The importance of sensory play in children and how to encourage it
Children make sense of the world through their senses, from the very first moment after birth. Children touch, hear, see, taste, smell and move to gather a better understanding of the environment that they're in. It is important to provide your child with sensory play opportunities and sensory experiences, as they are a fundamental aspect of the child's development.
Almost every school in Australia now incorporates sensory play into everyday activities. Educators, parents and caregivers have all recognised its importance.
Why provide sensory experiences to children
Sensory experiences are not only fun for your child, but they actually provide important and meaningful learning opportunities. Through sensory play, all areas of child development are engaged.
Children develop their motor skills through games and activities involving pouring, building, scooping, digging and stirring. Furthermore, sensory play develops a child's creativity, allowing the use of materials in any way the child desires. This kind of process really fosters creative expression and builds confidence and self-esteem.
Sensory play also encourages cognitive development through spatial awareness and through the combination of the sense of touch with the other senses. Language development is another stimulated area, as the child is free to talk about the experience with new and exciting materials. Children also have a place to interact with others and explore possible decisions, therefore stimulating social and emotional development.
When 10-month old Johnny picks up wooden blocks, and explores them with his hands and mouth, he is actually using all of his senses – vision, taste, touch, smell and hearing – to learn more about the blocks and the world around him.
It is also very important for children to use the space around them. Children learn about their world through movement as well as their senses, and will often choose a specific place as it represents a particularly stimulating area. As adults, we do not understand the torn wallpaper, or perhaps the almost closed space behind the sofa, because we do not see the use in it; however, children are free of these preconceptions and are able to simply absorb experiences.
Sensory processing disorder
Children with difficulties responding to sensory play or sensory experiences might be diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). According to SPD Australia, this is not an immediate cause for concern, as for many children a normal part of development is learning to integrate the input they receive through their senses. In these cases, it is very important for the educators to ensure that the sensory experiences support the child's development rather than oppose it.
However, studies have shown that children diagnosed with serious SPD may actually display a more serious condition later on, such as:
- Attention Deficit Disorders
- Autism Spectrum Disorders
- Learning delays
- Difficulties and mental health issues in general.
How to create a sensory environment
A rich sensory space, which will stimulate and engage the child, can easily be created at home.
To stimulate taste:
- Make sure the child has a variety of different foods to eat.
- Comment on the food with the child (e.g. "Is the chocolate sweet?").
- Toys should generally be soft and sanitised daily to ensure maximum hygiene.
To stimulate sight:
- Give the child access to a variety of materials, such as art clipped from magazines, natural resources representing the change in seasons (pine cones, shells, etc.), picture books and painting materials.
- Comment on the child's paintings or drawings (e.g. "I like the way you put the yellow and the red together to make orange").
To stimulate smell:
- Make sure the child has access to outdoor smells but also kitchen smells and comment on them (e.g. "can you smell the pie I'm baking in the kitchen?").
- Fragrant flowers and strong scents such as cinnamon and peppermint can also stimulate the child.
To stimulate hearing:
- Relate to the child in a happy voice and sing many songs.
- Have the child listen to music (especially classical) and play simple musical instruments, such as percussions.
- Once again, commenting is fundamental!
To stimulate touch:
- Give the child different textures, such as play dough, wood blocks and toys, clay, finger paint and soft rugs and pillows for cuddling, especially at the end of a very tough day of sensory play!
Many of our memories are created from our previous sensory experiences. Children need to use their senses while learning in order to experience the world and understand it; this is the way they learn best. Through sensory play and sensory experiences, children become the makers of their own experiences and of their own world, developing all the fundamental skills they will need in the future in the process.