The pure delight that fills toddlers when it comes to squeezing, splashing, squashing, and smelling all kinds of objects is sometimes hard to understand as a grown-up. This is especially true when it comes to your little ones always getting themselves soaked and looking for the next muddy puddle to jump into!
These early childhood behaviours, also known as sensory play, can make us adults wonder. However, this form of sensory exploration is vital when it comes to your child’s body and brain development and early childhood education. On top of that, sensory activities significantly impact a child’s cognitive abilities later in life as more complex learning tasks approach.
Read on to understand what sensory play is and how this type of play can benefit your little one. We’ll also answer some frequently asked questions regarding sensory play, so you won’t have to wonder about implementing this type of playtime any longer!
What defines sensory play?
Many people think that sensory play revolves around picking up items and touching different textures. However, this form of play includes so many more activities and stimuli that go way beyond just playground equipment. In the following sections, we’ll dive deeper into what defines sensory play and its benefits.
As the name suggests, sensory play includes any play that engages your little one’s primary senses, which are:
Lately, studies have also suggested that any form of play that involves movement and balance or is focused on spatial awareness, is also a type of sensory play.
Based on these five senses are several characteristics that define whether something can be categorised as a sensory activity or not:
- Olfactory play – smell and taste
Smelling flowers or playing with different foods and tastes is an exciting way for children to further their sensory development. Exposure to a lot of different impressions regarding this category of sensory play will likely have an impact on your little ones’ taste and dislike for various foods as they get older. Plus, brain development is enhanced since the brain tries to make sense of the sensory information it receives.
- Visual play – sight
Playing with moving and colourful objects helps your child develop their visual abilities and skills. This comes into play as soon as your baby starts visually focusing on items – such as the ever-popular aeroplane spoon!
- Auditory play – sound
Ever wondered why your little one enjoys banging the spoon against the table so much and how the most annoying sounds will cause a smile on their faces? Auditory play activities are vital when it comes to your child’s hearing development, including differentiating sounds and languages.
- Tactile play – touch
Any time your child touches something and explores its natural environment with their hands, you can be sure it is tactile play. As children engage with the world around them through touch, they learn about important sensory stimuli such as temperature, pressure, textures, vibrations, and plenty more.
There are also additional play characteristics based on movement and balance. These are:
- Vestibular play
The vestibular system sits inside your child’s inner ear and is responsible for balance and coordination. Sensory activities related to movement, whether it is jumping, swinging, climbing, hanging, or rolling around, build nerve connections in your child’s body. Plus, it will build connections in the vestibular system, helping with your child’s physical development.
- Proprioception sensory play
This form of play is related to the spatial perception of our own bodies and teaches children to move their bodies without having to look at the specific body part they are trying to move. This form of body awareness is best developed by sensory activities such as jumping, pushing, pulling and moving around as freely as possible and greatly impacts your child’s physical development and athletic abilities.
Why is sensory play important?
Many studies suggest that play-based learning that targets your child’s senses has a greater influence on your child’s development and cognitive abilities than some other forms of learning.
As children tend to learn more hands-on, specifically in the first years, sensory play has the most significant imprint on their learning journey while they are still young.
By using their own senses and abilities, children get to direct their own sensory experiences. This can have a positive impact on their knowledge development and sense of self. But there are more reasons why sensory play is important.
Benefits of sensory play
By fostering curiosity and solving problems in creative ways, children learn in a very explorative and free way about their natural environment and themselves. Especially in early childhood, brain development is incredibly fast. The brain and nervous system constantly form new nerve connections. This is enhanced through sensory play.
Here is a quick overview of the general benefits of sensory play:
- Language development – Using descriptive words in sensory activities to explain how something feels, tastes, looks, smells, or sounds and comparing it to other experiences positively impacts your child’s vocabulary.
- Gross motor skills – The more your child engages in sensory activities requiring certain movements, the better their motor skills and ability to balance and move their body will become.
- Cognitive growth– Sensory play stimulates nerve development in your baby’s brain.
- Fosters inclusivity – As there is no correct or incorrect way to have a sensory experience, your child’s individual ability doesn’t create a barrier to this form of play.
