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What Are The Benefits Of Sensory Play In Child Development?

Children are born explorers. A little child learns by using his senses and interacting with his environment. This natural leaning of a child to learn through curiosity and exploration is something parents must nurture and trust.

AFFILIATE DISCLOSURE
This blogpost contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. For more information read the full disclosure.

Our little one is making sense of his world by touching, smelling, seeing, tasting and hearing. Sensory play can therefore be a key tool in child development.

This post is sponsored by Alt Retail, but all opinions and thoughts expressed are my own.

In case you are wondering,

WHAT IS SENSORY PLAY?

Sensory play is any type of play that engages the child’s senses. These not only include sense of smell, touch, sight, taste and hearing but also include body awareness and balance.

Sensory play can happen anywhere at home or outside in nature using natural elements. 

One important point to note here is that the child needs a safe space to explore without any interruptions. Read here to understand how you can build a safe play space for your child.

what are the benefits of sensory play
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BENEFITS OF SENSORY PLAY IN CHILD DEVELOPMENT

Sensory play helps brain development

Play experiences that allow the 5 senses to interact with each other build nerve connections in the brain that aid cognitive development. 

Let’s take an example of a child playing in water with some cups, droppers and loose parts. He is observing the movement of the water as he applies force with his hands and splashes it.

He notes the flow of the water as he transfers it between cups, all the while learning to grasp and manipulate his fingers such that he gets the effect he desires.

Watching his toy objects sink or float makes him curious about why certain objects sink to the bottom of the tub and some float.

All of these are early learning experiences that help the child question, formulate his own reasoning and answers.

In short, discovery, observation, reasoning, memory building, experimentation all happen at a sensory table. These cognitive skills the child develops whilst exploring on his own help him with math and science problems later on.

Sensory play helps in emotional development 

Sensory play also has a calming effect on children. Set up a sensory bin or art based activity on days you find your child has difficulty regulating emotions and watch how such play helps the child feel more centered.  

Engaging in sensory experiences like pouring water, painting with finger paints or a sand bin reduces some of the internal discomfort the child is feeling. 

Once the child is calm you can then help him process emotions.

For older children, art itself can be used as a tool to express some of the uncomfortable emotions and process feelings.

Sensory play supports development of motor skills 

Playing requires the use of gross motor skills, like getting up, bending over, crossing midline, balancing and fine motor skills like pinching, grasping, picking, and weaving. 

Such play provides a child the opportunity to manipulate objects with his hands and master motor skills through repetitive movements.

Even before your child holds a pencil and learns to write he needs constant exposure to different types of rich sensory tools and experiences that provide him a chance to hone pre-writing skills.

Sensory toys like play dough, play dough tools and sensory tray tools can help with fine tuning these skills.

Sensory play as a tool to weave down time in the day. 

I don’t really have to make a case for down time to tired parents. We all love those quiet pauses in between the otherwise chaotic parenting day.

Sensory play can be a great tool to weave in some down time into the day. Tired mothers everywhere know that if you give the child a sand box or a water bin with spoons and cups you are guaranteed 15 minutes of quiet play.

Plan your toddler routine with some sensory play daily. You can sit back with a cup of coffee and watch your child have a go at his activity. Lay out a large splash mat to keep messes to a minimum. It makes the day that much easier with a toddler around. 

Water play was my go-to for years. My son enjoyed it so much, he washed his cars, tried out his own sink and float experiments and most importantly was happier and settled after each such play session. That is how water play became my number 1 choice for days I was tired or when he was having a rough time with his emotions. 

Sensory play supports language development

Sensory play can help build vocabulary and better the understanding of what words mean. During the play session describe how objects look and feel – for e.g. red spoon, squishy dough or use action words like mix this, spread here, touch this etc.

Each time the child holds a sensory tool and uses it in his play he is learning new words and their context to his play.

Such sensory play is not just restricted to play time, but also at the table when the child eats. Let the child explore food with his hands, not only does this encourage self-feeding, but also exposes the child to new vocabulary around food as he feeds himself, for e.g. hot soup, squishy blueberry, red sauce, creamy soup, cheesy pasta. You get the idea?

