When it comes to teaching young children new things, play is one of the single best strategies an adult can use. In fact, scientists have recently determined that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain – unless it is done with play, in which case, it takes between 10-20 repetitions. But what exactly is sensory play?
Sensory play is play that uses our senses. Sensory play gives children the opportunity to explore their senses through play. This might include different textures by touching them in various ways which in turn stimulates their brain to learn more effectively.
The benefits of this type of sensory play are wide-ranging from better communication skills to improved motor function and problem-solving abilities. This article will cover the basics of sensory play as well as help you identify some fun activities that will promote creativity while having fun!
What are our sense?
Sensory play is play using our senses. Let’s have a quick overview of our five senses.
- Visual – sight 👀
- Auditory – sound 👂
- Tactile – touch ✋
- Olfactory – smell 👃
- Gustatory – taste 👅
But apart from these five senses, we have 2 additional senses.
- Proprioception. This is a fancy word for body awareness. It’s the ability to know where your body is through our joints and muscles. 💪
- Vestibular. This is spatial awareness. It’s the ability to know where your body is in space. 🤸
Benefits of Sensory Play
Why Is Sensory Play Important To sensory development?
Sensory play is important for child development & sensory development because it is the most natural, quickest, and easiest way for kids to experience sensory exploration. Children start to develop their senses and sensory processing skills even before they are born! Sensory processing is the body’s nervous system’s ability to manage the sensory information – controlling what sensory input it receives, how the body processes the information and responds to the input.
As a child grows, they are exploring and developing their sensory system. For example, when a carer holds an infant, the infant receives tactile and proprioceptive feedback. They learn the feeling on their skin and slowly develop their body awareness. When a parent picks up a crying infant, the infant receives a tight hug (proprioceptive feedback) and cooing (auditory feedback) which helps them settle.
Similarly, the infant develops their vestibular input when their parents pick them up from a lying position and orientate them into an upright position. Through all stages of a child’s development, sensory play is the best way to develop their senses.
A child continues to develop their senses throughout their years. They develop the ability to touch a variety of textures – from soft flurry animals to rough concrete floors. They also continue to develop their taste in trialing different types of food. But the best, quickest and most natural way children explore their senses are through sensory play.
However, the activities children engage in nowadays are very different from those activities children engaged in 10 years ago. For example, climbing up trees, swinging on monkey bars, running around in the park, chalk writing on the walkways etc. Like with any other skill, practice is needed. Not enough practice with these sensory activities means that skill is not as developed. Using some sensory play ideas can hugely benefit child development.
Sensory Play And Classroom Learning
In classrooms, children are often seen slouching and struggling to sit up straight. Sometimes they start to change the way they sit or start leaning on other children, or start rolling on the floor. As Occupational Therapists, we get called into the classroom to see how we can better manage the child’s ‘behavior’ or ‘attention to learn’.
But when I see this, my first thought is that this child has undeveloped proprioception skills, often the case if there has been a lack of sensory play. They haven’t had enough practice opportunities to know where their body is. That is why, it is hard for him to cross his legs and have his back nice and straight – because his body is not giving him enough feedback about where his body is.
During typical development, we learn to receive, process, and respond to sound. When we enter a new environment, we learn and process the sounds around us – which ones are safe and which ones are not. We learn that the continuous humming from the air conditioning machine is safe and it becomes background noise.
When we hear a loud bang from someone slamming the door, we might initially jump at the sound and look towards the door but then realize that it is safe again. Children with underdeveloped auditory skills may hear all the sounds (or none of the sounds), not know where the sound is coming from, or not be able to determine whether the sound is safe or not – therefore always seeming to be alert or distracted.
How to Encourage Sensory development?
Giving our children sensory opportunities throughout the day, particularly through play, can help with their sensory development. These can be through sensory play activities or incidental movement activities that are incorporated into daily life such as smelling and taking new foods (olfactory and gustatory) or helping mum kneading dough for dinner (tactile).
30 Sensory Play Activities
The following sensory play activities & sensory play ideas are games and sensory activities that occupational therapists use & recommend to parents all the time. They are fantastic fun sensory play ideas that often work on multiple senses at once.
Sensory bins are an unbelievable useful sensory activity to have pre-made and ready to go. Sensory bins are buckets or tubs filled with dry rice, pasta, or sand that you can hide Hide small animals or objects in for your child to find.