- Enhances memory – Everybody knows that certain senses can trigger certain memories. Having well-trained senses through sensory play will aid your child’s ability to memorise throughout life.
- Fosters creativity – The independency aspect of using your own senses while forming, pouring, tapping, smashing, splashing, smelling, and all kinds of other actions help children to get creative with their environment. On top of that, your child’s first finger-painted piece of art always makes a great Christmas present for the grandparents!
- Encourages discovery – Using different senses to explore the natural world around them will foster your child’s curiosity and may even enhance their scientific learning abilities.
- Calming – Similar to meditation, sensory activities have a calming effect on children and create a certain level of mindfulness for little ones. The different stimuli require lots of focus, allowing your child to forget the world around them for a while.
Sensory play has different positive impacts on children in the different stages of their development. Here are the major benefits of sensory play according to each developmental stage of your child:
Babies are trying to make sense of the world from day one. By using multiple senses at once, it’s no wonder they’re so exhausted and sleep all the time! Sensory play supports language development as well as forming gross motor skills. They respond to stimuli such as sounds and touch coming from their parents, grandparents, or the world around them.
As toddlers start to understand themselves in relation to their environment, they’re trying to test their independence. Sensory play at this stage has a significant impact on their problem-solving skills. When caregivers provide them with themed sensory bins, children can explore the different materials, try to sort colours or shapes, and learn that there is a right or wrong way to sort through these objects.
This form of play also teaches your child about concepts such as opposites in terms of light and dark or shape and eventually impacts skills such as problem-solving and how they approach complex learning tasks.
As children in preschool don’t rely as heavily on their caregivers to provide the stimuli for sensory experiences, many children go and play musical instruments or have social interaction while busy with sand play. This has a positive impact on their scientific thinking as well as social and language skills.
FAQs about sensory play
How do I start sensory play activities?
The truth is, your baby will probably start this long before you even notice or think about it. As our little ones are completely new to this world, they are experiencing everything through heightened senses from the very second they are born. It is only natural that sensory play is the first form of play they will turn to.
What are some sensory play ideas?
Technically, there are almost no limits when developing sensory play ideas. You’ll soon realise that, within reason, almost anything within your imagination can serve your child for sensory play, and any items too big to be swallowed can form part of sensory play.
On top of that, you shouldn’t see sensory play as something that always requires fancy toys. Often the best utensils can still be found in nature.
Here are some sensory play activities that are easily accessible and affordable for your child:
- A sandbox filled with playground equipment
- Finger painting
- Play dough is one of many great sensory materials
- Sound tubes or other homemade musical instruments
- Food (yes, that’s why your little one always looks so messy – it’s all in the name of learning!)
- Nature walks – your child will quickly pick their favourite sensory toy, just watch!
- Sensory tables and sensory bins (a box filled with a great variety of different objects of all kinds of sizes, shapes, colours and materials)
- Role play, for instance, with dolls pram accessories like an interactive doll.
Is technology a useful tool for sensory play?
Smartphones or tablets can be a great tool to encourage children to learn through play. As this technology is an important part of our daily lives, it is equally important to teach your children how to incorporate these items into their daily lives as well. However, there is a time and a place for everything!
These devices are considered to be rather hindering when it comes to your child’s early development. Typically, they don’t offer sufficient sensory stimulation to your little one for them to really be used as a successful sensory play tool.
The above-mentioned sensory activities, which are often incidentally cheaper and more easily accessible, can be used especially during their early development.
Try out sensory play with Play Like Mum
Next time your little one tries to squish a hand full of dirt or enjoys smashing the wooden spoon against their plate, consider the positive impacts of sensory play on your children’s cognitive development!
Hopefully, this article has given you some useful insights into why exposing your child to as many sensory materials and sensory stimuli is so very important and highly beneficial for the rest of your baby’s life.
Why not encourage your child to get involved with sensory play by gifting them one of Play Like Mum’s fantastic dolls prams and pushchairs? We have a wide range of dolls prams and accessories which are incredible for encouraging role play, from our twin doll strollers to dolls high chairs!
You can also look at some of our other guides: