What is Sensory Play (and why it's important)
Sensory play is my go-to as both an early childhood educator and a parent of a busy toddler. There are so many benefits to sensory play and it seems everyone is starting to catch on to the benefits even for children without disabilities or on the autism spectrum.
*This post may contain affiliate links! That means I recommend things that I love and use myself and I'll receive a percentage if you use the link to buy it! :)
What is Sensory Play?
It’s often referred to as messy play, but I think that’s misleading because sensory play doesn’t always involve getting dirty or messy. It’s activities that stimulate your littles one’s senses and there are actually 8 of them. No, I’m not talking about when your kid and dog both stare creepily at the door when there’s nothing there; there is a whole system our bodies use to process our environment and there are 8 ways the body processes these. (The basic 5 most people are familiar with, the other 3 are usually talked about when it comes to occupational therapy.)
3. Visual (sight)
4. Auditory (sound)
5. Tactile (touch)
6. Proprioception- The awareness of your body parts and what they’re doing.
7. Vestibular- The internal “GPS” of the body. Where you are in relation to your environment. Are you spinning? Upside down? Walking? Laying down?
8. Interoception – This one is a fairly new category and is the psychological awareness of your organs basically. Is your stomach telling you you’re hungry? Is your heart racing? Are you feeling out of breath?
The play activities your child does to help develop and put these senses to practice are sensory play. If you want to learn more about the 8 senses, you can check out this site here.
Why is Sensory Play Important?
I’ve heard the analogy that sensory play is “food for the brain”. It helps build neurological pathways in your child’s brain that are important for their development. Much of what they’re learning about their environment is coming from sensory experiences.
It also aids in the development of crucial skills:
Cognitive- Problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision-making are all enhanced with sensory play. Example: If you make a sensory bin filled with cups and large cotton balls for your one-year-old. They can begin to exploring the concept of object permanence. (When they place the cup over the cotton ball, even though they can’t see it, the cotton ball hasn’t disappeared.)
Physical- Sensory activities put gross motor and fine motor skills to practice, encourage hand-eye coordination, body awareness, and more. For example, threading ribbon through large buttons helps coordinate small muscle movement. This later aids them in tying shoes, turning book pages, dripping onto their pants to pull them up etc.
Creative- Most sensory play is “open-ended” play, giving your little one freedom to really explore and create to their heart's desire.
Linguistic- Experiencing something helps you better understand it, and then you can better communicate what you feel. The best example of this is trying to explain an adjective. You can keep using other adjectives to explain what “grainy” feels like but unless you’ve touched something grainy and experienced it, it’s going to be difficult to explain it or understand what “grainy” feels like.
Social/emotional skills- when kids are in a group setting, they get to really put their skills in use when they’re playing together, developing social skills and emotional development. For example, in a sand pit, together the children might decide to build a castle. During this activity, they might go through a wide array of experiences- working together, gaining confidence in their decision making, sharing, impulse control (not hitting if someone knocks over their castle), emotional processing (feeling disappointed about the castle being knocked over) etc
I’m a huge advocate for sensory play because I’ve seen these benefits first hand. And in our modern world, their experiences are significantly different from our own. Many children don’t have a much outside time to develop these senses naturally as we did, or with modern conveniences, it might be a while before they experience something unless we actively introduce them to it (such as grip strength. With the use of tablets and phones, many children don’t have to actively strengthen their hand grip as they would have climbing playground ladders or trees. If you want some ideas for screen-free activities here's an awesome book filled with them). It’s important to me to give my child a positive start even before he attends school and I think sensory play is helping me do that.