If you have any little people crawling about your home, or if you’re about to, you’ve probably heard of sensory development or sensory play. The terms seem to be everywhere these days, but what do they actually mean? And are they really as important as everyone seems to think?
In a word, the answer is yes! Sensory play simply means introducing your child, through fun activities, to experiences and objects that stimulate all of their senses. This can mean getting a little bit messy – but you can also find options that don’t involve too much splashing around.
Sensory development is important for young children in a variety of ways. It can calm anxiety, improve social skills, enhance memory, and it even helps to build nerve connections in the brain. Aside from these benefits, sensory play can also offer a hugely fun and rewarding way to engage and play with your child from an early age.
It Develops the Senses
We all know the five senses, right? Touch, sight, smell, taste, hearing. We’re taught about them at school, and we use each sense every day. Well, sensory play helps children to develop these senses as best they can. Actively stimulating the senses by touch-based games, experiencing new tastes or sounds, encourages your little one to instinctively learn about the world around them. However, there are two other ‘senses’ that sensory play can also activate: balance and body awareness. By interacting with objects around them, children figure out how they relate to the world, improving co-ordination, balance and dexterity.
Sensory Play Builds Nerve Connections
When you’re very little, your brain is working overtime! Babies and toddlers are still growing their brains and developing the pathways that will serve them later in life. Sensory play is a vital component in helping this process on its way. As children use their senses, nerve connections form within the brain. These nerve connections help to speed the brain up and make it more efficient, meaning little ones start being able to complete more complex tasks, and learn new things even more quickly!
Sensing and Overcoming Fears
As sensory play builds these nerve connections in the brain, it can also help overcome any particular hang-ups your baby might have. This is a really clever and wonderful benefit of sensory play. For example, a child who is fussy about foods of a certain texture (for example, spaghetti, tomatoes or baked beans), can be encouraged to play with these foods, or items of a similar nature, in an environment where there is no expectation to eat them. Handling the texture and having fun can create positive pathways in the brain, associating these textures and foods with a fun experience, and leading the child to be more willing to eat them in the future.
It Can Calm Anxiety
One fantastic effect of sensory play is how it can create a period of intense concentration for your child. As their senses are stimulated, they will become absorbed in the game at hand, and forget about outside distractions and stressful situations. For children who suffer from anxiety or frustration, this can be an invaluable tool to help them relax and feel safe in their environment.
Developing Social Awareness
Does your child struggle to play well with others? Do they often become distracted, leading to them seeming distanced or even rude? Don’t worry – this is completely normal! Many toddlers can find it difficult to focus appropriately when interacting with another child, especially if there are lots of distractions around such as noise, or other activities occurring in the background. Sensory play can really help with this. By engaging your child with a specific sense, for example, touch, they will find it easier to zone out external distractions and play with much more attention to their playmate and the activity they are engaged with.
Improving Motor Skills
As the pathways in their brain develop and grow, children are also learning how to take control of their bodies. By stimulating the senses, sensory play helps this process, giving children a greater awareness of themselves and the world around them. Learning to move can never be an intellectual task, and it is only by helping your child to play and discover freely that you will see the best effect on their motor skills.
It Enhances Memory
This may seem out of left-field at first, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense (get it!). Our senses are intimately connected with our memory throughout our life. Have you ever smelt a certain scent and immediately remembered a specific moment in your childhood? Most of our favourite memories are linked to smell, sound or taste, and they create an internal richness in our minds that can bring our past back to life. Engaging the senses from an early age will help build these neural pathways, improving your child’s memory and the richness of their life.
Sensory Play Examples
There are so many ways to engage your child in sensory play – the list is basically endless! However, here are some common and easy ways to use activities to play with each sense, giving your child the exciting and rich development they deserve.
Provide your child with lots of different environments, from playparks to museums
Play hide and seek with different toys
Use mirrors to stimulate self-awareness
Play games with brightly coloured paints, and don’t be afraid to get messy!
For babies, investigate types of teething toys to stimulate teeth development alongside touch
Have a daily massage routine, perhaps alongside storytime!
Play with different textures inside boxes, and see if the child can guess the object
Use gardens and plants to introduce natural textures and stimulants
Create homemade rain-makers using dried rice and toilet roll tubes
Listen to sounds like tree leaves or bird sounds, and try to imitate them
Have a competition to see who can hear the most sounds
Make supervised ‘potions’ using natural ingredients and herbs such as lavender!
Introduce younger babies to pouches containing different smells
Play smelling games alongside cooking, introducing your child to different scents
Make homemade finger-paints using yoghurt and food dye!
Create sensory baskets with little elements such as fruits and herbs to be tasted under supervision
Blindfold taste tests – can they guess what it is they are tasting?