To make sense of the world around them and engage in learning, children gather and process information by using their different senses (smell, hearing, sight, taste, touch, and movement).
Children develop these senses before birth, preparing them for the outside world. In their early years, children use their senses to explore their environment and understand their place in it.
Providing an environment that supports children’s sensory development throughout early childhood will help them to excel. Read on to understand what sensory processing means, why it’s important, and sensory integration activities you can use in the classroom.
What is sensory processing?
Sensory processing is the ability to perceive, process, and organize information received through the senses and form an appropriate behavioral or motor response to it. In early childhood, sensory skills become more refined and facilitate multisensory learning. As a child’s senses develop, they should be able to comprehend and interpret sensory input (from their own body and the environment) and respond in a consistent and meaningful manner. For effective sensory processing, the seven senses (listed below) must work together:
- Sight (visual sense)
- Hearing (auditory sense)
- Smell (olfactory sense)
- Touch (tactile sense)
- Taste (gustatory sense)
- Vestibular sense (movement and balance)
- Proprioceptive sense (body part positioning and movement)
Why is sensory processing important?
Sensory processing plays a crucial role in emotional self regulation, which is a skill children gain to help identify and manage their emotions in an appropriate way. With sensory processing skills, children are able to better regulate their emotions and calm themselves down with things like deep breathing exercises. Sensory processing also affects a child’s actions in the classroom, from how they walk to how they interact with you and their peers. Here’s why it’s so important for child development:
Develops visual sense (sight)
Through sensory processing, children detect, interpret, and differentiate visual information like colors, movement, and brightness. In addition, children develop the ability to distinguish between shapes, an essential learning skill for recognizing numbers and letters.
Develops auditory sense (hearing)
Children use sensory processing skills to perceive the pitch, volume, rhythm, and closeness of sounds. They can tell when a sound is loud or soft. A sharp sense of hearing also helps children to differentiate sounds between similar-sounding words, like kitchen and chicken.
Develops olfactory sense (smell)
As children’s sensory processing skills are strengthened, they begin to develop the ability to detect and interpret smells. They’re able to differentiate between pleasant smells and unpleasant smells. Because smell is interconnected with taste, when children smell food, it also activates their sense of taste.
Develops gustatory sense (taste)
Through sensory processing, children develop the ability to perceive the taste (sweet, sour, bitter, and salty) of substances. Sensory processing helps children differentiate different flavors to determine foods they enjoy and foods they don’t like.
Develops tactile sense (touch)
As children use sensory processing skills, they learn to perceive sensations on the skin, like temperature, pressure, pain, and vibration. They are also able to discover how different substances and textures feel.
Develops vestibular sense (balance and movement)
Children develop an awareness of movement, gravity, and balance through sensory processing, which helps them move their bodies without falling. As a result, they can engage in activities like running, sitting, or balancing on one foot.
Develops proprioceptive sense (body position)
With developed sensory processing skills, children can perceive the placement of their body parts in relation to each other, allowing them to do things like stretch, bend, and walk up a flight of stairs without looking down at their feet. They can also tell how much pressure to use when clapping their hands or closing a door.
Sensory development stages
The progression of sensory development occurs over time. Here’s how it typically develops in early childhood:
0 to 6 months
- Responds to voices and sounds
- Identifies the smell of mother’s breast milk
- Follows moving objects with eyes
- Reaches out for objects
- Can distinguish between hot and cold temperatures
- Coordinates sucking, swallowing, and breathing
- Can differentiate between basic colors
- Can distinguish between sweet, salty, sour, and bitter tastes
6 to 12 months
- Tastes a range of foods
- Hears the full range of sound frequencies
- Imitates gestures
- Begins to develop depth perception
- Has full color vision
- Sits without support
- Grabs objects with forefinger and thumb
- Distinguishes different textures with hands and mouth
1 to 2 years
- Has full sensitivity to taste
- Imitates sounds
- Chews food correctly
- Recognizes familiar objects
2 to 3 years
- Begins to develop food preferences
- Kicks a ball
- Eats with a spoon
- Uses more gestures than just waving and pointing, like blowing a kiss
- Turns book pages
- Jumps off the ground with both feet
3 to 4 years
- Socializes through play
- Can name most colors
- Can string items together, like large beads
- Can dress themselves with the exception of buttons, fasteners, and laces
- Feeds themselves without difficulty
4 to 5 years
- Can identify shapes
- Can identify some foods by smell
- Displays emotional self-regulation skills
- Can follow rules
- Hops on one foot
- Pays attention for 5-10 minutes
While these milestones are typical around these age ranges, children will develop sensory skills at their own unique pace and might reach certain milestones earlier or later than others.
How sensory play supports development
Promotes fine motor skills
Sensory play helps children develop fine motor skills such as holding, squeezing, and grasping. Teachers can promote fine-motor-skill development by encouraging children to do things like tie their shoes, grab a crayon and color, zip and unzip a jacket, hold a book, or play with building blocks.
Builds language skills
Introducing language during playtime helps children learn without feeling overwhelmed. Giving them simple instructions such as “Pick up the play dough” or “Pour some rice” helps them to develop receptive language skills. Introducing new descriptive words during sensory play, for example, “The dough is gooey'' or “That feels slimy,” helps them to build their vocabulary. You can also ask the children open-ended questions to encourage expressive language skills, for example, “What does this remind you of?” or “This feels cold to me. How does it feel to you?”
Develops cognitive skills
Through sensory play, children can learn how things work and how to solve problems. For example, children can discover how blocks rest on top of each other and how to make various creations with sand or slime. They can also gain an early understanding of the concepts of volume and mass as they play with different materials such as water or dried rice in a sensory bin.
Improves social skills
When children engage in sensory play, they learn how to communicate and solve problems with their peers. For example, if they’re forming a circle with slime, they’ll work together to ensure it’s round. They can also develop empathy by adapting to how others play and listening to their ideas.
Helps children keep calm
Sensory toys typically have a calming effect on children by regulating internal discomfort caused by restlessness or boredom. For example, weighted sensory toys provide deep pressure to muscles and joints, creating a calming effect and sensory bottles give children something to focus on when they feel overwhelmed or anxious. Sensory activities also keep children focused on a specific activity, helping to block out distractions.
Sensory integration activities
Teachers can support sensory development using multiple sensory integration activities in the classroom. Here are a few to consider:
- Finger painting
- “Wheelbarrow walking” to get from one place to another
- Swinging or climbing on monkey bars
- Creating a sensory bin with various textures, colors, and shapes
- Playing with different textures like slime, play dough, or clay
- Incorporating outdoor play on a swing set or in a sand pit
- Using weighted toys such as a weighted ball (a beach ball filled with water and air)
- Jumping on a trampoline
The bottom line
Sensory development lays the foundation for a child’s learning as they make sense of the world around them by using their senses. Incorporating sensory activities in your lesson plan will help your preschoolers cope with changes in their environment and adapt to real-life situations.