When it comes to sensory activities & sensory play, having sensory activities set up and ready to go really helps, that’s why a sensory bin is a must for so many families! My sensory bin recommendation is always to have a couple of different plastic containers in the garage set up with different textures, so you’d have a rice sensory bin, pasta sensory bin, and a sand sensory bin.
Play on a swing
Swinging is an excellent way to improve sensory processing. The gentle rocking motion can be very calming for young kids. This helps them develop their vestibular sense, making it a fantastic method of sensory play.
Play in the rain
Getting out in the rain is an excellent way to improve sensory processing. The sound, smell, and feel of the water on your skin can be very calming for young kids. This helps them develop their tactile sense.
A wet blanket or sheet over a trampoline makes for great sensory play while you are jumping.
Sensory Play in the bathtub
Bath time is a fantastic time for sensory play! Things that move through water are excellent at stimulating tactile senses. Some ideas to make it even more interesting include adding corn syrup to the water to give it a slimy feel while playing with toys or painting on the walls of the tub.
Sensory play in the bath is a fantastic activity for kids of all ages! The water will have different textures which can be explored with hands, feet, and toys. You can also purchase fun squishy ducks or other bath toys to use while you play.
Play I-Spy in a busy shopping center
Kids love to look at all of the things in a busy shopping center. If you are outside, you can also sit on the grass in the middle of everything and let your child’s eyes wander. This will help them learn how to focus their attention under stress-inducing conditions.
Shower screen Drawing
Drawing on your shower screen is a great way to improve fine motor skills while improving your child’s sensory processing. Try having a maximum shower on time, but not to limit your child’s time in the shower itself this will promote them to discover shower screen drawing on their own.
Sensory handwriting is a very similar sensory activity that can be used as an alternative.
Make playdough or slime
Playdough and slime are excellent at promoting tactile sensory play. It also gives children a chance to use their fine motor skills when playing with it for an extended period of time.
Draw in shaving cream
Drawing in shaving cream on a tabletop or glass window is a fun way for children to discover new textures. Having a sensory table set up in the garage ready to pull out is super helpful to save some setup time!
Shaving cream can be spread across almost any surface to make it an excellent way for kids to enjoy sensory play. If you are concerned about them making a huge mess, try on a small area of the surface first before getting the kids to join in. A messy sensory play activity might be hard to clean up but the benefits of sensory play activities that are messy play are just too good to miss out on.
Use Cookie Cutters on Different Fruit
This works best with melons of all types. Watermelon, rockmelon, and honeydew are all excellent for this activity. Try using different cookie cutters to see how the fruit responds. This will provide them with a tactile experience while enjoying some delicious fruit afterward!
This sensory activity is best done outside and the best part, no messy play here! Try going for a walk and let them discover flowers along the way. As they get older, try having them describe the different smells to you as well as help identify the type of flower it might be. This can also provide your child with some logical thinking skills as well as their sense of smell.
Smell and taste new food
Foods that you wouldn’t normally eat together are a great way to provide kids with new experiences. For example, try chocolate and cucumber or garlic and grapefruit. This can help children discover new things about food while also providing their sense of smell and taste the chance to experience something different.
Hide objects around the garden
Hide objects around the garden in different areas like a scavenger hunt. Some good examples are under leaves, between rocks, or even inside a puddle. This forces your child to explore touching different textures.
You can also hide items inside of some puddles if you don’t think your child will get wet! This is a great way to develop their search skills while also having some sensory fun!.
Do some push ups or wall push ups
Push-ups can be a great way to improve Proprioception in children. It also teaches them about their body while working on sensory play skills. Parents usually find this the easiest to introduce in a mimicking fashion, whereby the child wants to exercise like daddy. proprioception is one of your child’s senses that might be overlooked if they avoid full-body gross motor skills movements.
Give someone a big hug
Cuddles are great for improving sensory processing in children, especially those who struggle with being touched. Make sure you give your child regular hugs throughout the day to help them feel loved and supported whilst also accustoming them to the feeling of being hugged.
Walk barefoot on grass or sand
Walking barefoot on grass or in the sand is a great way to encourage proprioception in children. Motor skills where the skin is touching different textures will allow your child to learn about their body and how it interacts with different surfaces. This activity can also help improve balance, which often helps them when climbing stairs or jumping for example.
If walking barefoot is too much of a jump into the exciting new world of sensory play, have your child walk around in socks first.
