Exploring the benefits of Sensory Play for children

26 Jul 2018

Exploring the benefits of Sensory Play for children

Squish, squelch, spin, splash, squeeze, bang, run, scoop, shake, drop, smear, toss, spray, and ooze – toddlers absolutely delight in exploring their world through their senses. It sounds (and can be!) messy, so you may often be inclined to cut this type of play short. But in fact, sensory play - play that stimulates any of a child’s senses - has an important role in a child’s health and development. Through it, your child builds cognitive skills and learns about their world.

What Is Sensory Play?

In essence, sensory play is simply play that engages any of your child’s senses. This includes touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste. But it also covers movement, balance, and spatial awareness. When a child is born, their sense aren’t fully developed. They only mature over time as babies, toddlers, and preschoolers explore the sensory world around them. Each new experience they have with a different sense builds nerve connections that grow the architecture of their brain - but we’ll go more into that in a moment.

girl playing with building blocks

Characteristics of Sensory Play

The different characteristic of sensory play align to the five common senses, along with two additional senses related to balance and proprioception (the sense of where each body part relates to the rest).

Tactile Sensory Play
This is probably the type of play you’re most likely to think of when we talk about sensory play. Any time you see children exploring an object with their hands, they’re using tactile play. 
From tactile play, children can learn about pressure, heat and cold, vibrations, and so much more.

Vestibular Sensory Play
Rolling around, hanging, swinging, and jumping can all contribute to your child’s development of balance. 
This is because the sense of balance and movement comes from the vestibular system, which is located in the inner ear. Getting a child’s head into as many different positions as possible helps strengthen the vestibular system by activating various receptors in the ear.

Proprioception Sensory Play
Think of how you’re able to move your arms and legs freely without needing to look at them. That’s thanks to proprioception. Pushing, pulling, and jumping all help your child develop spatial awareness of their body. 
Through proprioception, children learn where they are physically in space and how their limbs relate to the rest of their body.

Auditory Sensory Play

Bang, boom, clash! It might not be your favourite type of play, but auditory play helps your child differentiate sounds and develop their hearing. Give your child a wooden spoon and a saucepan and you’ll see how they explore sound through play. Disclaimer: this might not be so kind on your nerves.

Visual Sensory Play
Visual sensory play helps to develop your child’s vision and sight. Think of how your child watches their “airplane spoon” as you fly it into their mouth.

Olfactory and Taste Sensory Play
It’s harder to gauge when a child is using their sense of smell and taste, but obvious examples include when they smell flowers or test the taste of their brand new building blocks.  

Sensory Play Theorists

Jean Piaget is somewhat of a celebrity when it comes to developmental psychology. He was perhaps the first theorist of sensory play, suggesting that there was more to “play” than we understood. His theory of play (also known as developmental stage theory) states that play involves a systematic process of learning that can even be identified by stages. Piaget proposed that children need environmental stimuli and experiences to guide their cognitive development. Through sensory play, he suggested that children digest new knowledge and store it for later reference. In essence, he argued that sensory play was key to a child’s brain development.

Sensory Play and Brain Development: How Is It Good for Your Child?

We say that things may just be “child’s play”, but as Piaget argued, play involves so much that we don’t see. Experiences that stimulate the senses strengthen a child’s brain and create neurological pathways important for learning. This contributes to a child’s ability to finish more complex learning tasks. They also help children build their knowledge and understanding of the world around them, develop their language skills, improve their social interactions, and so much more. As Educators, we recognise the many benefits that come with sensory play and make it an everyday experience as part of the Oac Way. These benefits include:

Supporting Their Cognitive Development
Babies and young children have an innate curiosity to explore the world around them using their senses. Through sensory play, their brains learn to 
identify and sort different objects and differentiate various sensations, such as hot and cold or smooth and rough. 
Through sensory play, children will learn about a variety of basic concepts, including language (by communicating their experiences) and maths (through filling, pouring, sorting, and so on). 
Sensory play even helps them develop some scientific reasoning, such as cause and effect, by discovering how various materials respond to others or to certain actions.

Supporting Fine and Gross Motor Skill Development
Children develop physical abilities such as coordination, muscle strength, and dexterity through sensory play. 
They develop their fine motor skills by learning how to pinch, pour, shape, mould, and sort smaller objects. Playing with playdough, for example, helps improve their hand strength. 
These skills will later become handy for such daily activities as buttoning and zipping clothes, tying shoe laces, or writing.
By squatting, jumping, rolling, pushing, crawling, throwing and moving about in general, children also develop their gross motor skills.

Supporting Their Language Skills
As children talk about their experiences, they learn new vocabulary, such as nouns and adjectives, to describe objects and materials and so develop their language skills.

