You can probably name all the main senses: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. But do you know why they’re so vital and why they’re even more important for children as they grow?
Sensory play focuses on activities that engage your child’s senses, helping them develop language skills and motor skills. It also helps with cognitive growth, fosters social interactions and encourages experimentation.
Sensory play can also address two sensory systems that are often overlooked: our proprioceptive and vestibular systems.
Our proprioception sense refers to awareness of one’s body. It helps us know where body parts are relative to one another and tells us how much force we need to exert when holding, pushing, pulling or lifting objects.
Our vestibular sense, also known as our movement or balance sense, allows us to maintain balance while engaging in activities.
Examples of sensory play include riding a bike, playing with slime or even just listening to music.
Recreational therapist Leah Young, CTRS, and occupational therapist Suzanne Messer, MS, OTR/L, share why sensory play is so important and what sensory activities you can easily do at home.
Benefits of sensory play
Sensory play plays an important role in your child’s development from birth to early childhood. It helps build nerve connections in their brain’s pathways, which can help your child complete complex tasks.
“When your child engages in sensory play, they’re helping their brain develop and learn from certain aspects of their environment,” says Messer.
Here’s how sensory play can benefit and help your child.
Helps with language skills
Your child’s language skills develop naturally through sensory play.
“When a child participates in any sort of play, sensory included, they’re learning through experiences in their environments and learning different ways to communicate emotions, wants and needs,” explains Messer.
By engaging the senses, your child will learn how to describe what they’re doing and how it feels, eventually using more descriptive words to communicate.
Helps with fine motor skills
Sensory play can help your child develop fine motor skills like tying their shoe, writing and zipping their coat. Through tactile play that focuses on building, pouring and mixing, your child builds on their ability to use small muscle groups and coordinate movements.
“Tactile play is a great way to address and home in on using a child’s fine motor skills in a fun way,” says Young. “Allowing your child to freely explore small sensory contents like dried pasta, dry cereal, rice or even slime or play dough can strengthen and build their fine motor skills.”
Helps with gross motor skills
Gross motor skills include sitting, crawling, jumping and running — activities that use your child’s body’s large muscles in their arms, legs and core (stomach area).
Whether your child is just learning to walk or has been trying to throw a ball, the key is to allow them plenty of time to practice those skills freely.
Helps with cognitive growth
Asking questions, thinking about how things work, doing experiments and analyzing results are all part of healthy cognitive growth. It’s how we learn something new and figure things out. It’s also how we problem solve.
“With sensory play, your child is working on problem-solving skills,” says Messer. “It encourages them to explore how to play and engage with different experiences as well as how to maneuver challenges they encounter, things like how to get rice from one container to another or how to stay balanced on a swing.”
Has a calming effect
Your sensory system can help you calm down. This is particularly important for children as they develop.
“Sensory play can be used to help regulate your overall arousal level,” says Messer. “You can use it to stimulate a child who might be a little sluggish. On the other end, sensory play can help a child who might have hyperactivity or trouble paying attention.”
The pressure from hugs, weighted lap pads and sensory seats can help soothe and signal that it’s time to stay in place.
Fosters social interaction
By engaging in sensory play with siblings or peers, your child begins developing social skills. They’ll learn how to communicate, how to troubleshoot problems and learn to adapt to how others play.
“Whether you’re at the park on the swings or playing with building blocks, sensory play is something that everyone can engage in,” notes Messer. “It’s very inclusive.”
Sensory play ideas and activities
Young and Messer say it’s easy to find activities that stimulate your child’s senses. Here are a few ideas.
Use a plastic tub or large container and fill it with different objects like sand or shredded paper.
Other ideas include:
- Craft pom-poms.
- Cotton balls.
- Easter grass.
- Packing peanuts.
Young likes creating sensory bins using dried rice, pasta or beans. You can even add tools like small toy shovels or buckets. Depending on your child’s age, small toys or figurines can encourage imaginative play as well. Just make sure you’re using items that aren’t choking hazards and providing supervision when using smaller items like these.
“Let your child explore and get used to the potential unfamiliar textures,” suggests Young. “There is no need to direct the play. Take a step back and let your child freely explore and experiment.”
Sure, it might be a little messy, but finger painting is a great activity for infants and toddlers. If you’re doing so with an infant, help paint their hands and feet with a soft brush and then make prints on a piece of paper. If you’re feeling creative, turn their prints into artwork for a cute keepsake. For toddlers, it can be a relaxing activity and help them express their feelings.
To get started, set up an area with paper and finger paints. You can do this outside on a nice day to decrease the mess inside the house or lay down an old blanket or sheet for the child to work on. Then, allow your child to dip, mix and swirl as they’d like.
“It helps children get used to that sensory experience and what the texture of paint feels like,” says Young.
Using playdough or slime works just as well.
Playing with food
The next time you want to tell your child to stop playing with their food, think again. Playing with noodles or dry cereal can help develop their senses in a variety of ways.
“By the time they’re four to six months old, your child is ready to learn about food,” says Messer. “Whether that’s touching food or even just watching family members eat.”
So, let them taste, squish and smear as they learn about texture, taste and smell.
As the weather warms up, make sure your kids head into the yard for some play time. This is particularly great for toddlers. Think about playing in the sandbox, just running around or even rolling in the grass — these are all forms of sensory play.
Older kids can benefit from playing hopscotch, using the swing set or riding a bike.
“Anything that gets them jumping, crawling, rolling or pushing is great,” says Messer.
Filling up the tub for bath time has more benefits than just getting your kiddo clean. Everything from the bubbles, toys and splashing can be a sensory experience.
“It can be as simple as adding different smelling bubbles to the water,” says Messer.
Listening to music
Even the simple act of listening to music can pay off in terms of your child’s development. It can help with vocabulary, lift their mood and even help build coordination.
Beyond just listening to songs, you can have your kids use household items to use as homemade musical instruments — think wooden spoons and pots.
There’s no set amount of time your child should engage in sensory play. But know that a lot of sensory play is happening in their daily lives and activities. Here are a few tips on how to get the most out of play time.
- Look for ways to add more senses. Even something as small as having your child sit on a pillow while playing with their blocks can engage their balance system. “As a parent or caregiver, think about ways to really amplify sensory experiences,” says Messer.
- Don’t overthink it. You don’t have to buy special items or equipment. There are plenty of activities you can already do. “So many of these things are already in your house,” notes Young.
- But be creative. Try to mix up their experiences by giving them a new food or trying a new activity — basically, try to keep things interesting and engaging for your kids. “For example, try to make bath time a little different,” Messer suggests. “Whether that’s using a different washcloth to show them a different texture or showing your infant what splashing feels like.”
“Sensory play is a way for your kids to become more flexible and adaptable in other areas of their life,” says Messer. “By engaging their senses and developing these skills, the world becomes much less scary because they have developed the right tools to handle whatever comes their way.”