How does sensory play help your child develop?

From the moment they are born, children use their senses to explore and make sense of the world around them. They do this by seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and moving, and learn best and retain the most information when their senses are engaged. Offering your child opportunities to actively use their senses through sensory play is crucial to their development. But why is it so important?

What is the Role of Sensory Play?

Our brains are made up of trillions of brain cells called neurons, and the connections between them, called synapses. However, we aren’t born with this many - we have to develop them. When a child is born they have around 50 trillion synapses, but by the time they reach the age of three they have around 1000 trillion of them. Research has found that the synapses in our brains are developed by life experiences, a process known as experience dependent neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change neural pathways or synapses to rewire itself). Giving children the opportunity to engage in various sensory experiences is necessary for a growing brain to develop proper sensory processing capabilities.

Anyone who has spent time with a young child will know that infants are designed to explore the world through their senses. Babies and toddlers touch everything, put things in their mouths, make funny noises and spin round in circles until they’re so dizzy they fall over. Allowing your child to use all of their senses when attempting to accomplish a task or find out information will mean they learn more from the experience and retain what they have learned.

Sensory Play Should Engage Every Sense

When thinking about sensory play, most people picture children playing with sand, water or playdough: essentially, focussing on touch. However, children need to engage all of their senses to really benefit from sensory play. For example, the colours of a paint mixing experiment will engage the eyes, and the smell of vinegar or soap in a science experiment will engage the nose.

An activity like cooking can engage all of the senses at once. Different coloured food for the eyes, the various cooking smells, the sounds that the food makes whilst being cooked, the textures of the foods being used and finally the taste of the completed dish. Sensory play can happen at home as well as in a learning environment, so children should be encouraged to take part in activities that will bring all of their senses alive (with proper supervision by parents or carers).

Sensory Play Helps Develop Fine Motor Skills

Motor skills are a crucial part of a child’s development. Gross motor skills deal with the coordination of large muscle groups, for example in the arms and legs, and are responsible for activities like crawling, walking, running and jumping. Fine motor skills are those that require the ability to control and coordinate small muscle groups to achieve tasks such as doing up buttons, tying shoelaces and writing.

Sensory play enables children to develop their fine motor skills. Giving them activities that encourage movements such as pinching, pouring, transferring and lacing helps them to develop hand-eye coordination, which is not only important for their development but lays a foundation that will be helpful when they are older and learning skills such as playing sports, riding bicycles and driving vehicles. Being able to achieve tasks such as doing up a zip or pouring a cup of water builds confidence in your child and enables them to interact positively with their surroundings.

Sensory Play Develops Language Skills

Sensory play helps a child develop in ways that go beyond the limits of their five senses. By playing with and experiencing different tastes, textures, smells, sights and sounds, your child will build new ways of talking about the world. For example, water isn’t just wet: it can be hot or cold, bubbly and slippery, or hard when frozen. A stone can be rough or smooth, a regular shape like an oval or a square, and heavy like limestone or light like pumice.

Tastes are particularly useful in developing a child’s vocabulary. Asking them to taste and describe food can bring nuance to their language base, for example by introducing them to concepts such as sweet, salty, bland, bitter and sharp. Language development supports your child’s ability to communicate, express their feelings and understand the feelings of others. It also supports problem solving and lays the groundwork for your child’s success in later life, both as a social being and in pursuing their education.

Sensory Play Helps Regulate Emotions and Behaviour

Some forms of sensory play can help a child regulate their emotions and become calm. This might look like a vigorous session of bouncing on cushions or a trampoline, which helps to regulate internal discomfort such as boredom or agitation. Or it could be an activity that combines a scent that combines a smell that children find soothing, for example lavender scented playdough or rosemary scented bean bags.

Play that involves white noise sounds that mimic the womb can also be calming. This might include gentle water activities or playing with a rain stick. Making and using sensory bottles filled with water and glitter also promotes calm and contentment in children. Children who are able to self-soothe and regulate their emotions helps them to make and keep friends, and affects their long term mental health, academic performance and ability to thrive in an increasingly complex world.

Conclusion

By encouraging your child to participate in sensory play you are helping them to develop skills that will assist them throughout the rest of their life. Sensory play builds neurons and synapses in the brain, developing their intellectual, emotional and creative capabilities. It helps them develop their fine motor skills and builds their vocabulary, which enables them to confidently interact with the world and their peers. Sensory play also plays an important role in calming your child and helping them increase their skills in self-soothing and emotional regulation, which will enable them to thrive as they grow into adulthood.

How does sensory play help your child develop?