Sensory Play is Sense-sational

Baby playing with turquoise rice to stimulate senses

Trying to entertain young children during COVID-19 while also supporting them developmentally can be a challenge. A great way to keep little ones occupied and learning is through sensory play, which engages the senses and gives them a deeper understanding of the world around them. It doesn’t need to be a big deal – activities need to facilitate exploration of the senses as they play.

Young children learn best by experiencing the world with their senses. They need to see, feel, hear, smell and sometimes even taste things to understand them fully. Not only is sensory play fun, but it’s also a challenging learning activity. The more senses called upon, the more completely the lesson is learned. By offering sensory materials, you’re providing a quality learning opportunity.

Irresistible to children, they love getting their hands into sensory materials. When children use their senses to explore materials, critical skills are developed. To name a few:

  • Increased communication skills
  • Cognitive skills skills
  • Fine and gross motor skills.
  • More mature reasoning skills and problem-solving as well as stronger small muscles.
  • All skills needed for kindergarten readiness.

Recent studies show sensory experiences build nerve connections in the brain pathways, stimulating brain development. These experiences are essentially food for the brain that gets processed and organized for more complex learning tasks. Also, the lack of sensory activities in today’s children’s play has been linked to learning problems.

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Here are simple activities that will introduce your child to sensory play and give them a head start on learning.

Teach awareness of how objects can be distinguished by feel.

Start by sewing scraps of brightly colored, different textured fabrics together to make a sensory play quilt. Or make a texture board by gluing materials to cardboard. Fabrics to include are satin, burlap, felt, cotton, velour, terry cloth and fake fur. Place where the child can reach it. Or provide hand over hand assistance. Describe the textures and colors by naming each aloud as the child feels them. For example, “Oh, this red satin is so soft!” Studies have found that sensory stimulation significantly impacts the brain’s ability to function while providing enjoyment and enriching learning. Being responsive and enthusiastic towards your child’s exploration can lead to high IQ scores.

Teach basic concepts such as warm, cool, wet, full and empty.

One of the easiest and most soothing sensory activities is to introduce your child to water play. The water table, bath, or bowl can be an ever-changing source of sensory experience. Provide water toys or use everyday items from the kitchen. Measuring cups, funnels, ladles and spoons, jugs, eyedroppers and squirt bottles can be used. Describe what the child is doing: “I see you filled the measuring cup to the top; can you empty it?” Make it more interesting by adding blue food coloring. You could say, “Why don’t we add some blue food coloring and watch what happens.”

Or provide a bowl of warm water and a bowl of cold water to compare side by side. Ask the child to show you which is cold and which is warm. Active learners – toddlers – vigorously enjoy pouring, filling, mixing, and emptying. This scooping, pouring, mixing and measuring boosts hand-eye coordination, increases vocabulary, and strengthens thinking abilities needed for more complex learning activities. By listening and following your directions, your child develops a critical skill needed to become a successful student.

Integrate concepts of shape, color, size, and spatial relationships.

Introduce your child to the delightful sensory activity of finger-painting. Set out red, yellow, and blue for your child. Provide a smock – or an adult-sized shirt will do. Forget the mess and allow them to be creative. Then, make the activity more interesting by encouraging your child to experiment. Prompt them to see what happens when they mix the colors red and yellow. As your child discovers through cause and effect, introduce new words by saying “orange” aloud (auditory), so the child hears the color, feels (tactile) the color and sees the vibrant color orange (visual).

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Support your child’s exploration.

Ask them to tell you about their picture or ask relevant questions that boost memory. For instance: “Can you tell me about how you made the color orange in the upper right corner of the paper?” Or ask your child how the paint feels in their hands. Preschoolers are born explorers, and the senses are their investigative tools. Feeling, seeing, hearing – the more ways children experience color and texture, the quicker they understand them. As they experiment with color, children love the feeling of the cool, wet paint between their fingers. While the child covers the paper with paint, they are also learning about spatial relationships. Also, as they paint, children gain control of their hand muscles, which is key to writing letters and numbers. Through this exploration, they are mastering skills needed for academics just around the corner.

Use your imagination when choosing sensory activities for young children.

As they explore the materials, youngsters will delight in their learning, develop sensory awareness, and may even feel calmer and less anxious or frustrated. Try to allow your child to play as long as they wish and try not to get too worried about messiness. Ask questions like, “How does it feel?” “What does it look like?” and “What sounds does it make?” Some other great sensory materials include beans, rice, sand, shaving cream, dry or cooked pasta, flour, sugar or cornmeal. ENJOY!

child with paint on hands
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Dawn Marie Barhyte is a widely published author with over a hundred articles to her credit. A former early childhood educator and co-director who continues to touch the lives of families through her writing! She lives and works in the beautiful Hudson Valley, NY with her beloved husband and rescue chihuahua dachshund.

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