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“Sensory play enhances development in children!” As an Occupational Therapist (in a previous life), I’ve uttered this statement countless times. And the fact remains, that the importance of sensory play for development in children cannot be emphasized enough. 

But what is sensory play? 

We all engage in sensory play with our little ones. However, we’re usually not even aware of it. Remember the rattlers, crib mobiles, musical and light toys that you first used with your child? That’s sensory play!

Simply put, sensory play constitutes playful activities and actions that stimulate the different senses of your baby. This includes stimulation of your child’s senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch and also a sense of movement and balance.

Importance Of Sensory Play On Child Development

A child attains most of their developmental milestones within the first three years of life. Sensory play is important during this period as it facilitates and enhances the development of your child. For example, take a baby learning to crawl.  He/ she is more likely to move to reach for a toy placed in front of them, rather than for the act of crawling. 

The importance of sensory play for development cannot be understated as it:

  • Facilitates brain development through the formation of synapses or nerve connections in the neural pathways.
  • Enables children to make sense of the world around them through exploring, experiencing, and processing information through the different senses. 
  • Forms the foundation on which children learn to perform complex tasks requiring higher cognitive and language skills.
  • Helps children refine and expand their sensory thresholds, the amount of sensory input processed by the brain. For instance, some children may not tolerate ‘messy’ play involving wet sand, clay, or slime. Similarly, others cannot get enough of jumping or running around. 
sensory play for child development

Children with difficulty regulating their sensory systems may exhibit ‘sensory seeking or sensory defensive behavior,’ in which the child might either crave or avoid a specific sensation.  Including sensory play to enhance development can help them learn to regulate their sensory systems, in turn modulating their behavior. 

How Sensory Play Enhances Development? 

Be it the development of physical, cognitive, social-emotional, language or even life skills, sensory play has an integral role in it all. Let’s take a closer look at the importance of sensory play for development:

Sensory Play Enhances Development of Physical Skills

Physical skill is a broad term encompassing your child’s gross motor ( coordinated use of large muscle groups), fine motor skills (small muscle coordinated activities), and coordination.  Think of crawling, walking, throwing a ball (gross motor) or writing, buttoning and tying shoelaces (fine motor). 

Now let’s see how sensory play can facilitate and enhance the development of these physical skills.  In this example we will use a ball.

  • Rolling the ball towards your child teaches them to reach and grasp the ball, kick and balance themselves while sitting or standing (and reach for /catch the ball without falling)
  • Learning to catch and throw helps the child to develop a coordinated use of their limbs (bilateral coordination). 

Similarly, take the example of play dough, as a sensory toy to develop fine motor skills.  A child learns to manipulate the play dough by pinching, pulling, and rolling it.  In doing so, he/she is both strengthening and learning to use his finger muscles in a coordinated manner. 

These easy examples of how sensory play enhances development are also fun for both you and your child.

playdough is a great sensory development tool

Cognitive Skills Are Enhanced With Sensory Play

Your child starts to learn from the moment you shake a rattle.  He/ she learns to turn towards the direction of the sound (attention and tracking) and tries to find the rattle when you hide it (object permanency).  These amazing little humans even copy your action and shake the rattle to produce the same sound (imitation). 

It is through sensory play that children make connections, understand and learn different concepts.  These include, similar and different properties – when things are the same or not, categorization and generalization of objects.

Importance Of Sensory Play For Development Of Language  

Children learn to identify and name objects, concepts, body parts and even people through sensory play.  Imagine singing the ‘head-shoulder-knees-and-toes’ song to your child while you point to each corresponding part.  Before long, they will be able to point to one or more parts of their body.  

By having you touch each part as you sing, they gradually learn to identify body parts by naming them.  They also learn to imitate you and will pronounce each part with you.

 

Sensory Play Can Enhance The Development of Social And Emotional Skills

sensory play for development of language skills

Peek-a-boo, playing mirror games and reading stories are all ways you connect and bond with your child.  Think back to their first smile.  It might have happened as a result of you making a funny sound, a certain expression or tickling them.  

These are all sensory actions from hearing, sight and touch.  We even use toys to teach our children about emotions (happy, sad, angry) and social skills (saying hi, bye, thank you).

 

The Importance Of Sensory Play To Calm Children

When a baby cries, what do you do?  You might walk or rock them, and hold them close to you gently patting their back or bottoms.  These are sensory actions meant to calm the child. 

Unintentionally, you have provided your child with the sensations of movement (walking/rocking), touch (holding them), and pressure (gently patting) to calm them.  It is the same when you give your child a warm bath, swaddle them or sing them to sleep. 

Sensory Play Activities To Enhance Childrens’ Development At Home 

Sensory play is only limited by your imagination.  Look around your home and you will find different ways to encourage sensory play appropriate to your child’s age. 

To get you started, here are some examples: 

  • Water play: Fill your bathtub or a kiddy pool with water and soap bubbles.  Put a few of your child’s favorite toys in and watch them have fun splashing around. 
  • Sand play: Allow your child to get messy in a sandpit.  Encourage them to manipulate both dry and wet sand. Giving them tools like a spade and bucket can foster their creativity and imagination. 
  • Sensory bins Create a sensory bin, filling it with toys with different textures.  Use items such as soft or squishy balls, soft toys, textured concept boards or even books.
  • Messy play: These can include playing with homemade playdough, (using flour and water), fun foam and finger painting activities.  Remember to supervise your child during messy play, as there are high chances that your child might try tasting the materials. 
sand play for sensory development
water sensory play to enhance child development
sensory play for development of social skills

In Summary

By using our imagination, we will unintentionally use sensory play with children and help them develop.  However, now that we have learned the importance of sensory play on child development, let’s try to intentionally use it. 

Sensory play enhances development in all children and in a variety of skills.  In fact, it is the primary way by which infants and toddlers learn about their surroundings. 

See how you go with with using different methods of sensory play to enhance your child’s development and watch them have fun and grow!

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