Sensory play has been at the forefront of children’s play and development for the past few years. When my first two kids were little I had absolutely no idea what a big deal it was. A friend of mine at the time would occasionally make sensory bins for her children, but to me, it just looked like an inconvenient mess. I was so wrong!
Sensory play is an important part of child development because it stimulates the brain, creating neural pathways that help improve sensory processing systems. It helps to improve social skills like cooperation and language development. Fine motor and gross motor skills, as well as coordination, are also likely to improve. Sensory play has also been known to help calm children when they are upset.
What is sensory play?
Sensory play is any activity that gets the senses stimulated. When thinking about sensory play, consider things that activate all five senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound. There are also two other important senses you may not have heard of, vestibular (sense of balance) and proprioceptive (recognizing where each body part is in relation to the rest of the body). Getting your child to use their senses more often helps develop the ability to use them in everyday life. For lots of ideas and inspiration for how you can incorporate sensory play into your child’s day, grab my free sensory play resource here.
Why is it important?
- Develops motor skills. Playing with small objects in a sensory bin helps develop fine motor skills of the hands, gross motor skills by getting up and down from the floor, and kneeling around the bin. Hand-eye coordination gets stronger as well. All of this helps improve day to day activities such as zipping a jacket or picking up finger foods.
- Builds language. During sensory play, your child is very likely to get really expressive about what they’re doing. Even if they don’t have words they’ll likely make a lot of noises and sounds. You can help encourage them by describing to them what they’re feeling (ie: cool, wet), seeing (ie: bright, colourful), or smelling (ie: that smells like lavender). This helps give them an understanding of words that can help them build a strong vocabulary later on.
- Communication and interaction. Anyone participate in sensory play. Friends or siblings who are neurotypical might have a tough time approaching a peer who is different from them. Sensory play activities can build a bridge for them to get a little closer and initiate that interaction. All of my kids (currently 10, 8, and 4) love sensory play. Honestly, it’s hard for me to resist sometimes too!
- Helps with learning. When we learn through using our senses, it makes recalling that new information easier later on. Learning by doing is often the best way to grow the skills that will help our kids flourish and build a relationship with others.
Because small parts are common in sensory play, make sure you’re considering your child’s safety at all times.
- Stay close. Keep an eye on your child even if you’re not hovering over them the entire time. Playing alongside them gives more opportunity for building language, but every parent needs a break from time to time!
- Create sensory play that aligns with your child’s needs. All children are different and prefer different sensations. If your child doesn’t like the feeling of shaving cream, try a rice sensory bin instead. If they love water play, but it’s cold outside, consider putting down some towels and bringing in some snow for them to play with. If they hate the cold, pull out the playdoh! Try to stay in tune with their needs so you can provide them with play that will hold their attention.
- Look for non-toxic. Things like water beads are a great option for sensory play. But of course little hands can often times end up around or in their mouths. Use household ingredients like rice, pasta, oats, homemade playdoh if your child likes to put thing in their mouth. If you feel confident they won’t, try things like water beads but still keep it nontoxic. Here is a great ready to go option.
What are the benefits?
Sensory play is also beneficial because it helps children learn what sensations they like and don’t like. It gives you insights on how they learn best, and what activities hold their attention. Even what calms them and what excites them. It’s a great tool to help strengthen the bond between your child and other important people in their lives. It will help them grow, learn and succeed in new ways.
We introduced sensory play a few years ago, and the benefits I have seen for my own kids have been amazing. It absolutely helps build language because they can’t help but describe what they’re feeling. When they get talking about those sensations, it opens up the opportunity to build more social communication. Of course they’re always building on their fine motor skills, and my youngest is far more skilled in that way than her brothers ever were at age 4. Sensory play has absolutely contributed to her motor skill success. It also amazes me that my 10 year old son loves to participate whenever a new bin comes out. He has more of an attitude of being the cooler, older sibling, so when he can interact in an activity he would typically consider to be”too baby-ish” for him, it’s a huge win!
Do you use sensory play at home? If not, grab the guide above and get started! You won’t regret it. It doesn’t look like much, but I assure you that once you find the right things, your children will be so engaged with it!