Enhancing Their Memory SKills
This isn’t just one for the children! Studies have found that even for adults, engaging multiple senses in any task helps to 
reinforce understanding and retain information.

Boosting Their Creativity and Self Discovery
When presented with a new object or material, children explore 
various creative ways to discover more about both the material and themselves. Children can also become more confident and independent as they make new decisions about how to interact with their surroundings.

Enhancing Their Social Skills

When children engage in sensory play together, they tend to watch how others handle the same objects. Not only do they discover new ways to move, hold, or manipulate a material, but they also learn to share, plan, and negotiate with others. Calming a Frustrated or Anxious Child Sensory play can help children regulate their own boredom, restlessness, or other internal discomforts or distress.

boys in playground tunnel

How Sensory Play fits into the Early Years Learning Framework

Sensory Play delivers on Outcome 4 of The Early Years Learning Framework, by creating 'confident and involved learners' who:

  • Develop dispositions for learning such as curiosity, cooperation, confidence, creativity, commitment, enthusiasm, persistence, imagination and reflexivity. 
  • Develop a range of skills and processes such as problem solving, inquiry, experimentation, hypothesizing, researching and investigating.
  • Transfer and adapt what they learned from one context to another.

For this reason, Only About Children ensures that sensory play has a key role in our unique early learning curriculum, Oac Grow.


Sensory Play Ideas for Babies & Toddlers

It’s not hard to find inspiration for sensory play. In fact, babies and children are naturally curious about exploring their senses; one of the easiest ways to get them to do this is to have them play outside. There, the colours, sounds, smells, textures, and big open spaces provide the perfect natural playground. Even finding sensory play ideas for babies and children around the home is easier than you think. Look out for the many spontaneous opportunities that present themselves for children to engage their senses as you go about your day. For example:

Tactile Play

  • Provide an assortment of containers for children at bathtime to empty and fill with water. Include kitchen utensils for them to stir the water around with or sponges for them to squeeze.
  • Grab a few paintbrushes and your homemade paint and let your child paint in the bath with or without water. When you’re all done, wash it away!
  • Engage in games or activities that require use of muscles, such as jumping on a trampoline, crawling and moving like animals, or playing hopscotch.
  • Cook with your child.
  • Give feather tickles or use soft brushes or paint brushes to ‘brush’ the skin.
  • Open the door on a rainy day and feel the rain drops, stick out your tongue and taste the rain, listen to the rain hitting the roof, and jump in puddles to create a splash.
  • Draw on your child’s back and have them guess the drawing. Spin over so they can do the same to you.

Visual Play

  • Experiment with light around the house. For example, play with a torch, look through cellophane paper, or look for shadows outside.
  • Go on a nature scavenger hunt

Auditory Play

  • Play with musical instruments or sing and listen to songs.
  • Play listening games, such as talking about different animal sounds you hear.
  • Play simple percussion instruments together. Play fast and slow, loud and soft, or make a long sound and then a short sound.
  • Put on some music and dance. Play hide and seek and gently shake a bell or shaker as a clue to where in the house you are.

Olfactory Play

  • Make use of smells around your house, such as the smell of flowers or wet grass in the garden, or baking smells in the kitchen.
  • Grow herbs and grind them with a  mortar and pestle.
  • Add different scents to playdough.

Play with Taste

  • Try different tastes of foods, such as sweet, sour, salty and bitter foods.
  • Engage your child while you are cooking. Let them taste and choose different pizza toppings or fruits to make a smoothie.
  • Use descriptive words like sweet, salty, bitter or sour. Notice the way something smells, looks, and feels before tasting it.

Finally, Don’t Stress the Mess!

Sensory play can be messy. This is one of the reasons we ask you to dress your children in play clothes when they come to play for the day at an Oac Campus.

 two boys playing with water

Sensory play can be messy.  This is one of the reasons we ask you to dress your children in play clothes when they come to play for the day at an Oac Campus.  Everyone has different comfort levels with mess at home.  Here are some strategies you can put into place to minimise the mess factor in sensory play:

  • Restrict messy play to occasions when you have the time to clean up the mess. Protect clothes with a paint smock or apron.
  • Use water-based paints because they’re easier to wash off skin, clothes and furniture.
  • Cover surfaces with washable drip sheets, plastic tablecloths, shower curtains, or old towels. Restrict the messy play to an area that’s easy to clean, like the bathtub, shower or outdoors.
  • Set clear rules about what children can and cannot do with the play materials. Tell them to keep the mud outside or the playdough on the table.
  • Supervise. Children making mess can get lost in the moment and forget the rules. They’ll likely need you to be nearby reminding them of their boundaries.
  • Relax, smile, and remember there is magic behind the mess!

It’s important your child grows up in a setting that nurtures their development through every means possible. Learn more about the ways Only About Children supports your child’s educational, physical, and emotional development today.

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