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?”
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.
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