One of our classroom zones includes sensory play. But what exactly is sensory play, how it is helpful for learning and development, and how can you continue that learning outside the classroom?
As a parent, you want to provide your child with the best possible environment for learning and development. They learn as much or MORE at home as they do at school, so this blog will help outline ways to bring the benefits of sensory play into your home.
And don't worry - you don't have to set up a huge ordeal in order to get the benefits of sensory play.
What Is Sensory Play?
Sensory play is an activity that allows children to experience and explore their senses:
Sensory play can be done independently or with others, and can help children learn about their body, emotions, and surroundings. You've probably engaged in sensory play without knowing it!
Playing Peek-A-Boo with a baby is a sensory activity: Now they see you, now they don't. Singing or telling a story to your child explores their sense of hearing. Learning to whistle engages their sense of body awareness. Spinning around really fast until you fall down is a great (if disorienting) balance and body awareness activity.
Let's dive into more about sensory play's benefits and some tips for you to engage all the senses.
Why Provide Sensory Play Opportunities?
Providing sensory play opportunities can have a number of benefits for children's development.
One of the most important benefits of sensory experience and play is cognitive development including attention span, problem-solving, and emotional processing. Playing with the senses helps your child learn how to think and anticipate responses. They learn to process information through their senses and develop basic motor skills.
Playing with the senses helps children develop self-awareness and understand their emotions. When children are able to explore and understand their environment, they learn to trust their own instincts and intuition. This builds resilience - a key trait for successful childhood development!
Sensory play also promotes socialization. When children are able to share their experiences with others, they learn how to cooperate and share resources. Playing together is a great way to build friendships.
How to Create a Home Environment for Sensory Play
Make sure all the materials your child needs are close at hand. Sensory play is a great way to engage your child's senses, but it can be difficult if they have to go search for something specific. Make sure all the materials needed for the activity are within easy reach so your child can get started.
Safety is the number one priority with any activity. As we've written about before, risky play is a way for children to learn about natural consequences and practice self-regulation when they go fast, climb high, or experience different environmental conditions (like playing in the rain with no boots -- those soggy socks aren't so fun, and this helps them learn that boots are an important part of rainy days).
Knowing that pushing the limits of their sensory experiences can be helpful from this risky play standpoint, you still need to make sure that everyone knows the rules and stays safe.
Make sure all materials used in the activity are safe. Avoid sharp, hot, or other dangerous materials during your sensory play. If you want to practice with temperatures, make sure that your "hot" option is comfortably warm and not dangerously hot or boiling. (Sounds obvious, but reminders are always good!)
This could also mean using large items instead of smaller ones, if your child is at an age where they're putting things in their mouth!
Set clear rules about how the activity is to be conducted. For example, if you're exploring the sense of smell and letting your child smell different scented markers, candles, or other non-edible materials, a very clear "This is not for eating" rule needs to be communicated!
Make sure everyone in the activity is aware of the rules and follows them.
Check ingredients. If you're doing sensory activities with younger kids, look for non-toxic or taste-safe options. For instance, you can make a whipped cream similar to shaving cream by whipping up the juice from a can of chickpeas. That way if your toddler sneaks a taste, you don't have to worry. Thanks for this awesome food-safe tip from The Scott Cottage on Instagram!
Clay and dough-type products for children like Play Doh are typically non-toxic but still taste pretty terrible. So maybe those risky play consequences will come into play here!
Stay nearby for assistance. Your growing child will want to be independent as they continue their play, but we advise always keeping an eye on them in case of breaks, spills, or an unexpected response to the activity.
Tips for Getting Started with Sensory Play
Like we mentioned above, you don't necessarily need to pull out all the stops and provide the most Pinterest-worthy sensory play environment. Engaging the senses doesn't need to be complicated or over-produced. Here are some tips to get started.
Find out what your child likes and explores the most. This will help you find activities that interest them. Working with their natural likes and dislikes gives you an easy to follow guide! If they love touching different textures, you can let them touch different things around the house and explore that sense. If they love music, listen to a few genres and let them dance it out.
Start small with simple activities. Don't start with something that will require a lot of preparation or set up. This will make it easier for you as the parent and for your child to follow their natural interests with no pressure to do it "enough" to make it worth your time for all that setup!
Encourage your child to ask questions about what they're doing and why. This will help them learn more about their own body and mind.
You don't need to overstress about whether sensory play is doing enough for your child. The important part is to provide opportunities for your child to explore their senses and have fun. By following these tips, you can create a safe and encouraging environment for sensory play.