The Benefits of Sensory Play
“Don’t do that, you’ll get dirty” “Take that out of your mouth” “Out of the puddle”. I think that at some stage or another, we’re all guilty of saying these words to our children. And at certain times it is of course appropriate, but are we doing a disservice for our children if we don’t allow them the opportunity for sensory exploration? What’s the big deal?
Sensory exploration is one of the major and first ways that children make sense of the world around them. From the moment babies are born they are in sensory overload as they smell new smells, hear new sounds, touch new things and see the world for the first time. One of the first things babies will do to explore things is mouth them. You will find everything they touch goes straight in the mouth. This isn’t because they have no regard for hygiene, but this is a very effective way for them to explore things. They use oral exploration to make sense of the world around them.
Perhaps you could dedicate some items to things that baby can mouth and ensure it is thoroughly cleaned afterwards rather than trying to deter mouthing toys completely as it is an important part of development.
Language development is also supported through sensory play and exploration. Mainly in the toddler years, vocabulary progresses at a rapid rate. Allowing children to be stimulated by sensory exploration encourages them to use and understand adjectives such as slimy, fluffy, smooth, bumpy etc. These types of words are best understood in conjunction with touch rather than receiving the auditory information on how a texture may feel. This language extends beyond just sensory exploration through touch, but can also include sound, taste, smell and sight.
Many studies have shown a direct link with sensory exploration and brain connection development. Supporting children to adopt scientific language and concepts through sensory exploration encourages them to explore, investigate and hypothesize. This can aide in the brain forming connections known as synapses. This sensory exploration can also be a tool for children to assist in self-regulation. If feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated, often engaging with something sensory such as weighted toys or pushing on walls can empower children to self-regulate.
Babies and children develop motor skills through sensory play. They are encouraged to use fine motor skills through experiences such as inserting toothpicks into clay or manipulating play dough. Gross motor development can be encouraged through jumping in muddy puddles or filling and tipping buckets of water. There are almost limitless opportunities for motor development with sensory exploration.
Above all, sensory play can be so much fun! If the mess is a genuine concern for you, encourage sensory exploration in the bathtub or outdoors to minimize mess. Perhaps spray shaving cream into the empty bath and allow your children to explore this with their whole body. Maybe you could put them in a high chair with a plastic mat underneath and supply a tub of dried lentils with small cups to encourage tipping and transferring. The mess is temporary, the memories, joy and development last a lifetime. Get messy!