Sensory Play: What It Is and Easy Sensory Ideas for at Home
We talk about sensory play at Kids & Company all the time. You might see our sensory bins and water tables in use in the classrooms, at standing height for a child to easily explore different textures and objects and their behaviour. Or tactile tools and toys on low shelves for children to be able to discover under their own direction. Or our outdoor equipment pieces, regularly changed up to give new perspective, ideas and stimulation. It is all part of an emergent curriculum that facilitates learning and breakthrough via the senses and guided by the child.
And did you know there are actually two more ways to take in information than taste, touch, sight, smell and sound? Those five senses are external and we have two internal ones: proprioception and balance.
Proprioception, or body awareness, is the sense of where we are in space using feedback from receptors in our muscles and joints. You can think of this in terms of understanding how to move through space and using the correct amount of force for actions – a sort of mental map of your body in its environment.
Balance is the sense established through stimulation of the vestibular system in the inner ear; it basically tells us our body position in relation to gravity. Something we almost never think about but an important sense – even in the absence of other senses, we learn to gauge how we are fixated in relation to the ground beneath us.
Why is sensory play for infants, toddlers and children so important? We already know learning and memories are better cemented in place when using our senses at any age. But when we are young, we are building a huge number of complex nerve connections within the brain’s pathways. Early learning through sensory development leads to more connections, more understanding, more complex cognitive growth: all tied into developing language, fine and gross motor skills, spatial awareness, social interaction capabilities and general problem-solving.
There are lots of ways to support sensory play in your house – simply supervise your child and give them permission (or let babies roam loose) to explore what they want. They’ll guide you to the things they are needing to learn about! But if you want some ideas of household items to provide or easy activities to undertake, here are a few to try with supervision:
Infants (6 to 18 months)
- Whisk away: Grab a whisk and stuff soft items inside (pom pom balls or a small washcloth work great). Let your little one play with it first to observe their interest and ability to get the objects out. Eventually, you can show them how to push the items in and out, and demonstrate the fun of banging the whisk to create noise.
- Tape drawing: Find all the different kinds of tape in your house and a surface or book you don’t mind it sticking to. Show your baby as you create a star or other shape and leave the ends sticking up a bit. It’s such an easy and simple activity but the sticky properties of tape can be very intriguing to a little one.
- Make an easy sensory touch bag: Add hair gel, glitter and food colouring into a secure zipped plastic bag. You can try a lot of different objects inside, too. This is a twist on a water table that allows them to explore the viscosity and characteristics of fluids in a clean and safe way! You may want to duct tape the top to make sure it’s sealed well. One tip is to try hanging them along a wall at appropriate heights to encourage new sitters or standers to hold the position.
Toddlers (18 months to 3 years)
- Kitchen percussion: Yes, do it. Pull out the pots and pans and spoons and whisks. Let your toddler play around for a while and then join in to demonstrate the creation of beats, different pitches, and the differences between quiet and loud.
- Slow motion sensory bottle: Combine 1 part hair gel to 6 parts of warm water and glitter (optional). Once cool, add to a tall water bottle with some Lego bricks. Secure with a lid and shake vigorously. (Add more warm water if bricks fall too slowly and more hair gel if they fall too quickly.) This sensory bottle is quite mesmerizing for children and adults of all ages, and can be a great quiet activity for children.
- Light up jars: Change up the scene by simply using lights in a dark room. Try filling a plastic bottle, jar or Tupperware with a string of battery-operated lights for a magical scene, or bust out some flashlights or camping lanterns.
Preschoolers (3 years+)
- Frozen dinosaur eggs: Create magical discoveries for budding paleontologists! Simply insert small dinosaur toys (or other) inside balloons, add water, freeze, and peel away the balloon to reveal frozen ‘eggs’. You can also add food colouring and glitter to make them more interesting. Your preschooler can spend a lot of time and learn many lessons trying to release the dinosaurs within and watching the eggs melt over time.
- Cloud dough: There are actually many recipes for edible dough online if you’d like to try this with younger ones. But here’s an easy one for preschoolers: mix two cups of flour or corn starch with ¼ cup of oil (pre-mixed with food colouring if desired). Knead the dough with your hands until fluffy and well distributed. The more involved your child can be in making the recipe, the more learning!
- Messy shaving cream painting: Be prepared for some mess from this one! But a very simple learning invitation to young ones is to provide shaving cream (with food colouring or washable paints mixed in optional), a paintbrush, and a paper or canvas for their art. This is an open-ended activity that provides a great foundation for a child to feel confident to create what they want and not be outcome-focused.
Melissa lives in Calgary and is the Director of Brand Strategy for Kids & Company. Her vision of what she would be like as a mom was shattered years ago when she discovered nothing ever goes as planned for parents, but laughter and community sees you through. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.