When you observe children playing, what are some of the things you notice? Are they playing pretend, coloring, or running around with their peers? Play looks different, depending on the situation and child, and every type of play is important for children to explore. Because some children are primarily visual learners and others are auditory or kinesthetic learners, knowing what type of learners you have in the classroom goes a long way in preparing the right learning experience.
Children learn best through engagement—when they are actively watching, listening, or performing an activity. Sensory play is a wonderful way for children to play and learn because it uses the senses to promote brain development, cognitive development, language development, and motor skills development in all children. And, embracing this type of play can help set the foundation for positive learning and development experiences throughout their lives. This guide details everything to know about sensory play and why it’s important and provides examples of sensory play you can incorporate into your classroom.
What is sensory play?
Sensory play is any play-based learning activity that stimulates children’s senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing, body awareness, and balance. Children's senses are usually underdeveloped at birth. Still, as they grow and interact with the world around them, their sensory system matures, ultimately supporting the rapid brain development that occurs in infancy.
Sensory play activates a child’s senses as they engage in specific activities that encourage them to learn. Everyone learns differently, and sensory play is a great way to identify the individual learning styles each child has. For example, if a child gravitates toward playing with food with their hands or feeling around in sensory bins, they are most likely a kinesthetic learner. Or, if they love storytime, listening to music, or are great at call-and-response activities, they could be an auditory learner. Or, if a child likes to identify colors and patterns, they could be a visual learner.
Why is sensory play important?
Sensory learning has a host of benefits that affect the ongoing development and well-being of children. Below are some of the top benefits you can expect from this type of play.
Fosters brain development
Promoting brain development in young children will help them throughout their lives as they grow. Sensory play activities stimulate the five primary senses–touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. A child’s brain comprises trillions of cells known as neurons and nerve connections known as synapses. These cells and nerve connections facilitate learning and adaptation. For example, when a child touches an object, their brain processes the touch as rough or smooth. Then, the brain sends signals to the body through the nervous system.
Supports cognitive development
Cognitive development refers to how children think, explore, and make sense of the world around them. Sensory play is a great way to promote cognitive development because it supports learning through exploration, curiosity, problem-solving, and creativity by building a mind-body connection. Activities like finger painting and playing musical instruments stimulate the mind and build nerve connections in the brain, which will help make learning and retaining information easier as they grow.
Promotes language development
Sensory play can engage multiple senses at once, providing rich opportunities for language development as it allows children to expand and explore new vocabulary words that are relevant to what they are experiencing firsthand. As they’re playing, teachers can introduce new words to them and give them in-the-moment context. For example, as children explore sensory bins, you can identify what each item in the bin is, define it, and ask them to repeat each object’s name back to you. This will help instill the new words they’ve learned, which will more effectively expand their vocabulary.
Encourages motor skills development
Sensory play activities help children develop crucial motor skills for physical strength and movement. Children use motor skills daily to crawl, walk, and perform tasks like zipping and unzipping.
Fine motor skills are necessary for tasks requiring small muscle movements like tying a shoe. Gross motor skills are crucial for activities that require large muscle movements like jumping and running. Sensory play activities like working with play dough and finger painting are excellent for developing fine motor skills. These activities enable children to develop the ability to use small muscle groups and coordinate movements. On the other hand, sensory play activities like jumping on a trampoline promote gross motor skills development.
Promotes social-emotional development
Social-emotional development involves regulating emotions and establishing positive relationships with peers and adults. Sensory play activities like water play or making music can have a calming effect on children and support emotional regulation. When children can effectively manage their emotions, they are better able to problem-solve, collaborate, and interact cooperatively with their peers. Activities like throwing a ball, playing tag, and playing follow the leader are great ways to promote social-emotional development.
How to use sensory play
Sensory play can be part of your everyday experiences and learning opportunities for children. You may offer sensory activities throughout the day during unstructured play time and in various learning centers (e.g., block center, science center, or art center). Here are some ways to engage children’s sensory systems through play.
Tactile play involves exploring objects with hands. It is the most common sensory play strategy and teaches children about textures, temperature, vibrations, and pressure.Below are some fun tactile play activities to try:
You can extend the sensory experience by having the children help with the recipes or taking these activities outdoors.
Vestibular sensory play
The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and is responsible for maintaining steady balance and body movement. Sensory play activities involving rolling, swinging, hanging, and jumping activate ear receptors responsible for developing a child's vestibular system. Ample time on a playground structure with swings and monkey bars support’s the vestibular system.
Proprioception sensory play
Proprioception sensory play helps children develop bodily spatial awareness and understand how their limbs relate to other body parts. This way, they can voluntarily move their arms and legs without looking at them. Proprioception sensory play activities involve jumping, pushing, and pulling.
Auditory sensory play
Auditory sensory play activities help children differentiate sounds and sharpen their hearing skills. In addition, auditory sensory play establishes the foundation for various tasks like multiple-step directions and distinguishing letter sounds. Examples of auditory sensory play activities include clapping games and reading books with rhyming patterns.
