From birth through to early childhood, children use their senses to explore and try to make sense of the world around them. They do this by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, moving and hearing.
Children and even adults learn best and retain the most information when they engage their senses. Many of our favorite memories are associated with one or more of our senses: for instance, the smell of a summer night campfire or a song you memorized the lyrics to with a childhood friend. Now, when your nostrils and eardrums are stimulated with those familiar smells and sounds respectively, your brain triggers a flashback memory to those special times.
Providing opportunities for children to actively use their senses as they explore their world through ‘sensory play’ is crucial to brain development – it helps to build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways.
This leads to a child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks and supports cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interaction and problem solving skills.
We often talk about the five senses. These are:
Taste – the stimulation that comes when our taste receptors react to chemicals in our mouth.
Touch – the stimulation that comes from touch receptors in our skin that react to pressure, heat/cold, or vibration.
Smell – the stimulation of chemical receptors in the upper airways (nose).
Sight – the stimulation of light receptors in our eyes, which our brains then interpret into visual images.
Hearing – the reception of sound, via mechanics in our inner ear.
However there are two others we commonly miss:
Body awareness (also known as proprioception) – the feedback our brains receive from stretch receptors in our muscles and pressure receptors in joints which enable us to gain a sense where our bodies are in space.
Balance – the stimulation of the vestibular system of the inner ear to tell us our body position in relation to gravity.
So, what is sensory play?
Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates your young child’s senses: touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing.
Sensory activities facilitate exploration and naturally encourage children to use scientific processes while they play, create, investigate and explore. The sensory activities allow children to refine their thresholds for different sensory information helping their brain to create stronger connections to process and respond to sensory information.
For example, initially a child may find it difficult to play appropriately with a peer when there are other things going on in the environment with conflicting noise. However, through sensory play exploring sounds and tasks a child learns to adapt to being able to block out the noise which is not important and focus on the play which is occurring with their peer.
Another example is a child who is particularly fussy with eating foods with a wet texture such as spaghetti, the use of sensory play can assist the child in touching, smelling and playing with the texture in an environment with little expectation.
As the child develops trust and understanding of this texture it helps build positive pathways in the brain to say it is safe to engage with this food. Sensory play literally helps shape what children to believe to be positive and safe in the brain. Ultimately, shaping the choices children make and impacting behavior.
Here are 5 reasons why sensory play is beneficial:
- Research shows that sensory play builds nerve connections in the brain’s pathways, which lead to the child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks.
- Sensory play supports language development, cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, problem solving skills, and social interaction.
- This type of play aids in developing and enhancing memory
- Sensory play is great for calming an anxious or frustrated child
- This helps children learn sensory attributes (hot, cold, sticky, dry)