Make a sensory bottle
Sensory bottles are plastic bottles filled with sand, rocks, or other small objects that can be tipped upside down. They are fun to play with and can also help children improve their sensory processing. This is a staple sensory play activity.
Blowing bubbles for your child is a wonderful sensory experience. It gives them the chance to experiment with different muscles in their face, as well as experience the sensation of bubbles popping all over their face.
If your child struggles with breathing out too fast, explain to them that they don’t have to blow out very hard – just enough for a normal breath will be fine! The important thing is they have some sensory fun!
Sort pom poms into egg cartons or baking trays
Sorting objects into different containers is a great sensory activity that can also help improve fine motor skills. This activity requires your child to use their pointer finger and thumb to pick up pom-poms.
Give each color its own container (egg carton or baking tray) so they know exactly where to put the different colors in!
Getting creative with finger painting is a great sensory activity for young children. The paint will give them the chance to feel messy while also encouraging creativity.
Finger painting can be done inside or outside, depending on the weather conditions! But is cleanest when done with water-based finger paints. Sensory activities around paint would be considered messy play, so proceed with caution!
Have a bath
Taking a bath is a wonderful way to get the kids clean with all the benefits of a sensory activity. It’s not only an incredibly relaxing way to end the day for us but a way for children to explore being in the water.
Give your child different objects, like bubbles or rubber ducks, to explore in the bathtub. This will give them another way to experience touching different textures!
Give someone a high five
High fives are one of those fun sensory play ideas that when practiced can develop hand-eye coordination skills whilst also working on your child’s tactile sense.
The two easiest ways for children to high five is by using their pointer finger and middle finger but this can also be done using the thumb instead of the pointer. Explain this to them beforehand so they know which one you want them to use!
Sensory activities such as Jumping on the floor or on a trampoline is another great sensory play activity for kids. It can help improve their balance and vestibular sense while also encouraging them to jump higher.
Jumping also really helps tiring out those kiddies so they get a good night’s sleep!
Give yourself a big hug
This is one of the most important parts of sensory play! Hugging yourself can be a great way for children to learn about how big they are while also encouraging positive self-image and getting comfortable with touch and hugs.
Have an ice block
Exposure to cold temperatures can help children regulate their own body temperature better.
This is something that you should only do if the weather conditions are favorable! But an ice block can be a great sensory experience for your child.
Make a gel or paint bag (in a ziplock bag)
Put some gel, paint, or water in a ziplock bag. Seal the bag with the ziplock part and let them feel how everything moves around inside. Adding a bit of extra tape can make this more secure.
Let your child push all of the air out of the ziplock bag before sealing it. This will make sure that nothing can accidentally ooze out! To prevent leaking
Write a letter on your child’s back and ask them to guess it
This is a great sensory activity for kids because it encourages learning. Let your child feel the letters on their back and then see if they can guess what letter it is before somebody else tells them!
Use baby oil to write the letters on their back so everything slides around easily. Use one letter per finger or have multiple people make various letters.
Build a pillow fort
Pillow forts are an awesome way to encourage creativity and make-believe play.
The idea is to give your child pillows, blankets, sofa cushions or chairs to create their own little area where they can play pretend all they like!
Don’t worry if it’s not perfect – the fun of pillow forts
Play in a sandpit
This is a great sensory activity for kids because it encourages creativity and provides an outlet to be adventurous!
A sandpit can be made using a hole in the ground, a bucket, or a box. Pack some sand into these containers and let your children enjoy themselves while playing!
Ride a bike
Riding a bike is an excellent way for children to improve proprioception, vestibular as well as coordination.
The best approach for this is to first let your child ride a tricycle or other pedal-less bike before moving them onto a full-sized one!
Play on a slide in the park
Slides are a great way to encourage your child’s coordination and vestibular sense.
Just make sure that you always stay close by when they’re playing!
Listen to music
Listening to music is a great way for kids to increase their auditory sensory processing skills. This is only one of the sensory play ideas around the auditory sense, but others would include using music with dance or singing together.
If you want your child to focus on a specific activity, put headphones on them and play the music from that device! If not, just have some relaxing slow songs playing in the background as they go about whatever it is they’re doing.
There you go, what sensory play is, the benefits, and 30 activities to use for sensory play with your child. Remember practice makes perfect when it comes to sensory play! See if you can try one idea per day with your child! As you get better at incorporating sensory play into your child’s life you’ll get better at identifying exactly which senses they need to work on and get really good at selecting activities to work on.
Hope you liked these sensory play ideas!