Research has proven that sensory play builds cognitive skills. Children learn about the world around them through their senses. After a baby is born, the entire world slowly opens up to them through experiences with touch, smell, sound, taste and sight. When young children have sensory experiences, they are stored in their "sensory memory." They can pull from their "sensory memory" to build connections and understand/gain new information.
When our daughter was a toddler, she showed signs of sensory processing disorder. Although she didn't qualify for occupational therapy, her speech therapist introduced us to engaging activities to decrease her hypersensitivity to touch and tactile defensiveness. Her language development was also supported along the way. New words like sticky, yuck, ick, swing and bounce emerged as we played with oobleck, wrapped her up in soft blankets and experimented with glue.
Children with sensory processing disorder may have meltdowns from too much sensory information entering the brain. Alternatively, you may observe sensory-seeking behavior (chewing, rocking, slamming into furniture or walls, etc.) If you suspect your child may have sensory processing disorder, consult an occupational therapist for an evaluation and ideas about what activities would be best for your child. Incorporating "just right" sensory activities can support children with emotional regulation, calming down and gaining a regulated state.
Now that our daughter is 5, we continue using sensory play to expose her to different tastes, textures and activities that involve getting messy. Over the years, we've found that once she's involved in the activity, her focus is on the play instead of her aversion to the particular tactile input.
All children benefit from sensory play. You can support children in becoming investigators of sensory information through simple activities at home. It's also fun to do as a family and helps increase your child's language development, problem-solving skills, fine and gross motor skills, foundational math skills and social-emotional learning. Here are four ideas:
Swim Through Bubbles with a Bath Time Scavenger Hunt
One of my favorite times of the day is bath time. There are many opportunities to engage little ones in sensory play while encouraging them to become independent in keeping themselves clean.
Start by pouring your favorite tearless bath time bubbles into running water. Next, hide five to 10 small, waterproof objects in the bathtub. Our favorites include Lego people, dominoes, plastic pretend food pieces, and pretty much any other toy kids already use during bath time. Invite your child to get into the bath. Explain that you've hidden some toys in the bubbles, and they are going to have to feel around the tub to figure out where they are. Model finding a toy and describing what you feel in your hand. For example, "I feel something round, and a little bumpy. I'm wondering if this is a ball?" Open your eyes and describe what you see, "This is our pretend orange from your kitchen! What can you find next?"
This activity supports children's language development as they label and describe familiar items while incorporating sensory play with water and bubbles. If your child is very sensitive to the texture and residue of bubbles, try a simple kid-friendly colorful bath bomb instead.
Stimulate Your Taste Buds and Touch with Face Masks
Encouraging my daughter to try new foods can be challenging. One thing that always works is a simple game of "Can You Guess It?" I encourage her to close her eyes, and I place a small piece of the food in her mouth (make sure it's small to prevent choking).
This trick can be a great first step to creating cucumber masks with your child. Display the cucumber and talk about its shape with your child. What do they notice? What does it remind them of? Next, give your child a piece of the cucumber and discuss what it tastes like. Is it cool, warm, crunchy, soft, or spicy? Next, get the ingredients for your mask. You'll need 1 cup of oatmeal, 6 tablespoons of honey and 6 tablespoons plain yogurt (non-dairy or dairy). Cook the oatmeal according to the package directions and let it cool. Mix the honey and yogurt. Once the oatmeal is cool, involve your child in combining all the ingredients. Help your child smooth some of the mask on their face, arm, or leg, depending on their preference, and talk about what it feels like. Then, place cucumber slices on top of your closed eyes. Leave it on for up to 15 minutes and gently wash it off. You can snack on the cucumber after as well!
Tell Stories with Small World Play and Play Dough
Small world play is basically imaginative play with small toys (e.g., animals, magical creatures, trees, people figurines/peg dolls, vehicles, etc.) that encourages children to make sense of their communities, social interaction, other ecosystems (e.g., marine, prairie, rainforest), places around the world and so much more. It's also one of my daughter's very favorite ways to flex her imagination skills.
There isn't one right way to create a small world for your child to engage with. The sky's the limit! Turn small world play into a sensory experience by incorporating play dough. First, make a batch of homemade play dough. Next, find a variety of small toys. Encourage your child to create other structures or landforms with the play dough. Extend the learning by inviting your child to tell a story and get involved in the play alongside them.
Create 'Textured Abstract Art' with a Pizza Box
First, gather various reusable materials around the house, such as foil, cardboard, construction paper, string, ribbon, beads and any other creative materials you have. Get a used pizza box and make sure the crumbs are cleaned off. Next, involve your child in painting the inside of it. Allow it to dry and tape it to a hard, flat surface covered in newspaper, with the painted inside facing out. Provide your child with paint, glue and reusable/creative materials to decorate the box and the reusable materials you gathered. Then, they can arrange them as they wish on the box. Encourage your child to label the items and describe the texture they feel and see. For example, foil is shiny, crinkly and smooth.
More sensory activities to try at home:
- PBS SoCal: Kid-Friendly Recipe: Sandwich Cake (Sandwichón)
- PBS Kids: Learn and Play With Water
- PBS Kids: Play a Senses Discovery Game
- BabyCenter: Age by Age Sensory Activities
Resources to learn more about sensory play and integration: