By Rebecca McCarthy, Co-Founder and Occupational Therapist
As soon as we make our entrance into the world we are using our senses to explore, learn and make sense of the world around us. It is a natural and very typical response for our children to use their senses to explore their environment. This is because we receive information and vital cues through our senses, which is then interpreted within the brain. From here our brain works to make sense of the information received promoting an automatic response and behaviour. These responses are important for survival within our environment as all of our experiences stem from our senses.
When we talk about sensory play, we are referring to play activities that stimulate and engage one or more of our 8 senses. Majority of sensory play is focused on stimulating our touch, visual, auditory and movement senses because they are easier and more accessible. All kinds of play activities have the potential to be a sensory activity. It is our role as adults to provide opportunities for our children to actively use their senses to explore the world through sensory play as it is crucial for their brain development.
To really reap the benefits of how sensory play supports development and participation in our children it is important to have a thorough understanding of all of our senses. Most people are aware of our 5 common senses being our Visual, Auditory, Olfactory, Tactile and Gustatory but there is little awareness about our 3 hidden senses Vestibular, Proprioception and Interoception.
5 Common Senses:
Visual - Sight - the stimulation of light receptors in our eyes, which our brains then interpret into visual images.
Auditory - Hearing - the reception of sound, via mechanics in our inner ear.
Olfactory - Smell - the stimulation of chemical receptors in the upper airways (nose).
Tactile - Touch - the stimulation that comes from touch receptors in our skin that react to pressure, heat/cold, or vibration.
Gustatory - Taste - the stimulation that comes when our taste receptors react to chemicals in our mouth.
3 Hidden senses:
Vestibular - the stimulation of our vestibular system in the inner ear to tell us our body position in relation to gravity and promote balance
Proprioception - the feedback our brains receive from stretch receptors in our muscles and pressure receptors in joints which enable us to gain a sense of where our bodies are in space.
Interoception. - the stimulation of our internal organs via internal signs such as grumbly tummy or increased heart rate
Is it just us or who else as an adult loves to engage in sensory play with their children or clients, or simply by themselves??? Well research has proven that children and adults learn best when we engage our senses. No more explanation needed, continue to have fun!!
Majority of our favourite memories are associated with one or more of our senses. For example smelling a certain food which reminds you of your grandma’s cooking or the sound of crashing waves reminding you of the nice summer days spent at the beach with family and friends. When these particular senses are stimulated, your brain triggers a ‘flashback’ memory to those positive experiences. What memories can you reflect on and what sense does it link to?
With this knowledge you can understand the importance of providing sensory play opportunities for our children and how critical it is for their brain development. When a child is born their senses are not fully developed, they mature over time when exposed to sensory stimuli and exploring the world around them. Each new experience with different senses works to build nerve connections within the brain, creating pathways and memories, positive or negative. Our aim is to provide positive experiences for our children in order to help shape and promote positive interactions with their environment as they grow up.
Let's explore what impact sensory play has on the brain and development for our little ones:
Support Brain Development and Cognitive Growth
Sensory play strengthens brain development and enhances memory functions. It works to build nerve connections in the brain’s pathway, which lead to the child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks, experience enhanced thought processes, develop understanding and reasoning skills.
Support Language Development
Sensory play helps children to talk about their experiences and the world around them. They learn new vocabulary to describe the objects and materials they are using, what they are doing and how it feels or looks. It also supports children to communicate more effectively with their peers.
Supporting Gross and Fine Motor Skills
Sensory play supports children to engage in movement which promotes coordination, muscle strength and body awareness. This helps children to navigate safely through their environment. They also develop fine motor strength, in hand manipulation, tactile discrimination, and hand eye coordination. This helps for future skill development such as dressing, buttons and zippers, using cutlery and handwriting.
Enhancing Social Skills
Sensory play promotes children to observe and/or engage with peers. They learn new ways to play with objects, but also learn how to share, plan, help and negotiate with others. Sensory play can help to calm anxious children allowing them to feel safe and happy, giving them a means and motivation to engage.
Supports self-regulation and calming
Sensory play can help children to regulate their emotions and understand how their body is feeling. It helps them to feel less overwhelmed or stressed, supporting them to engage in appropriate activities. There is so much choice and flexibility within sensory play, allowing children to have choice and control as to what will help their body feel better.
Through exposure and engagement in sensory play you are enabling your child to be able to adapt, interact and be flexible within their environment. You are stimulating their brain, promoting development and creating positive experiences. The question now is how are you going to stimulate your child’s senses today?
Some simple sensory play activities you can trial at home to get you started include:
Sensory bin: Mixing together dried rice, lentils, pasta and beans in a large container. Add in some toys or learning materials to make it fun. For example, hide numbers 1 - 10 and get your child to dig and find each number
Bubble monsters: Fill a bucket with ¼ cup and a couple of drops of liquid soap. Place a straw into the mixture and encourage your child to blow and create bubbles. They can use their hands to pop the bubbles.
Place a blind fold over your child's eyes and see if they can guess what food they can smell. Tip, use foods your child enjoys.
Finger and feet painting: use paint, gel or shaving cream to place on hands and feet and get creative. Use big pieces of paper so they can walk on or roll and have fun.
Use your garden to be creative. Collect different kinds or leaves, flowers, sticks, rocks and grass then explore by touching, smelling and seeing what floats or sinks.
Have fun exploring and play!