By Lucy White (@flisatfun)
As a former teacher, I knew of the benefits of sensory play but to see my children engaging in sensory activities as a stay-at-home Mum has made me realise that its importance cannot be understated. Sensory play is play involving the use of one or more of a child’s senses (sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell but can also include motion and balance). Children discover and make sense of their world through their senses and this gets developed over time. Sensory play helps support so many skills: cognitive development, strengthening gross and fine motor skills, language acquisition, forming neural pathways by making connections, enhancing imagination and providing the opportunity for creativity and problem solving.
I have four boys aged 8, 6 and 2 year old twins and I use sensory play with all. I set up sensory tubs with materials such as rainbow rice, dried lentils, pasta, slime, oobleck. I use manipulative materials such as playdough, clay, plasticine and magnets. I also use natural materials such as sticks, water, leaves, flowers and shells. For my two year olds, I encourage sensory play to help promote vocabulary and speech as they have been slower to speak than our older two. For instance I might set up water play outside and one of them might say “cold” and I will repeat back “The water is cold!” or I may ask “What colour is that boat you are holding?” One of our two year olds adores ‘practical life’ style activities so I might provide him with two cups and he can practise for himself how to pour water into a cup, exploring the concept of full and empty but also gaining independence in living skills. I also love how sensory play develops their fine motor skills. Providing playdough to squash and roll and cut helps develop finger strength. Trying to pick up items with tongs or scoops out of some rice assists with the concept of balance.
For our older boys, sensory play has the benefits of assisting with their memory, learning and social skills. Rather than asking them about their day at school upon picking them up, often I wait until they are home and rolling out some playdough or building some Lego. By sitting next to them and engaging in their play, I’m not looking at them and the detail about their day just flows in a natural way and I find out so much more! I also find it helps ease them into the transition from school to home thus improving their overall behaviour. They’ve had a busy day, they think I’m giving them relaxation time by letting them play, which I am, but they’re actually learning at the same time. They are building and thinking about what LEGO piece fits where, what colour/shape/size they need and working together to build a model.
They are making a vehicle out of their Mobilo and working out how to join pieces together. They are picking up water beads with tweezers utilising the same muscles that help them with their handwriting and learning to go slowly and gently or they’ll crush the water beads. If anxieties or conflict arise either from school or at home, sensory play comes in so handy as a way to calm and console. For instance, my 8 yr old was stressed that he just couldn’t understand fractions like his classmates so instead of going straight to his Homework worksheet, we modelled fractions using apples and megablocks, we added fractions together by making a chocolate cake. By engaging his senses, he was able to understand the concept with a deeper level of understanding. If my six year old is having trouble with letter formation when he is writing, tracing letters in a tray of coloured salt is another way to practise forming his letters using the correct stroke progression but in a more appealing way. The letter can easily be erased if he wants to start again which empowers him to give it a try without the annoyance of rubbing it out with an eraser. If there is a social issue at school that they are having difficulty resolving, acting it out using lego mini figurines and practising their communication and social skills can be beneficial.
Sensory play can be pre-organised and set up but it can also be spontaneous. For instance, if the children are helping in the vegetable garden and go to eat something from it, an intentional question such as “What’s that tomato taste like?” helps refine the concepts of taste and texture. If you are out at the park, children may well be listening to the birds, practising their gross motor skills of running, climbing and jumping, smelling the grass. Nature play is indeed the easiest of sensory play.
The most important thing to emphasise is that sensory play doesn’t have to be hard and it doesn’t always have to involve a parent. Often I set up an open-ended sensory tub so then I have my toddlers entertained so that I can unpack the dishwasher, help with homework or drink my coffee uninterrupted! It doesn’t have to involve elaborate or expensive materials. It doesn’t always have to be planned and inside. Chances are, you are probably already doing it with your children. Yet never underestimate the power of sensory play as so often it saves our day!