When adults think about teaching young kids, they often imagine flashcards with letters and numbers, memorizing the alphabet, and reading stories about everyday activities. While reading, singing, and interacting with learning materials can be a valuable way of getting to know the world, nothing beats sensory play for young children.
While sensory play has been around since the beginning of time and often occurs naturally for young children, many parents voice confusion about what exactly sensory play is and how it can benefit their child.
What is sensory play?
Sensory play is a type of play that activates and stimulates a child’s senses. Often, sensory play focuses on stimulating touch, sight, and hearing as those senses are most accessible.
When children are very young, they interact with the world primarily through the five senses (touching, tasting, hearing, seeing, and smelling). Of course, as your active toddler will help you see, they also engage in the world through movement and balance.
These senses are how they learn about the world around them and make sense of the many new things they’re experiencing each day. As children grow, they begin to play and, through play, learn more about the world around them.
What are the benefits of sensory play?
The first 3 years of life are a time of rapid growth and development for a child. As children grow from infants to toddlers to preschoolers, they are able to take in vast amounts of information and turn it into working knowledge about the world.
Sensory play offers children a unique opportunity to engage with the world in a way that helps them grow and develop. This kind of active play helps to create connections in the brain that allow for increasingly complex thoughts and tasks.
Play also supports language development, cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, and fosters social interaction and peer engagement. Sensory play, known for helping children develop mindfulness skills, can also be excellent for helping to calm a child who may be feeling anxious or angry.
Sensory play builds observational skills and abstract thinking and encourages experimentation. So now that you know all the benefits, you probably want to get started. But where?
SENSORY PLAY IDEAS AND ACTIVITIES
Create a sensory bin
It’s simple for children to enjoy sensory play when you create a sensory bin for them to explore. To create a sensory bin, simply fill a small tub or container with objects from nature such as leaves, rocks, and sand that have different textures for your little one to explore. Or use foods, like pasta, rice, or beans, along with spoons, scoops, and small toys to bury and discover. Remember, little ones often explore with their mouths in addition to their hands so be sure to clean all items, avoid choking hazards, and supervise play.
Playing with food
Yes, it gets messy, but allowing your little one to play with food — squishing, smearing, and tasting as they go — gives them a sensory experience that helps them learn. If you’re concerned about encouraging food play, you can always work to distinguish playtime and mealtime as different times. And as they get older you can talk about table manners. But when they’re young, food can be a great, safe way to explore texture, taste, and smell through experimentation and play. Twisting noodles, smearing yogurt, smashing beans — all of these activities can be satisfying to curious little hands and tasty on top of that!
To create a sound tube for your little one and help them connect with the auditory world around them, you’ll only need a few simple supplies. First, save a few empty paper towel rolls. Next, collect a variety of different materials to go inside each tube-like uncooked rice, dried beans, or beads. Finally, fill each tube with a different material and safely secure the ends of the tubes (duct tape can work for this). Your little one will delight in hearing the different noises these similar looking toys will make!
Recipes abound for making your own dough using household supplies and even adding colors and scents. If you’re not interested in making your own sensory dough, consider heading to your local big box store and picking up some premade dough. Play dough’s soft and squishy texture ensures that your child will enjoy hours of rolling, slicing, and chopping as they play.
You can always head to the local park for some balance beam play, but you can work on the same skills at home with some painter’s or masking tape. Simply tape lines onto the floor and challenge your kiddo to walk the line.
When the world feels out of control to a little one, it’s normal and natural for them to become overwhelmed and to act out their big feelings. If you’re looking for a way to help calm down your little one when those big feelings hit a calming bottle can help. To create a calming bottle, you’ll just need an old water bottle, water, clear glue, some food dye, and some glitter. To create, simply fill the bottle with water mixed with the clear glue and then add a few drops of food dye and a few shakes of glitter before gluing the lid shut. When your babe is feeling angry or out-of-sorts they can shake the bottle and then take deep breaths as they watch the glitter resettle at the bottom.
If you’re itching to get outside or want your tot to feel the sun on their face as they play, consider investing in a sandbox and a few good sand toys to help them get a feel for the world. You don’t need anything special to make a sandbox or sand table especially fun for little ones. Often, simple objects like shovels and cups are enough to spark their imagination and get them playing!
