Exploring the Benefits of Sensory Play for Children | Only About Children
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Exploring the Benefits of Sensory Play for Children

Toddlers absolutely delight in exploring their world through their senses. Sensory play - play that stimulates any of a child’s senses - builds cognitive skills and influences how your child learns about their world.
Exploring the Benefits of Sensory Play for Children

Exploring our everyday world

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, sound and taste. But it also covers movement, balance, and spatial awareness. When a child is born, their senses 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.


Characteristics of Sensory Play

The different characteristics of sensory play align to the five common senses, along with two additional senses related to balance and proprioception (the perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body).


1. 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, temperature, vibrations, and so much more.


2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Visual Sensory Play

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

6. 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.

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