The Importance of Providing Sensory Play During Early Childhood
In a world where we are often focused on our children meeting certain standards and acquiring particular skills, it’s easy to forget how very important play is – especially for our youngest learners.
What Is Sensory Play?
Sensory play, which involves any type of play that encourages a child’s senses, be it touch, smell, sight, hearing, or taste, is crucial to early childhood learning and provides children with invaluable developmental experiences. In fact, learning is most effective when one’s senses are activated – simply put, by doing, manipulating and physically experiencing things, young children (and adults, for that matter!) are more able to adequately understand and process new concepts.
Consider for a moment concepts such as melting or words such as wet or stretchy. Upon hearing these terms, it is almost impossible for a child to truly process and/or relate such ideas to the real world unless they are actually able to see and feel an ice cube melting or manipulate something that is wet or stretchy. When they are provided with an ice cube, a water table or silly putty, however, instantly the experience becomes richer and the concepts more relatable.
Developmental Benefits of Sensory Play
Specifically, research has shown that sensory play allows children to develop their cognitive, language, social/emotional and physical skills.
By providing early childhood sensory learning experiences, young learners naturally take the materials and/or problem presented and begin to problem solve. Without realizing it, they further develop their cognitive skills while they hypothesize, observe, predict, experiment and draw conclusions – you can almost see the wheels turning in their heads as they make discoveries and find solutions.
Sensory Play also promotes early childhood language skills. By providing children with various manipulatives, they are prompted to describe the materials, what they are doing with them and what they were able to discover. Almost instantly, previously foreign concepts become concrete as words take on meaning and concepts are explored first hand.
Sensory Play has also been proven to benefit a child’s social and emotional development. Sensory tables or sensory tubs that allow for multiple children to engage and work together promotes play, problem solving, and teamwork. Such experiences likewise force young children to respond to each other and manage their own emotions.
Finally, early childhood sensory learning experiences encourage physical development. Depending on the nature of the materials provided, children practice and improve upon their fine and/or gross motor skills as they manipulate objects, cut, push, pull, zip, button, or build – the list is endless.
Encouraging Sensory Learning At Home or In the Classroom
Perhaps the best part of sensory learning is that it is easy and fun to incorporate into any home or classroom. For ideas, take a peak at the list below and remember – sensory learning, above all else, should be fun – and often, the messier, the better!
- Create a Sensory Table or Tub using a variety of materials (i.e. rice, pasta, shaving cream, beads, water, bowls, strainers, tubes, tongs, rocks, etc.)
- Engage in physical play – set up an obstacle course or simply have fun by working your muscles – jump, hop, skip, roll, catch – get up and move!
- Have your child help push your cart at the grocery store or move a box from one room to another.
- Sort the laundry and/or help transfer clothes from the washer to the dryer.
- Cut shapes out of jell-o (animals, numbers, letters, etc.).
- Put shaving cream in a cookie sheet and draw letters or numbers.
- Roll cookie dough with a rolling pin or form it into balls to make cookies.
- Using a straw, blow lightweight objects (such as a paperclip or cotton ball) across a table.
- Use play dough or moon dough to create.
- Provide finger paint, puffy paints, or other arts and crafts materials, such as feathers, beads, glue, etc. for children to explore and use.
- Have children help you make slime, goo, or oobleck, etc. Next, let them smell, stretch, feel and describe the material.
- Sit outside and identify sounds you hear – a car whizzing past, bird singing, etc.
- Listen to music, use instruments to make louder or softer sounds to consider and understand volume.
- Bake or cook together – smell, taste and feel the ingredients.
- Plant flowers, feeling the dirt and water while planting and smelling the flowers when you’re done.
- Try, test and discuss opposites in the kitchen – salty vs. sweet, hot vs. cold, chewy vs. smooth