Children learn most effectively when they engage their senses. Touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing helps them experience the world more vividly. It’s important that children are given the opportunity to engage in sensory play as it’s crucial to brain development. It helps develop fine motor skills, enhances memory, improves social, emotional and language skills – and can help calm anxiety.
With help from some early years and sensory play experts, this guide looks at the benefits of sensory play for children.
What is Sensory Play?
Sensory play is activities that make use of a child’s senses. Examples can include making musical instruments, going on nature walks, finger painting, drawing in sand, playing with water and baking.
Sensory play activities help create stronger neural pathways in the brain, particularly in relation to processes and responses to sensory information.
Sometimes parents can be reluctant to try sensory play as they think it gets messy. Unlike messy play activities, sensory play doesn’t have to involve a lot cleaning up afterwards - it can be done with dry materials.
Develops Fine Motor Skills
Far more than just fun play, sensory activities help build up nerve connections in the brain that develop fine motor skills responsible for coordinating hand-eye movement. Most sensory play activities make use of fine motor skills, whether making shapes with play dough, or wringing out wet sponges.
Because sensory play uses intricate movements, children develop an awareness of their own physical abilities as they learn how to control their movements to manipulate objects. Kerry-Anne McFarlane, owner of the Edinburgh franchise of Mess Around says: ‘A huge benefit I see is the development of children’s fine motor skills. Children engage with the materials, toys and props through role play.
Whether its pouring coloured rice from a tea pot, using tongs to serve their mummy spaghetti or feeding mushy peas to toy dinosaurs, all sensory play activities use fine motor skills. Sensory play is a fantastic activity for parents to take part in with their children. It encourages mutual trust, helps concentration and is just loads of fun!’
A child’s memory is enhanced through regular exposure to the same, or similar experiences. When done regularly, sensory play helps develop a child’s memory of physical movements and communication.
Interacting with different textures, sounds, smells and even tastes build motor and cognitive memories that can be applied in other activities and everyday life. Although stacking cups may seem like pure fun, frequent practice of the activity helps a child learn and remember concepts like physical pressure and gravity.
Sarah Beeson, a former health visitor and author of parenting guide Happy Baby, Happy Family, says: ‘Sensory play appeals to all a child’s senses and provides many new experiences that support their physical, mental and emotional development. Stimulating play through learning builds their confidence and helps their emerging skills to flourish.
They can finger paint to experiment with making marks and patterns, they can make sounds with musical instruments and toys. Giving your child opportunities to touch different textures like wet and dry materials, to smell and examine objects, builds both ability and memory. When parents embrace the chance to have fun with learning, the memory of that experience goes deep into building a positive relationship that supports the child’s thirst to learn.’
Improves Language and Non-Verbal Communication Skills
Sensory play can help children learn new words, express their likes and dislikes and give and receive basic instructions. For example, a sensory activity that involves textures can help a child learn adjectives like ‘hard’, ‘soft’, ‘bumpy’ and ‘smooth’.
And with active questioning, they’ll learn word association. For example, by asking ‘how does that feel?’, they’ll realise that the word ‘feel’ can be associated with texture and they might respond with ‘cold’, or ‘hot’. They’ll also have the opportunity to express their preferences for one texture over another either through speech or facial expressions.
Because sensory play is interactive, a child can learn instructional phrases like ‘this one’, ‘over there’, ‘in here’, ‘outside’. They can also develop an intuition for non-verbal communication through hand gestures and eye movements.
Calms an Anxious Child
Young children often become frustrated when they don’t have the vocabulary or physical skills to express themselves. Sensory experiences can help calm children when they feel frustrated.
As adults, we also become more relaxed when we engage our senses. Think about how relaxed you feel walking along a beach or slipping into a warm bath – similar sensory experiences can have the same effect on children.
For example, watching sand trickle through a funnel, squeezing a foam ball, or watching glitter float around inside a kaleidoscope engages their senses and creates feelings of calm.
Develops Social and Emotional Skills
When done in a group setting, sensory play activities can help children learn important social skills. They will learn how to wait their turn, help others when they need assistance, communicate their ideas and take on board the ideas of others.
Sensory play helps children develop an awareness of their own thoughts and feelings in relation to others and it can help them regulate their emotions better. They can learn how to express feelings that are often difficult to articulate like excitement and disappointment.
Kerry-Anne adds: ‘I am lucky to see the benefits of sensory play from a parent’s perspective as well as a Mess Around owner. At our sessions, one of the biggest benefits is confidence building. Children are encouraged to explore new textures and sensations whilst having fun with their parents and friends. This definitely contributes to the development of their social skills and confidence in all parts of their life. ‘
For more information on how to get started with sensory play, take a look at this short video from The Hidden Gem:
At Edu Prints Plus, we make motivational posters for children to encourage their learning and development. Our colourful wall prints are great for adding a splash of colour to bedroom walls. All of our posters are made using high-quality 350 gsm art card and they have a lovely velvet finish. They also have added surface protection just in case those sensory play activities get a little out of hand.
Here are two of our favourite prints from our ‘inspirational’ collection:
And remember, for every four prints you buy, you’ll get the fifth one free - all with free worldwide shipping.