Mental Health Media

Sensory Play for Children

Sensory play is an essential component of physical development in young children. From the early stages of life, children use their senses to process the world around them.  This article is going to look at how the senses develop in early childhood, and what we can do to support early learning through the use of hands-on activities with children.  For this article, I thought it would first be important to define what sensory play is. Sensory play is anything that stimulates a child’s five senses including touching, tasting, listening, smelling and feeling (1).  Young children are naturally curious, and this curiosity is played out daily through their interactions with adults in different settings. For young children to learn about something, they have to experience it through their senses.  Young children are continually touching, grabbing and putting objects in their mouth.For a young child, this is a perfectly understandable way to explore the world around them.  Since their language skills are, still developing, young children are not able to learn solely from verbal language and instruction. When touching something, children are starting to learn about texture and patterns, while also fine-tuning the neurological pathways that help them begin to make sense of what they are seeing and feeling. When picking objects up, young children are learning about weight, shape, color, size and depth perception along with increasing hand-eye coordination and fine-motor skills, developing the small muscles in their hands, which are necessary for writing.  

Sensory play can support language development in many different ways.  The first way is by giving children directions on how to interact with the available materials. These interactions can include giving directions such as, fill the water in a cup or pop the bubble wrap. Instructions like this not only expose children to new words, it also helps children to explore new materials in ways that they have not thought of before. While it is vital to provide time for children to make their own discoveries, sometimes-stated instructions and guidance can be constructive.  Another way that language is strengthened during sensory play is through the use of questions.  Questions can range from simple to complex depending on the age of the child.Even for children that are not yet talking, it might seem like they are not receiving the benefit, but they are listening to everything being said. 

Questions for Sensory Play

What does the object feel like?

Have you felt anything like that before?

-What does it sound like?

What color is the play dough?

-Do you want to mix the colors together?

Sensory play can also help young children begin to strengthen their fine motor skills. Let’s take a step back and talk about what fine motor skills are and why they are essential. Fine motor skills involve using the small muscles in our hands to create complex movements such as holding a crayon/pencil, stacking blocks, and using tools to move items from one area to another. Children from an early age are beginning to practice and fine-tune these skills.  For infants, this could mean reaching/grabbing onto a parent/caregiver’s finger.  For toddlers, fine motor development could be stacking blocks, stacking pegs or playing with play dough.  Beginning to eat solid food is another opportunity for a young child to practice fine motor skills. The act of picking food up might seem simple, but it requires the young child to find the item that they want to pick up. During this activity, children use their eyes, large muscles in their arms, small muscles in their hand to pinch their fingers together/ pick the food up and finally release the pinching grasp to put the food in their mouth. I know that this is a particular way of looking at the process of feeding, but this is what is happening every single time. As a child gets more experience with a specific skill, they are strengthening the neuro-pathways and neurological response time for that skill. This strengthening of the neuro-pathways is why it’s so important to encourage children to use all of their senses when engaging with different materials. Sometimes parents can shy away from sensory experiences because of the fear that it will be messy.  Sensory play can be messy by its very nature, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes everyday materials can allow children to experience play/sensory integration in different ways. 

Below are some examples of materials and activities that you can try at home with your children! 

Sensory play 

  • Shells 
  • Rocks/stones 
  • Feathers 
  • Pom-poms 
  • Pipe cleaners 
  • Musical Shakers using natural materials (Beans, Rice, Pasta, Popcorn) 
  • Rain Sticks 
  • Felt boards  
  • Magnets 
  • Flashlights and colored viewing blocks 

Messy Sensory Play ideas – base materials

  • Water Beads 
  • Ooblick (Cornstarch and water)
  • Playdough 
  • Slime 
  • Kinetic Sand 
  • Sand
  • Water 
  • Finger paint 
  • Shaving Cream 
Colored Play-dough!

Colored Play-dough (https://www.familyeducation.com/fun/playdough/play-doh-recipes)

Materials

  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 1 tablespoon cream of tartar
  • Food coloring
  • Saucepan
  • 1 cup flour

Directions

  1. Combine water, oil, salt, cream of tartar, and food coloring in a saucepan and heat until warm.
  2. Remove from heat and add flour.
  3. Stir, and then knead until smooth. The cream of tartar makes this dough last 6 months or longer, so resist the temptation to omit this ingredient if you do not have it on hand.
  4. Store this dough in an airtight container or a Ziploc freezer bag.
The Importance of Sensory Play
The Purple Alphabet

Mental Health Therapist and Co-Founder of PsychoSocial! I live and work in San Francisco, CA. I enjoy the theater, photography, and traveling. My self-care is nature walks.
​​