Sensory Play: Is This Really Necessary?

If you frequent kids activity blogs, you know that “sensory play” has been a hot topic for quite awhile now.  There are even entire websites devoted to sensory play for your tots, and while they are super fun to read and full of creative (and sometimes elaborate) ideas, you may find yourself asking, “Is all this REALLY necessary for my child’s development?”

Sensory Play: is this really necessary?

To answer this question, let’s first 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.

But wait!!  

Before you curse my name and then rush out and buy the materials to recreate every zany sensory activity you ever pinned on Pinterest, let’s review what sensory play actually looks like.  Now, I am the first to admit that I have been known to get a little elaborate when planning sensory experiences for my tots (see my Giant Sensory Lagoon).  But keep in mind that a) We only do these types of activities once in a blue moon b) I have tons of materials at my disposal left over from years of working therapeutically with kids, and c) I have a bit of a screw loose.  I get immense pleasure from planning creative activities for playdates.  However, while the sensory lagoon was WICKED fun for both the kids and the adults who participated, I am fully cognizant of the fact that my children probably won’t even remember it and it did not turn them into baby geniuses over night.  If you do not have the time, resources, or inclination to turn your patio into an ocean for your children (see, it sounds kinda crazy when you say it that way), THAT’S PERFECTLY FINE!!  The truth is, while I may spend one night a month glueing ribbon to ping pong balls to make floating jellyfish, the rest of the time I am a typical frazzled twin mama who doesn’t have time to shower, much less create faux sea creatures.  Our typical sensory play experiences are much less glamorous (and often spur-of-the-moment), but just as effective!  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 to the playground.  Play with your child at least part of the time instead of staring at your iphone. There are tons of opportunities for sensory input when climbing around on playground equipment!
  • 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.

These are just a few ideas to get you started- there are way too many simple sensory activities out there for just one post.  Google it and you will see what I mean!  Here is another recent post with an example of simple (and FREE) outdoor sensory play with natural elements. Still not convinced that sensory play is beneficial? Check out my post on Building Language with Sensory Play. Ready to build your own sensory play stash, but not sure where to start? Here is another information-packed post on building a sensory stash from scratch.  And please, next time you read a post from me with an elaborate sensory play idea (‘cuz it’s gonna happen), just roll your eyes, pin it to your sensory board, and remember that I’ve got a screw loose. And that’s why you love me 😉


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  1. My girls love cooking with me- i let them touch & smell everything and they insist on tasting almost everything. it is a fun way to get supper ready whilst craeting learning opportunities out of everyday activities.

    • The twins are just getting to the age where they are interested in cooking, too. It’s fun to have “help” in the kitchen! 😉

  2. What a fantastic post! You did a wonderful job explaining what sensory play is all about while also being honest about the sensory play that you do with your little ones. I think that a lot of people see the elaborate sensory play set-ups that are all over Pinterest and feel inadequate because they don’t have the time, money, or creativity to do it themselves. I love that you provided examples of sensory experiences that are easy for parents to set up and that are inexpensive.
    I’m like you in that creating sensory activities and small world play scenes is a creative outlet. But I’ve seen first hand through my young son and the kids in my little home daycare that sometimes the simplest activities are best. We also spend tons of time outside, which provides endless opportunities for play and learning.
    I’m delighted to have found your blog!

    • I’m so glad you liked my post! The last thing I want to do is make other parents feel bad when they read my activities, so it is important to me that I present a realistic picture of what sensory play is and how easy it is to incorporate at home. I want to share ideas and information, not be a show off! Thank you for following along, and I’m off to your blog to check you out 😉

      Happy Holidays!

  3. I just wanted to say that I love your take. Elaborate sensory bins have never been my thing (yet I sew my child’s underwear – different screw loose I guess) but I have always made the simpler forms of sensory play a big priority. Nothing like diggn in the dirt and discovering a handful of worms!

