Exploring the benefits of sensory play
From birth through to early childhood, children use their senses to explore and try to make sense of the world around them. They do this by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, moving and hearing.
Goodstart Early Learning's senior occupational therapist Sally Fitzgerald says providing opportunities for children to actively use their senses as they explore their world through ‘sensory play’ is crucial to brain development – it helps to build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways.
This leads to a child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks and supports cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interaction and problem solving skills.
Recent research by Goodstart Early Learning shows up to one in six children may have sensory symptoms that may be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life functions.
We often talk about the five senses, these are:
– the stimulation that comes when our taste receptors react to chemicals in our mouth.
– the stimulation that comes from touch receptors in our skin that react to pressure, heat/cold, or vibration.
– the stimulation of chemical receptors in the upper airways (nose).
– the stimulation of light receptors in our eyes, which our brains then interpret into visual images.
– the reception of sound, via mechanics in our inner ear.
However there are two others we commonly miss:
(also known as proprioception) – the feedback our brains receive from stretch receptors in our muscles and pressure receptors in joints which enable us to gain a sense where our bodies are in space.
– the stimulation of the vestibular system of the inner ear to tell us our body position in relation to gravity.
Every person has a threshold for sensory stimulation. If you have a high threshold, it is harder for you to register sensory stimulation. If you have a low threshold it is very easy to register sensory stimulation.
An easy way to consider this is, everyone’s sensory system is like a cup, some people have a really big cup (high threshold) which takes a lot to fill (more stimulation). Some people have a really small cup (low threshold) which doesn’t take much to fill (less stimulation).
People also have a behavioural response linked to their sensory system, some people who have a small cup, like to avoid their cup overflowing. Many people who have a large cup feel a need to fill it up. The craving to seek sensory stimulation when you have a high or low threshold is mostly unconscious and at times can be almost involuntary.
So, what is sensory play?
includes any activity that stimulates your young child's senses: touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing.
Sensory activities facilitate exploration and naturally encourage children to use scientific processes while they play
, create, investigate and explore. The sensory activities allow children to refine their thresholds for different sensory information helping their brain to create stronger connections to process and respond to sensory information.
For example, initially a child may find it difficult to play appropriately with a peer when there are other things going on in the environment with conflicting noise. However, through sensory play exploring sounds and tasks a child learns to adapt to being able to block out the noise which is not important and focus on the play which is occurring with their peer.
Another example is a child who is particularly fussy with eating foods with a wet texture such as spaghetti, the use of sensory play can assist the child in touching, smelling and playing with the texture in an environment with little expectation.
As the child develops trust and understanding of this texture it helps build positive pathways in the brain to say it is safe to engage with this food. Sensory play literally helps shape what children to believe to be positive and safe in the brain. Ultimately, shaping the choices children make and impacting behaviour.
Creating a sensory play environment in the home
It is important for children to have a range of sensory play activities and spaces available to them at home. This would include opportunities for active sensory play and areas which are calm without a lot of stimulation. The aim is to provide a sensory experience that meets the individual needs of the children in a fun and flexible learning space.
Tips for parents
- Organise physical indoor and outdoor areas for your child so they have flexible spaces that include quiet, active, wet and dry areas that help to calm or alert them in their play.
- Ensure your child has access to materials they can shape and adapt, such as play dough.
- Use lighting and soft furnishings such as cushions and blankets to create separate spaces
Birth to five
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