but it is an important one! The tactile experience of running sand through fingers or squeezing a ball of playdoh can be very calming. Children becoming emotionally dysregulated can often find it comforting to engage in this type of activity. Repetitive active motions, such as jumping on a trampoline or swinging, can also help with emotional regulation. (This goes for all ages! The next time you feel upset or stressed, try hopping on a swing or running your hands through a container of rice. It’s very calming.)
Sensory Play

Ideas for Ages 0-1

Even young babies who aren’t yet mobile can begin to learn about the world through sensory input. As babies grow and become more independent, they can enjoy a wider variety of sensory activities. The youngest babies will enjoy activities such as touching a blanket made of different textured fabrics, looking in a mirror, or grabbing at a toy that makes a sound. Other activities for babies include:

  • Bubbles. Gently blow a stream of bubbles towards your baby and let their eyes track the movement. Babies will enjoy reaching for the bubbles or feeling the sensation of a bubble landing and popping on their skin.
  • Noisemakers. Babies love to make noise! Whether it’s a classic rattle, a toy piano to bang on, or turning any object into a drum, they are learning about cause and effect.
  • Finger paint. Babies will be fascinated by this activity that engages multiple senses – touch, sight, and okay, probably taste as well. Check out Pinterest for DIY finger paint recipes that are safe to eat.
  • Water play. Kids of all ages love water play, but what if they’re too little to stand up at the water table? Just put baby straight in the water, whether it’s the bathtub inside or a splash pool in the backyard! Some simple toys like pouring cups or a toy boat will add to the fun, but splashing is fun too! Safety note: Babies require constant adult supervision around water.
  • Food. It might not be acceptable when you’re an adult, but a baby playing with food is totally fine! Once baby can sit up independently and is showing interest in food, engage their senses by setting out a selection of safe foods for baby to explore. Foods like Cheerios and frozen peas are great for practicing fine motor skills, or if you’re feeling brave, give baby a spoon and some yogurt and let them practice.
Sensory Play

Ideas for Toddlers Ages 1-3

Toddlers love to explore the world by doing things for themselves. Concepts like color, opposites, and sorting activities are fun and help develop cognitive abilities. Here are a few ideas for sensory activities for toddlers:

  • Dry rice, lentils, or pasta. Fill a shallow plastic bin with rice, lentils, or small pieces of pasta, and add a few toys. Measuring spoons, small plastic animals, dinosaurs, or small trucks are usually hits! Kids will like to run their hands through the pasta, hide objects and dig them out, or trace shapes with their fingers.
  • Shaving cream and tinfoil. This is messy fun, so lay down a plastic tablecloth or shower curtain liner on the floor before you start! Line a tray with tin foil, squirt some shaving cream on it (sub in whipped cream if you’re concerned about your child trying to eat it), and step back and watch your child explore. Kids will practice their hand-eye coordination as they trace shapes, while the tin foil and cream combination will be a feast for their senses. You can add sprinkles or drops of food coloring for additional visual stimulation.
  • Playdoh. You can’t go wrong with classic playdoh. Roll it, squeeze it, or squish it. Playdoh is a favorite activity of occupational therapists working with children to increase their finger strength, which is important to develop pre-writing skills once they start school. If you’re concerned about your child putting it in their mouth, look for a homemade recipe that uses flour and water.
  • Sorting activities. Sorting is a fun activity that will get your little one’s brain working hard! You can make up a sorting game out of any objects you have lying around the house – blocks, craft supplies like pompoms or pipe cleaners, toy cars, or whatever you have available. Sort by color, size, or any other categories you can think of (for example, sort a bin of Little People into ‘people’ and ‘animals’ categories).
  • Treasure chest. Here’s a fun variation of a sorting activity. Take an empty container of baby wipes and turn it into a treasure chest. Cut out cardboard circles roughly 1.5 inches in diameter, save bottle caps to milk jugs, and turn them into treasure coins! Toddlers can practice their hand-eye coordination by placing the coins in the slot of the ‘chest’. You can add a sorting element by spray painting some of the coins red and others blue, or for an older child, write numbers 1-10 on the coins and have your child put them in the ‘chest’ in order.
Sensory Rope

Ideas for Ages 3-5

Older toddlers and preschoolers will enjoy many of the same activities as toddlers but may become more interested in playing with other children at this age. In a preschool setting, pre-reading and pre-math skills can be encouraged through sensory play.

  • Flour tray. Shake some flour into a tray or baking sheet and let kids go crazy! Add some toy cars to the flour or measuring spoons for scooping. You can even put a piece of paper with letters of the alphabet on the bottom of the tray and have children practice tracing letters with their fingers.
  • Oobleck. From the Dr. Seuss book of the same name, preschoolers are old enough to help you mix up this cornstarch and water concoction (recipes online will offer exact ratios you can try), which will give them practice scooping, dumping, and mixing. It makes a delightfully goopy substance that will delight kids as they squeeze it through their fingers. Just make sure to wear old clothes!
  • Counting and sorting activities. Sorting activities with toddlers can be kicked up a notch with slightly older children. Take a muffin tin, number the different compartments 1-6, and challenge your child to count out the corresponding number of small objects (pompoms, toy dinosaurs, etc.) in each space.
  • Ice cube paleontologists. This fun activity is a great idea on a summer day! Fill an ice cube tray with water a few hours before, then drop a small toy inside. If the cubes are big enough, toy dinosaurs are a fun choice because of the ‘digging them up’ aspect, but any small object will work!. You can even add a few drops of food coloring to the water before you freeze it for added visual stimulation. Once the cubes are frozen, pop them out, bring them to a suitable area such as a deck or patio, or bring out a baking tray if you’re doing this activity inside. Then hand your child an ‘excavation tool’ – an old butter knife usually works well – and let them hack away at the ice, revealing the hidden treasure! 

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