Swing, swing, swing
Swings are a favorite playground staple but consider challenging your kiddo to use them in new ways. Encourage them to try swinging on their tummy, Superman-style. Instead of pushing from behind, gently pull their feet and then release. Twist the swing in one direction and then allow it to spin back in the other direction. Can’t make it to the park or outside? Use a blanket to create a hammock that you and another adult can gently swing back and forth.
Plant a garden
This is a fun activity you can do together that involves an ongoing sensory benefit. You don’t have to go big — you can even plant small seeds into the cups of an egg carton. Digging in the dirt, sorting seeds, watering, and smelling the flowers or herbs you, plant will all stimulate the senses.
Taste test challenge
As your little one grows, the type of activities they’re able to engage with expands. Once a child is preschool aged they’re likely ready for a taste test activity. To create a taste test, ask your child to close their eyes or blindfold them and offer them different fruits that they enjoy. As they taste each fruit, have them do their best to guess what they’re tasting!
While cooking and baking anything is a great way to help kids learn and grow, baking bread offers unique sensory activities as little ones get the chance to knead the bread before it bakes. Even though it’s often slower than doing it on your own, do your best to let your child measure, pour, and stir the ingredients as you bake together!
Homemade musical instruments
Another activity preschool-age children tend to enjoy is creating their own musical instruments. Children can (with a little assistance) create a band’s worth of instruments with items that are often found around the house. Consider making maracas with dried beans, a paper cup, and some wax paper or a guitar from an empty tissue box and some rubber bands.
Jumping is a great way to release energy and also stimulate your little one’s sense of movement. There are many great ways to incorporate jumping movements — jump ropes, small exercise trampolines, sitting on an exercise ball. Try setting up an obstacle course that challenges your little one to climb and jump over small objects on their way. You can do this outside with sidewalk chalk and small rocks or toys or take the party inside using blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals as obstacles and paths.
If you love the idea of cooking with your child but would prefer to keep the mess outdoors, consider letting them set up a mud kitchen and create recipes from whatever they can find in nature. Offer them a few pots and pans, some water and a mixing spoon and you’ll be surprised at how long they can happily bake mud cakes!
Painting through plastic
Another mess-free way to help kids get a sense of colors and to feel some squish between their fingers is to allow them to paint through plastic. To create a mess-free painting, simply slip a piece of paper with a few blobs of paint on it into a gallon Ziploc bag and seal it up. After your little one has spent some time squishing the paint together through the plastic wall of the bag, you’ll have both a masterpiece to hang up and a tired toddler to show for it.
Teaching a child about hot and cold can be a tough lesson but, with a little bit of ice and some miniature toys your babe will have a blast exploring these sensations on their own. To create a frozen toy activity simply freeze some miniature toys (like action figures) into ice and then let your baby manipulate the ice with their hands until the objects are free. You can also provide kid-friendly tools to chip the ice and warmer water to melt the ice. This activity can get a little drippy so it’s probably best to set it up outside on a hot day, perhaps when you’re already planning to break out the baby pool.
Your older preschooler is likely full of questions. This time let them be the one to find the answers with a guessing game. Keep an object out of sight but use it to make a sound — crinkling paper, pushing buttons on a toy, bouncing a ball — and ask your child to guess the object making the noise. Or use the sense of smell in the same way — encouraging them to guess strong but familiar scents like fruit, onions, coffee, or flowers.
Puff ball sorting
Puff balls are loads of fun for any child who is old enough not to put them in their mouth. These soft, squishy balls are also a great sensory teaching tool that can help kids learn about size and color. To create a sorting activity with puff balls, simply pour a bag of them into one container and provide several smaller containers for sorting. Preschool aged kids often enjoy sorting by color and size. To increase the challenge, have them use tongs or plastic tweezers to pick up the puffballs one by one when sorting.
Beading offers kids the chance to run their fingers through a collection of funny feeling beads as well as the opportunity to make choices about colors, textures, and patterns as they bead. While older kids will be able to bead with regular string and beads, younger kids will be better able to engage with this activity using stiff pipe cleaners that won’t allow the beads to slip off as they work.
As long as your tot doesn’t mind getting wet, water play will allow them to engage in sensory play with their whole bodies. If you have a baby pool, fill it up and provide a few cups, balls, and other household items for them to explore in the water. If you don’t have a baby pool you can simply fill up a few tubs or pots with water and let them pour and splash to their heart’s content!
Sensory play activities don’t have to be complicated to be fun and, often, they only require a few items that you probably already have around the house. While it can get messy from time to time, helping your child engage with their senses will give them the chance to learn and grow as they interact with the world around them!