In fact, all the new fruit and vegetable names our son learnt were through meal times. You don’t need special books, real experience with the food at the table matters in language development.

Sensory play encourages self-directed play

Open ended toys and sensory play encourage more independent play. But, are you ready to let your child explore freely?

Set up a few open-ended sensory toys with no other distractions in the environment and let your child take charge of his own play. 

What looks like unstructured random actions to an adult is actually the child figuring out his own process.

Over the years I observed that a child goes through several stages of play before making solid connections and learning something new. But all the previous stages were important in the child coming to learn that concept on his own.

Watching a child’s self-directed play is like watching scientists observe the world, seek unanswered questions, look for solutions and problem solve.

Children who have the freedom to play will therefore learn to take initiative, solve problems and then learn from the process of play. Such knowledge is retained much better than forcing concepts on a child who is not yet ready to learn them. 

Ultimately, the more a child leads his own play the more confident and self-assured he will be.

Sensory play as a tool for connection

A sensory activity can also be a way to connect and bond with your child. Not only is it calming and relaxing to spend time coloring or painting with your child, but it can be a time to gain insight into your child’s heart and connect by spending quality time together.

Sensory play is fun!

And the most important reason why you need sensory play is simply because it’s fun. Children love to engage with their environment by using their senses, they love squishy slime, vibrant paints, soothing water, bumpy rice bin. Each is providing the child a new experience while the child is having fun and gaining all of the above-mentioned benefits even without knowing it. 

The beauty of sensory play is that there are no rules. So, make sure that you keep play simple and let the child lead you rather than make it a learning task. If play loses its fun factor the child won’t gain anything.

Some children may be sensitive to certain sensory stimuli and while we want to challenge our children and provide varied exposures it is also important to take it slow if the child finds some sensory textures overwhelming. Where needed reach out to experts in the field to guide you with an individualized plan to help your child.

EASY SENSORY ACTIVITIES FOR BABIES AND TODDLERS

children playing with sensory bin
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Picture courtesy Alt Retail

You don’t need a lot of sensory toys or tools to develop your child’s sensory skills. Some simple activities that you can prep using readily available materials are :

  1. Water play – A water tub with spoons, beakers, cups, colored pom-pom balls for rescue or a car wash for your child’s cars with some soapy water, brushes and towels.
  2. Foam tub – You can use shaving foam and some liquid color to make colored foam bins and add toys that the child needs to fish out.
  3. Rice bins – Colored rice bins are easy to set up with any theme that your child enjoys. Add in some themed props, pebbles, dolls and figurines for pretend play.
  4. Bean bins – Similar to the rice bins you can make sensory bins with dried beans and some construction vehicles.

For more easy toddler sensory bin ideas check this older post.

Important note : All play should be monitored by adults to ensure safety, especially around toddlers who still mouth toys.

HOW TO PROTECT YOUR HOUSE FROM MESSES

Sensory tray for play
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Picture courtesy Alt Retail

Here are some of the tips that worked for me and saved me some of my sanity when it comes to the messes after play.

  1. Find a spot that is clear of any furniture either indoors or outdoors.
  2. Lay out a splash mat or newspapers to reduce volume that needs to be picked up later.
  3. Enlist the help of the child. I let my child have a go at clean up first and give simple instructions on how he can help. Once he is done, I pick up or mop out the rest. Getting him to help from an early age translated into more independent clean up in the later years that needed minimal supervision. He had the clean-up routine memorized by then.
  4. Choose a time of day that is convenient to you. There will be hand-holding involved at times, at other times you will have to jump in and clean up, especially with toddlers left to play on their own. It is therefore best to pick a time you are relatively free to drop what you are doing and go help the child. Our favorite time of day for sensory play is post lunch or early evenings when our routine slows down and I am available to help.

I hope this blog post encourages you to add more sensory stimulation activities to your child’s daily routine. 

Does your child enjoy sensory play? What are some benefits of sensory play you noticed? Also, leave me your ideas of sensory play in the comments below. All of this can be helpful to other parents reading too.

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