Research indicate that it is easier to learn through play, but what is sensory play?
Sensory play is play using our senses. Let’s have a quick overview of our senses.
- Visual – sight 👀
- Auditory – sound 👂
- Tactile – touch ✋
- Olfactory – smell 👃
- Gustatory – taste 👅
But apart from these 5 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. 🤸
Children start to develop their senses and sensory processing skills even before they are born! Sensory processing is the body’s nervous system ability to manage the sensory information – controlling what sensory input it receives, how the body processes the information and respond 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.
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 trialling different types of food.
However, the activities children engage in nowadays are very different to 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 means that skill is not as developed.
So how does this sensory development relate to classroom learning?
I often see children 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 ‘behaviour’ or ‘attention to learn’. But when I see this, my first though is that this child has undeveloped proprioception skills. 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 a 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 realise 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.
So how can we help our child’s sensory development?
As the quote at the beginning of this blog reminded us, play is a great way to learn.
Giving our children sensory opportunities throughout the day, particularly through play, can help with their sensory development. This could be:
- Playing I-Spy in a busy shopping centre – to develop their visual and auditory skills
- Kneading dough during a baking activity – tactile
- Playing on a swing – vestibular
- Doing push ups – proprioception
- Smelling and tasting new foods – olfactory and gustatory