Sensory play lets children explore their sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste with new objects and textures – ranging from making mud pies in the garden to filling a box with dried lentils and dinosaur figurines.
Giving children sensory play opportunities helps to develop essential skills they need to thrive. It develops their language skills, their ability to socialise and to grasp objects and control them.
This piece will explain 5 great benefits sensory play gives, and offers three ways to get children involved in engaging their senses in fun, creative ways they’ll love.
Little ones love to explore new objects, new tastes, new smells. They love feeling weird textures and exploring why certain things stick to the floor and others don’t, and that’s where sensory play shines.
Sensory play means giving children hands-on activities that stimulate their sense of sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste – like making mud pies or stretching out some homemade goo. But it’s not just about engaging and stimulating the five senses – sensory play has a big role in children’s brain development.
If we take an example, like making fake snow out of shaving foam; it feels soft and squishy, and might smell strongly of peppermint. This activity is exactly what Suzanne Gainsley calls ‘brain food,’ as stimulating various senses at once strengthens the neural pathways in the brain that children need for lifelong learning. But why are neural pathways important, and how does sensory play help them develop?
Let’s break down five key areas of development sensory play helps to nurture, and then we’ll give you some great sensory play ideas that you can introduce into your setting at the drop of a hat.
5 key aspects of sensory play
When children are born, they need time for their brain pathways to develop. Their surroundings and experiences help create these pathways, which is why those first few years are so crucial to develop little minds. In fact, during those first few years, more than 1 million new neural connections form every single second.
Neural pathways are the foundations of a child’s learning journey, as they’re how the brain receives and processes information. They’re how the brain communicates with the rest of the body. If children aren’t stimulated enough in the Early Years, their neural pathways won’t develop and strengthen, and this can cause significant learning delays as they get older.
Language development: Children have a heightened sensitivity to language during those first years, and sensory sensory play is the perfect opportunity to get them talking and using new words. With all those new and interesting textures, smells and sounds, use this opportunity to describe what you’re doing with new vocabulary and phrases, such as ‘Why is the playdough soft and squishy?’ ‘Can you stretch it?’ ‘Why don’t we roll it out?’
Social skills: A shared activity, like a sensory box [see below] for several children to use at once, helps children build social skills as they start interacting with each other. They might talk and discuss the objects if they’re exploring the objects side by side, or they might join forces and start exploring together. Not only does this help them learn how to work together, but it lets them develop their communicative skills, too.
Cognitive development: Cognitive skills, or the skills we use when we start to solve problems, start with observation. When children really look at, and explore new objects, they’re piecing all that information their brains are processing together to understand the object in front of them. If they’re given wooden blocks of different shapes and sizes, for example, it teaches them that some are heavier than others. Letting children understand early on that different objects feel different, taste different and smell different is crucial to later problem-solving tasks, as they’re creating those pathways that connect how they use reasoning. When they do get to solving real problems, realising that all the playdough wouldn’t fit into a tiny bucket will have been a massive help.
Motor skills: Motor skills are incredibly important in later life, as they’re vital for holding pens, pencils and paintbrushes. Developing those necessary muscles is easily done through sensory play, as can use fine motor tools, like pincers, to pick up dried beans. Even the simple act of pinching objects and pouring liquids gives children the opportunity to develop and hone their ability to control their hand movements. That’s why involving objects like pincers and small jugs lets children concentrate on grasping and controlling objects.
Creative development: By giving children colourful, creative and new objects that they can explore any way they like helps them to become creative thinkers, as sensory play is completely open-ended. There is no goal apart from to explore – if they want to create an underwater scene out of the lentils and dolphin figurines you brought in, they can. It encourages their imaginative skills, as they can be as free as they like, the main goal is to engage the senses.
Engaging and encouraging development
You play a big role in aiding development, as the way you interact with children while they play can help maximise the learning opportunities.
