Overview: If you ask me, sensory play is one of the most important skills we need to expose our toddlers too at an early age and here’s why.

Welcome to the Learning Through Play Series where we are exploring everything you need to know about play. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series.

  1. The Importance of Play in Early Childhood: Why You Should Just Let Them Play
  2. The Importance of Sensory Play
  3. Play & Learn: Can You Really Do Them at the Same Time?
  4. 6 Stages of Play
  5. 7 Types of Play
  6. Imaginative Play: What You Need to Know
  7. All About Block Play

When I say sensory play, I bet you picture some sort of messy activity.

Maybe your child is playing in a bowl of cooked noodles or splattering finger paint everywhere except the paper.

Typically when we hear sensory play or sensory issues, we associate it with the sense of touch. Sensory play is so much more than touching things. It’s a word that has become more popular in early childhood the past few years, and with good reason.

What is Sensory Play?

I’m so glad you asked! Sensory play is simply exploring the world with our senses.

Think about it! Our senses are the only tools we are given to explore and learn about our world.

The way we learn depends on our strongest sense. Auditory learners depend on their hearing, and visual learners depend on their sight.

Related: How to Cater to Children’s Learning Styles

Children who are actively engaged with their senses are participating in sensory play. It doesn’t always have to be messy or expensive. Just grabbing a few household items will do! The best items for sensory play can be found in the kitchen!

Related: The Toddler Experience: A Hands-On Toddler Curriculum

What is Not Sensory Play?

Sensory play is not video games and TV. Yes, we use our sight and our hearing for those activities. I agree that we may even be actively engaged.

But are you learning about the world through discovery?

No, not really! Sensory play involves actively engaging the senses to discover and explore the world around us. The most beneficial sensory play engages multiple senses in one activity.sensory play

Why is Sensory Play Important?

Sensory play is the basis for everything you do as an adult. It’s a time to practice processing information, develop social and motor skills, and experience new things.

Sensory play stimulates curiosity, discovery, and ultimately learning. It’s crucial for brain development.

Sensory play helps develop the processing needed to send information to our brains that’s crucial for our health, safety, happiness, and independence.

Sensory play fosters creativity and problem solving skills.

It’s important to start sensory play at a very young age. As a matter of fact, day 1 isn’t a bad day to start!

Get that baby on his tummy. Place baby safe objects such as a baby mirror or stuffed animal in the babies sight. As the baby becomes able to reach and eventually mobile, put different objects with different textures and in different spaces away from the baby. Make noises so the baby has to find where the noise is coming from. These are all sensory play activities to help develop that brain at a young age.

What Happens When There is a Lack of Sensory Play?

It’s no doubt that sensory play is of utmost importance. A lack of sensory play leads to the brain not getting accurate information about it’s surroundings.

As a child gets older, we typically refer to this as a sensory processing disorder. A lack of sensory play may lead to a child with anxiety and poor coordination. It can also lead to difficulty learning and paying attention. It’s important to give the child ample practice in all the senses.sensory play

What are the Senses?

When we talk about sensory play we talk about 7 different sense.

Tactile play involves touch and is usually those messy activities we picture when we hear sensory play. Sand/water play, finger painting, and making mud pies are considered tactile.

Gustatory play involves taste. Typically a baby around 6 months old should be starting some type of food other than formula or breastmilk. As we introduce new foods the child is learning about what he likes and dislikes through taste. As the child gets a little older, finger painting with pudding is a wonderful sensory activity that involves multiple senses (taste and touch).

Visual play involves sight. Place objects at varying distances to help a baby practice focusing or using peripheral vision. As a child gets older we tend to rely heavily on visual learning. Anything we see is learning through out sense of sight. Many times parents and teachers rely too heavily on visual learning. We tend to forget that children learn best through hands on learning, and we cannot rely on visual learning alone.

Auditory play is listening. One of my favorite games to play with preschoolers is find the timer. I’ll set a timer for a minute and hide it while the kids are not looking. When the timer goes off, they have to use their listening skills to find it. Music is a child’s best friend. Children can learn basic skills and practice motor skills while listening to music.

Olfactory play is using our sense of smell. I love making smelly jars, especially around Christmas. I will put herbs, spices, or a candle inside a jar for the kids to smell. We play guessing games to figure out what that smell is. Cooking is another way to play with the sense of smell.

Vestibular play practices balancing. Nature based playing is a great way to develop balance. Letting kids climb on fallen trees not only develops motor skills, but also motor planning skills. Encourage your kids to climb in a safe environment to develop balance.

Related: Physical Development for Ages 1-4

The last type of sensory play is proprioceptive play which encourages children to coordinate movement and body position. Proprioceptive play involves pushing, pulling, and all those fun gross motor skills. There has been some amazing research lately on the benefits of yoga for children, which is a great example of proprioceptive play.

Get out there and have fun! Don’t be afraid of sensory play and remember to practice all those senses.