Visual sensory play
Visual sensory play promotes children's vision development. Colors and pattern identification activities help develop children's visual sensory system. Color mixing activities, shadow exploration, and hide and seek are excellent examples of visual sensory play activities.
Olfactory and taste sensory play
Olfactory and taste sensory play focuses on the senses of smell and taste. Some smell and taste sensory activities for toddlers and preschoolers include smelling items like flowers, lemon juice, cinnamon, and coffee. You can also offer a variety of foods to taste like citrus fruits, honey, rice cakes, raisins, nut butter, or cucumbers.
What to consider when planning sensory play
There are endless opportunities when it comes to planning sensory play. Below are things to consider when designing sensory play activities.
1. Determine what senses you want to engage
Sensory development is 100% dependent on the primary human senses. You can plan sensory play activities primarily targeting one or two sensory experiences like finger painting (sight and touch) or multi-sensory experiences like baking bread.
It all depends on your overall goal! So, you’ll want to figure out senses to engage with specific sensory play activities.
2. Choose a type of sensory play activity
Preschooler and toddler sensory activities fall into four main categories:
Playing with messy sensory materials helps children develop a curious and natural sense of exploration. Finding dinosaurs in taste-safe mud, a fizzy cloud dough experiment, and balloon painting are excellent examples of messy sensory play activities.
Edible sensory play activities promote a multi-sensory experience. Some examples include making granola or rice Krispies treats, or trying marshmallows. Non-edible sensory play activity examples include play dough, paper pulp, and clean mud.
3. Consider your environment
Some sensory play activities are best done indoors, while others are better suited to an outdoor environment. Depending on your specific sensory play activity and goal, you can opt for an indoor or outdoor setting. For example, light and shadow exploration is best done in a dark indoor environment.
Also, gross motor skills are best done outside, with ample room for big body movement. More importantly, there are logistical implications to consider. For example, some activities may need access to water or a sink. So, you’ll want to think about these logistics before choosing a setting.
4. Promote social-emotional skills
Having children work in small groups during sensory play is a great way to support their social-emotional skills. A simple activity like making play dough encourages turn-taking while adding ingredients, stirring, and kneading the dough.
Sensory play ideas and activity examples
So, now that the basics are out of the way, it’s time to look at some sensory play ideas you can implement in your classroom:
A sensory bin is one of the best ways for children to have fun while participating in sensory play. Creating a sensory bin is simple since you don't need sophisticated materials or equipment.
You can use a tub or container and objects from nature like leaves, sand, pebbles, and rocks. You can also use food materials like dry rice, pasta, beans, and kitchenware such as tongs, spoons, and measuring cups.
Next, fill the tub or container with all the materials and allow the children to explore them.
This is an excellent time to support language development by introducing new vocabulary to your younger children. Smooth, rough, soft, and slippery are examples of vocabulary you can introduce depending on their experience.
You can ask older children questions about what they’re feeling, noticing, hearing, or smelling. This works since most of them know how to express themselves.
Sensory experiences are not limited to play in class. Young children can have meaningful sensory explorations during meal times by engaging with foods with various textures, tastes, and smells. Infants and young toddlers will enjoy the additional benefits of tactile explorations as they use their hands to eat.
Playing outside goes a long way when looking to develop gross motor skills like walking, running, and jumping. The best part is that you don’t require special play materials like bins or tables to make the activities fun and engaging. Some possible locations for outdoor sensory play are parks, backyards, nature trails, and beaches.
Making music and singing songs is a multi-sensory experience supporting language development, emotional regulation, fine motor skills (i.e., finger play songs), or gross motor skills (i.e., if dancing is involved). You can take things up a notch by helping children make musical instruments using kitchen equipment like spoons and bowls.
Art sensory experiences
Art experiences offer a variety of sensory experiences just by exploring different mediums such as crayons, paint, colored pencils, pastels, watercolor, and markers.
Finger painting is an excellent place to start since it’s an inclusive activity for all ages (as young as six months old). Children are typically intrigued by the colors, the soft texture, and the cool temperature of paint on their hands. Children can explore cause-and-effect with color mixing, experiment with different finger strokes, and express creativity.
Other sensory art activities include marble painting, shaving cream and glue art, sand pictures, and paper bag puppets.
You can never exhaust sensory play activities to try out with children. Here are some more ideas to try out:
- Sound tubes
- Water play
- Play dough
- Balance beam
- Puffball games
- Taste challenge
- Jumping fun
- Frozen toys
- Calming sensory bottles
Our sensory system is what helps us make sense of the world around us. The more practice and exposure we have to different sensory experiences, the more developed our senses become. Therefore, sensory play is essential to the development of a young child and can be incorporated into daily classroom activities. It supports all areas of development and it promotes creativity, confidence, and curiosity, which are all necessary for a positive learning experience.
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