We’ve got a great piece on scaffolding detailing when you should sit back and let children explore for themselves. Sometimes interfering in the wrong way takes children out of that world they’ve created for themselves, and actually does more harm than good. But when you do engage with children’s play, we’ve got some handy tips to gently encourage children without interrupting their flow:
Ask questions: ‘What does that feel like? What does it smell like? Shall we mix those two colours and see what happens?’
Expand their vocabulary: When you interact and start scaffolding, try and use some new words in context while the children play. Things like ‘That smells fruity’ or ‘That’s very squishy, isn’t it?’ Bringing in vocabulary to describe the objects or sensations while children play is a fantastic way to enrich and expand their existing vocabulary.
Three ways to sensory play
Now that you can see the learning potential of sensory play, let’s look at three wonderful ways you can introduce it into your daily practice.
There is no right or wrong way, as long as you’re giving children lots of different (and safe!) stimuli to get their senses and their curiosity piqued.
Sensory boxes are very simple – they’re boxes filled with children to touch, squeeze, smell and play with. You’ll want to start with a ‘filler,’ such as sand, uncooked beans, uncooked pasta or uncooked lentils. Think of it as the base for the ‘ground’ inside the boxes that children can really run their hands through and squeeze between their fingers.
Think of scenes you can create. Why not try having a box that explores the desert with different coloured sand, palm trees and camel figurines? You could introduce some water into the box to show what happens to the sand when it gets wet.
This can engage all five senses, if you like. Think of the sound of dried beans at the bottom of the box, the colours of the figurines, the feel of sand between their fingertips. If you want to focus on touch, you could fill up the box with aloe vera gel and have figures and animals floating in it, and maybe add some colouring to the gel to make it bright blue to engage their sight.
Do you remember being fascinated with lava lamps? How big blobs of unknown stuff floated around a bit hypnotically? That’s exactly what a sensory bottle is. You’ll need a see-through plastic bottle with a lid that screws on tightly, and a liquid to make the ‘base’ like water, gel and shampoo.
Your options really are endless here – want to make an underwater mermaid bottle? Try putting clear shampoo with food colouring and have mermaids and shells floating around. A glittery rainbow? Try a mixture of water, glue and glitter for a lava-lamp like bottle. A sahara desert? You could even fill up a bottle with colourful sand and hide some figurines as a hide-and-seek activity.
This is perfect for sight and sound. Imagine you were a toddler, and you had a bottle filled with mutlicoloured starfish, and the liquid around them sparkled? Children will also see how the starfish move around in the water, and the sound it makes when you turn the bottle upside down.
Sensory play doesn’t have to be confined in a small container. Embrace mess and get the children involved in some hands-on activities that they can get messy with. Use shaving foam to make a snow scene, or why not try some edible finger paint that the children can safely eat while covering their hands with.
We’ve got a perfect piece up on the blog about different kinds of messy play activities. One of our favourites is ‘Sensory soup,’ an outside activity that gets children mixing their own magic soup with water and herbs.
This can also target all five senses, as edible paint can be colourful, smelly, edible, squelchy when it’s splattered and soft and cold to touch. Talk about a perfect way to build those neurological pathways!
Too young? Sensory bags
I don’t need to tell you to make sure the youngest ones shouldn’t have small objects that could potentially be a choking hazard – you’re well aware of that already.
But if you’ve got objects that aren’t quite appropriate for an age group due to a risk, why not try sensory bags? They’re a great way to introduce all sorts of objects that might be too small for the smallest hands in your setting – pop your sensory objects in clear bags that children can squish and feel the objects through. This can be bits of pasta, shells, small pompoms or figurines – just make sure you close the bags up correctly, tightly and make sure there’s always supervision.
Looking for more inspiration or specific activities? We’ve got 10 great sensory play examples here, like recipes for fluffy, homemade slime or frozen dinosaur activities. If you’re working virtually, here are another 10 to start you off.
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice
Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.
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