I first learned about the importance of sensory play when my husband and I were waiting to adopt our then-toddler son. I learned that children who lack sensory stimulation early on can develop sensory processing issues that affect them in myriad ways. In fact, when we adopted our son at age 1.5 and later our daughter at age 2.5, both were extremely uncomfortable with sticky, dirty, or gooey sensations on their hands.
Thanks to the wonderful support of our early intervention specialist, I became very intentional about providing my kids with sensory experiences to help them become more comfortable with new sensations on their hands and feet. In this post I’m sharing what I know about sensory play, as well as tons of ideas for ways to incorporate sensory play into your child’s day.
What is sensory play?
Sensory play is, quite simply, any activity that stimulates the senses. This includes the five main senses of touch, smell, sight, taste, and sound, as well as the two not-as-frequently-mentioned senses: vestibular (sense of balance) and proprioceptive (sense of where each body part is in relation to the rest).
Obviously, just about any activity a child engages in will stimulate at least one or more senses. But some types of play will be more stimulating to the senses than others.
It’s also important to note that an activity that is perfectly stimulating for one child may be under- or over-stimulating for another child. Thus, not all children will gravitate to all sensory activities. While it is perfectly acceptable to encourage your child to try new and even uncomfortable things, it is important not to push the child to do things too far out of his or her comfort zone.
Sensory play activities
Below are the sensory play activities that have been featured at Gift of Curiosity. Click any image to be taken to the post that features the activity.
Sensory bins are a wonderful way to engage your child in sensory play. I create most of my sensory bins in a clear plastic tub. That way, when playtime is over, the items go back in the tub and the lid goes on for storage.
All of the themed sensory boxes I have created for my kids are featured below. Click any image to be taken to the post where that activity was shared.
Sensory bags (sometimes referred to as squish bags) provide a fun sensory experience without any mess. Sensory bags may also be more easily tolerated by kids who hate sticky or messy sensations on their hands.
All of the sensory bags I have created for my kids are featured below. Click any image to be taken to the post where that activity was shared.
What are the benefits of sensory play?
At birth, a child’s senses are not fully developed. Instead, they develop over time as children engage with the world around them. This means that babies, toddlers, and preschoolers learn about the world by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, hearing, and moving their bodies.
Because young children’s senses are still developing, each new sensory experience builds neural pathways that grow the architecture of the brain. The brain growth that occurs through sensory play enhances children’s senses, and their enhanced senses in turn make them better able to use those senses for learning. For example, as children engage with various textures, they learn which ones are rough vs. smooth, which ones are hard vs. soft, and which ones are wet vs. dry. This awareness is a first step in learning to classify and sort objects.
The benefits of sensory play are numerous. Here is a partial list of skills children develop when engaging in sensory play:
- Language skills – children develop their language skills, including new vocabulary, as they talk about their experiences
- Social skills – children who engage in sensory experiences alongside others learn to share, negotiate, and plan
- Fine motor skills – as children manipulate small objects, they develop their fine motor skills
- Gross motor skills – children develop gross motor skills by squatting, jumping, or otherwise moving their bodies
- Dramatic play skills – children frequently use sensory materials to engage in dramatic play such as by “baking cakes” or “building roads”
- Scientific reasoning skills – children learn about cause and effect when manipulating sensory materials
- Self-control skills – children develop self-control as they learn to respect the rules and boundaries for sensory play
Sensory play materials
Here is a list of materials you can use to create sensory play experiences for your children (but feel free to add your own ideas as well!):
Dry/easily cleaned items
- Uncooked rice (plain, colored, scented)
- Dry beans
- Dry lentils
- Dry pasta (plain or colored)
- Popcorn kernels (unpopped)
- Shredded paper
- Pom poms
- Mini erasers
- Bird seed
- Biodegradable packing peanuts
- Play doh
- Play foam
- Cooked pasta
- Coffee grounds
- Soap (to make bubbles)
- Hair gel
- Flower petals
- Water beads
- Shaving cream
- Corn starch mixed with water, soap, or shaving cream
- Magic sand / Space sand
Sensory play tools
You may want to include a few tools for your kids to use when they are engaged in sensory play. Here are a few of our favorite sensory play tools.
Items for engaging with the sensory material:
- Plastic cups, bowls, and containers in various sizes (we like this beaker set)
- Measuring spoons
- Learning Resources Easy Grip Tweezers
- Scissor scoops
- Silicone Baking Cups
- Plastic pipettes (aka, droppers)
Items for controlling the mess:
- Trays to contain the mess (we own and love these Lakeshore craft trays)
- Large boxes or bins to hold everything (I make most of my sensory bins using this box and this box. Having a lid makes storage easy.)
- Shower curtain to put on the floor under wet materials
- Sheet to put on the floor under dry materials
- Baby wipes (useful for keeping things clean as well as to wipe the hands of kids who dislike messy hands)