  4. I’m glad people are really thinking about their kids and want to help them learn and play but this whole sensory thing is going a little extreme.
    We have a total of maybe 5 battery operated toys in our house and no tv. Our kids spend about 1/2 the day in unplanned-play in- and outdoors. I’m all for doing cool stuff with your kids and getting their hands dirty but to make parents think that if they don’t do this kind of thing their kids are going to turn out dumb is ridiculous.
    As for this little thing that you created the Lagoon… pool play is cool but I for one do not want my kids grabbing everything when they see something in the water (i.e. jellyfish). Might be a better idea to learn about sea creatures in an aquarium if you have one nearby or can incorporate one into a vacation.
    Please think before you incorporate things into ‘sensory play.’ I recently saw something about edible paint… really? And we now have to teach kids that we really don’t eat paint…but this is okay…huh?

    • Stephanie says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post. I think if you read it again, you will see that my intention was to convey that elaborate sensory play is NOT necessary for development, and I certainly did not imply that if parents don’t do this kind of thing “their kids are going to turn out dumb.” As for the lagoon play, I appreciate your concern. We do not live near an ocean but have taken numerous trips to nearby aquariums and have observed jellyfish in that setting. My children are too young to even remember the lagoon we did last summer (as I addressed in the post), but if we do this again they will be old enough to understand symbolic play (also very important for cognitive and linguistic growth) and the difference between a real and pretend jellyfish 😉

    • Kd, I’m not affiliated with this site in any way, but I am a frequent visitor (since I love TwoDaLoo). I work in early childhood education, as well, and I couldn’t help but add my two cents. Kiddos explore their world with their senses, so sensory play is pretty much all of their day — it’s not really a “thing”, it’s just a fact of child development. While I respect your right to share your opinion, I disagree. I think Stephanie did an amazing job explaining how to encourage and extend a child’s natural curiosity and natural need to use their senses. It sounds like your children have lots of time to experience that outdoors, which is wonderful. :) Plus, she spent more time talking about simple ideas than the others. As for the edible paint — young children paint with their food all the time, anyway. :) Thanks for letting me share my thoughts here.

  5. Loved this post…

    I wholeheartedly agree that sensory play is important, and that our kids get less of it these days as they are just not outside or as free to ‘get messy’ as they once were. But I am a big believer that play doesn’t need to be elaborate or difficult to set up, or new and fancy.

    There is nothing wrong with going crazy once in a while if that is what floats your boat, but our kids don’t need that… they just need lots of opportunities to explore the basics. I think the same can be said of art and just about all kids activities… the internet is an awesome place for ideas and inspiration but if it makes us feel like every activity we set up has be be ‘new’ and ‘amazing’ then I think he can as much of a hindrance as a help.

  6. “This has resulted in a generation of children who may not even know how to play when given the opportunity.”

    I’ve come across this post several times on Pinterest in the past few months and every time I read it, the above quote is what stands out the most to me. I’ve always done sensory play with my children, however I’ve recently met two young girls (separate families, both playmates of my son) who literally do not know how to play. Put these girls in front of a plate of finger paint or outside on a pile of dirt with some sticks and they both ask “how do I play with this?”
    I never know how to answer their question because to me it just is instinctual.
    Articles like this are helpful and informative and I hope you’ll continue to post on this issue as you are so very articulate in explaining the how and the way in such a way that it is easy for other parents to understand.

  7. This is sooooo soooooo good! I’m starting to learn that when my own preschool class starts getting ancy, extra vocal, or starts bouncing off the walls that it is their cue to me that they NEED sensory play. We either go outside or pull out a sensory experience, and instantly, the climate of the classroom has changed. Sensory play is just plain magic in my book! Thank you for the amazing read!!!

  8. I have been following you on facebook for a while now…. And everything you say in this article is exactly how I feel, friends usually think I’m nuts at what I set up for play,,,,,, but anyway, I Think I LOVE you x

  9. Mary-Rose McMullin says:

    I am a parent educator in Canada and I would love to be able to share your stuff on our Parent Link Centre group page on facebook. Is there any possibility of doing that somehow? Thanks!

  10. Good day very nice web site!! Guy .. Beautiful ..
    Wonderful .. I will bookmark your website and take the feeds also?
    I’m satisfied to find a lot of useful information here in the publish, we want work out extra
    techniques on this regard, thank you for sharing. .
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