Each of us is born with the natural inclination to explore and master our environment. This innate drive comes from the most primitive parts of our brain and begins to develop when we are still in our mother’s womb. Because of this, sensory play is integral to the development of gross and fine motor skills, cognitive skills, and social skills.
As infants, this motivation is the foundation of movement and development. Babies naturally track objects across the room with their eyes, turn their heads toward their mother’s voice and become enamored with objects that make noise. Within a few months they start rolling and reaching and eventually crawling – and getting into absolutely EVERYTHING!
As your child develops through infancy, toddler hood and early childhood – it is vital that they are provided with sensory play opportunities.
But what exactly is sensory play?
Simply put, sensory play is play that involves a child using some or all of their senses (taste, touch, smell, sound, sight). This type of play uses a variety of media including colors, textures, tastes, environments (outside vs inside, home vs school) and movement.
There are infinite ways to engage your child in sensory play. Activities such as banging with pots and pans, or finding objects in a container full of rice, or seeing if an object floats or sinks in a water table are all wonderful examples of sensory play.
Let’s talk about how sensory play benefits your child’s development:
1. Cognitive Development
You child has a natural penance for learning and retaining knowledge and an internal drive to do so. Think about the incredible amount of development that occurs within the first 12 months of life – your child goes from being completely dependent on you for everything, to eventually walking and talking on their own.
That’s some RAPID brain development, and it is AMAZING!
As a child engages in play that stimulates their senses, their brain is getting a ton of information. You naturally provided your child with important sensory information without even realizing it. When you rocked and swaddled your child, sang to them, gave them a bath, or put them in a swing you stimulated several of your child’s senses and furthered their development. Well done, mama!
As your child grew, they began seeking sensory input on their own. They banged items together to elicit noise or seemed fascinated by the ceiling fan. They began bouncing up and down to music and squealing with glee when their favorite song came on ( Hello Baby Shark).
All the while, their brains were making connections. By banging toys together they discovered cause and effect relationships. By watching the fan spin ’round and ’round they began to understand movement. Each sensory play experience continues to be an opportunity to learn.
2. Sensory Play as a Medium for Learning
Sensory play is at it’s core, fun. By incorporating multi sensory play into a lesson it will facilitate a deeper understanding of what is being taught, as the child is naturally engaged in the activity.
One of the most wonderful aspects of sensory play is that you can infuse themes into whatever your child is doing. For example, if you are teaching your child about nature collecting items from outside, such as twigs, pine cones, leaves and rocks and creating a sensory bin would be a great and fun way to introduce this topic.
Your child can describe how each item feels and smells. You can ask them how the objects are the same and different. You can work on their visual motor skills by asking for a certain item, such as a yellow leaf, and having them find it.
Think of all the wonderful things you could include in a sensory bin with a theme! I know I’m a mama who likes a good theme! Other themes could be: the zoo, farm animals, under the sea, space – the possibilities go to infinity and beyond!
3. Fine Motor Development
Fine motor skills develop when your child uses the tiny muscles in their hands and fingers to manipulate, grasp, release, squeeze, pinch etc.
Sensory play is a fantastic way to strengthen all those little muscles to prepare your child for handwriting, cutting, and using utensils. You can use play dough, make your own slime, putty, shaving cream….the list goes on and on, my friend. If you really want to challenge your child, and they are old enough to not place small items in their mouth, you can hide beads inside of the play dough and have them find them and pull them out.
4. Decrease Food Aversions
This one is for all those mamas out there with picky eaters. You are my people. My daughter is extremely picky and the list of foods that she will eat consists of approximately 12 items. She recently began Feeding Therapy and the consistent theme during every session is sensory play – the messier the better. Keep the wipes and paper towels within reach.
In order for a child to try new foods or to even tolerate different foods, they must first be able to touch the food. Incorporating play into mealtimes takes the pressure off of the child to have to eat. By allowing them to play with their food and be creative, they are familiarizing themselves with different textures, colors, and types of food. We have painted with food, built with food (pretzel sticks are great for making log cabins) and fed puppets.
By making mealtimes fun, I have noticed a big difference, not only in my daughter, but all of us as a family unit. There is less stress associated with meal times and she is more willing to come to the table when she knows that there is the possibility of fun. I am confident we will continue to add foods to her list, as feeding therapy is a marathon not a sprint and sensory play is an avenue to decreasing her texture aversion.
5. Social Skill Development
Because all children are naturally drawn to sensory play experiences, it is a great opportunity to work on social skills. As children gather around a water table or play in a sensory bin together, they are sharing, taking turns, resolving conflict, and problem solving. They are creating pretend scenarios and asking questions. The best part is, this is all occurring naturally.
There are so many ways to incorporate sensory play opportunities into your child’s day. What are your favorite sensory play activities?
Tanya Peterson is an experienced Pediatric Occupational Therapist with a background in neuro rehabilitation. She received her Bachelor’s of Science in Health Studies from Utica College in 2008 and continued on to receive her Masters of Science in Occupational Therapy in 2010. She currently teaches a Developmental Pediatrics course in an OTA program at Bryant & Stratton College. She is also the owner of Transformational Occupational Therapy and content developer for www.transformativeOT.com
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