If you are a parent or caregiver looking for activities for young children, you’ve probably noticed that “sensory play” is all the rage on kid blogs and Pinterest. There are even entire websites devoted to sensory play for little ones, and while they are full of creative ideas, you may find yourself asking, “Does my child REALLY need sensory play for development?”
To answer this question, let’s look at what we know about sensory play.
WHAT IS SENSORY PLAY?
Sensory play is simply play that encourages children to use one or more of the senses. Often called “messy play,” sensory play experiences focus on stimulating children’s senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, balance, and movement.
Research tells us…
- Young children rely on sensory input to learn about their environment.
- Sensory play helps build neural connections that support thought, learning, and creativity.
- Sensory play supports language development, cognitive growth, fine/gross motor skills, problem solving/reasoning, and social interaction.
- Children’s exposure to sensory play opportunities is declining.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO US?
The first three points on the list above are pretty self-explanatory. In a nutshell, sensory experiences are like food for the brain…they provide valuable input that allows the brain to build new pathways that in turn support growth in crucial areas of development.
The fourth point, however, is what sheds some light on the answer to our original question, “Is all this REALLY necessary?” You may be thinking, “My parents didn’t do sensory play with me, and I turned out ok!” The fact is, our little ones spend much less time outdoors than their parents and certainly grandparents did as children. Since the outdoors is naturally full of sensory play opportunities, this has definitely had a part in the decline of sensory play. Secondly, although children can definitely fulfill their need for sensory play indoors when given periods of unstructured playtime with stimulating materials, the truth is that indoor time is often monopolized by television, battery operated toys, or toddler/preschool programs that focus on drilling academics rather than fostering important play skills. This has resulted in a generation of children who may not even know how to play when given the opportunity…how sad is that?
So in short, the answer to your question is yes, sensory play is crucial for your child’s development. And since children today are no longer given ample opportunities for naturally occurring sensory play, it is up to us as parents to be sure their needs are met.
Before you rush out and buy the materials to recreate every zany sensory activity you ever pinned on Pinterest, here are some much less time-intensive activities that you can do to enrich your child’s “sensory diet” without losing your sanity as well.
- Play with sand, mud, water, shaving cream, cornmeal, water beads, dried or cooked pasta, dried beans or lentils, etc. Provide a variety of containers, kitchen tools, and small toys for your child to explore with.
- Sing and dance to music. Use child-sized instruments, scarves, ribbon wands, etc. to encourage participation and engage multiple senses.
- Build with blocks, empty cardboard boxes, or canned goods. Knock down your towers and talk about the loud noises.
- Add essential oils or extracts to play dough and compare all the different scents as you play.
- Pick out a variety of fruits and vegetables at your local market (try to choose some that are new to your child). Have a “sensory picnic” where you encourage your child to touch, smell, taste, and play with all the different produce.
- Go for a walk in your neighborhood or in a wooded park. Let your child stop and pick up leaves, sticks, rocks, or whatever else interests him/her. If you want, bring a bag to fill with your “treasures” to bring home and make a collage with, or just simply to show to another family member.
MORE GREAT STUFF JUST FOR YOU:
To learn how to use fun sensory play activities to help get your toddler talking, check out Building Language with Sensory Play. (Link to- http://www.two-daloo.com/sensory-play-and-language/)
For an entire gallery of sensory play ideas, click HERE. (Link to- http://www.two-daloo.com/category/play/sensory-play-little-minds-tot-school/)
—Stephanie Haass, Little Pnuts Early Childhood Activities Expert & Blogger, founder of www.two-daloo.com