Children learn and retain knowledge most successfully by engaging their senses. In doing so, they develop crucial academic, athletic, cognitive, physical, creative, linguistic, and social skills. Recent research shows that sensory play and learning is essential to the process of developing the key skills required for advanced knowledge.

Parents can help develop sensory learning by encouraging their children, particularly those with special needs, to respond to what they see, smell, hear, touch, taste, and feel. Parents can effectively use observation, experimentation, and problem solving — a.k.a. sensory play — to lay the groundwork for life in the classroom and the world at large.

Consistency and predictability are key to the success of a child’s sensory learning and play. Our ability to learn and perform is dependent upon how consistently our nervous system processes the same stimuli in the same way so that it is predictable. Routinely engaging your routinely in sensory-stimulating activities within an environment that arouses curiosity and exploration is a crucial part of the learning process.

Encourage sensory play with the following suggestions to foster certain skills.

  1. Cognitive skills may be practiced with counting, sequencing, sorting, constructing, and scientific activities. Problem-solving activities (such as molding an animal out of clay, making something float, digging in the sand to create a swimming pool, etc.) are a critical part of this learning process.
  2. Social skills increase as children master what they are trying to achieve during sensory play. They become self-confident and feel in control of what they’ve accomplished, and this motivates children to learn more. In addition, children learn important life skills like cooperation and teamwork through sensory play.
  3. Physical and athletic skills that emphasize fine and gross motor skills develop through sensory play, too. Mixing, measuring, and digging encourage fine motor development, while running, rolling, and throwing develops gross motor skills.
  4. Creativity may be fostered through fantasy and make-believe scenarios, as well as exploratory/discovery activities inside and outside your home. The possibilities for fun and learning are endless!
  5. Linguistic skills emerge as children seek to express themselves during sensory play. Discovering a “creepy” bug, a “yummy” fruit, or a “screeching” sound are all part of the journey toward an expanded vocabulary.

Let’s break down the process even further. How can parents create an effective sensory play environment that incorporates the basic five senses, as well as the sense of self-in-space?

  1. A child’s taste buds change every two weeks, so make sure to vary taste experiences continuously. Do this through fun cooking activities, with edible play dough, etc.
  2. Sensory play that focuses on hearing can include playing and listening to music, guessing sounds, experimenting with volume, and playing games like Musical Chairs.
  3. Stimulate the sense of smell to help a child produce memories, recognize objects, and socialize. Kids can experiment with cooking using different scented spices and sauces. Or they can go on an outdoor scavenger hunt in search of scents from fauna like flowers, trees, and leaves.
  4. For sensory play focusing on touch, you’ll find opportunities inside and outdoors to feel tingles, tickles, and soothing touches. There’s a world of interesting textures in your kitchen (whipped cream), your bathroom (shaving cream), and outdoors (pine cones).
  5. We are surrounded each day with a world of color and visual stimulation. Peek-a-Boo and I Spy are some fun games to play with your child to enhance visual input. You can also create interactive activities with balloons, food coloring, flashlights, etc.
  6. Kinesthetic stimulation refers to the the sense of self-in-space, which can help build athletic coordination when heightened. The development of this vital sense even enables us to walk in the dark without falling. It’s our sense of position and posture, movement and velocity as the vestibular system works to give us the smooth movements we need to perform everyday tasks. Help your child develop his athletic coordination and ability to stay balanced by encouraging the use of muscles. Create an obstacle course. Play running games and races. Try Leap Frog and Hopscotch. Have your child push a shopping cart at the supermarket and help with household chores, like sweeping and doing the laundry, to better his sense of self-in-space.

Providing children with varied, interesting opportunities to use their senses is critical to the development of their intellectual, athletic, and social selves. As parents, it is our responsibility to ensure that children are regularly encouraged in their sensory play and learning, and that they consistently have access to an array of sensory experiences and materials.

When Your Child Has Sensory Issues

Sensory issues can range from mild “quirks” to intense reactions to everyday sensations, and can cause distressing behaviors and developmental delays.