Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates the senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing. Young children learn best and retain the most information when they engage their senses. Sensory-based activities facilitate exploration and naturally encourage children to use scientific processes while they play, create, investigate, and explore.
Spending time stimulating the senses helps children blossom across all developmental domains - cognitively, linguistically, socially, physically, and creatively. Curious how? Read on!
[Assorted translucent shape counters and metal circles set out on the light table support the development of early math skills such as classifying, sorting, attribute identification, and patterning.]
Cognitive Development The most obvious cognitive skills sharpened by sensory play are problem solving and decision making: simply present a child with a problem, and various materials with which to find a solution, and you can almost see the connections inside their brain. In addition, children build math skills such as comparing size (big versus small), counting, and one-to-one correspondence (matching numbers to objects), timing (does water or oil move faster?), matching (same sizes and shapes), sorting and classifying (buttons, beans, loose parts), science skills such as cause and effect (what happens when I add water to sand?), gravity (water slides down a funnel, not up) and states of matter (ice melts). Without realizing it, children grow into young scientists by making predictions, observations, and developing analytical skills.
[What happens when you squeeze liquid water color on top of baking soda?!]
Sensory play encourages children to use descriptive and expressive language, and to find meaning behind new vocabulary. For example, children learn to understand the word “slimy” or "sticky" by experiencing something slimy and sticky firsthand.
[Dinosaurs in the "grass" invite conversation and dramatic role play, which fosters social development.]
Certain sensory play options, like sensory tables, trays, or bins, allow children to be in control of their actions and experiences, which boosts their confidence in decision making and inspires their eagerness to learn and experiment. Sensory play can also teach children about cooperation and collaboration. The children have the opportunity to express themselves, tell a story, and become confident in sharing their ideas with others. They also may begin to make observations about how a peer is approaching the sensory material in a different way, which helps to foster acceptance of other ideas or viewpoints.
[Exploring the concept of "resist painting." What happens to the paint when it travels on top of the dot sticker? I notice that my brush makes lines and my friend's brush makes splotches. What will happen to the paper after the paint dries and we peel off the stickers?"]
Sensory play benefits the development of fine motor skills by encouraging manipulation of materials, such as mixing, measuring, pouring and scooping. Gross motor skills are also developed through lifting, throwing, rolling, and constructing. Did you know that pinching a squeeze dropper directly supports the same finger muscles needed for pen control later?
[The whole body is incorporated when a child uses a honey stirring stick to "splatter" acrylic paint onto a collaborative piece of artwork.]
Sensory experiences provide open-ended opportunities where the process is more important than the product: simply put, how children use materials is more telling than what they make with them. Prompting children to think creatively in order to solve problems or engage in make-believe play helps them express their own creative potential and build self-esteem.
[An invitation to create with two primary paint colors and a blank canvas at the easel translates into limitless possibility. Creativity abounds!]