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Exploring the benefits of sensory play

Early learning

From birth to early childhood, children use their five senses to explore and try to make sense of the world around them.

It’s an important part of early childhood development and providing opportunities for children to actively use their senses as they explore their world through ‘sensory play’ is crucial to brain development.

Learning through sensory exploration comes naturally to babies and young children, which makes sense when you consider that the skills they will come to rely on to build an understanding of objects, spaces, people and interactions are yet to be fully developed.

As adults, our senses provide us with vital information that we use to inform decision making thousands of times a day. We may take this ability for granted and barely notice it, but it’s for this reason that helping children to learn about their own senses is so important.

So, what is sensory play?

Picking things up and feeling their texture is what people often associate with sensory play, but it’s about much more than touch.

Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates a young child's senses of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing, as well as anything which engages movement and balance.

Sensory play is only really limited by your own imagination, with of course some common sense being used around the materials and types of play appropriate for your child’s age and ability.

Some examples to get you started are:

  • Sensory play for babies – watching bubbles float and feeling them land on their skin, or scrunching coloured paper to hear the noise, feel the contours and see the shapes change
  • Sensory play for toddlers – observing light and shadow created by torch light on objects of different shapes or sizes, or watching the colours mix and the patterns form by finger painting or sponge painting (with child-safe paint)
  • Sensory play for pre-school aged children – creating shapes and playing with kinetic sand, or playing with musical instruments and listening to the tone and pitch as they strike or blow through instruments softly or forcefully

Probably the simplest way to help children engage their senses is by playing outside with nature, full of colours, movement, textures, sounds and smells.

The benefits of sensory play

Sensory play activities stimulate your child’s senses which supports their brain and language development, gross motor skills, social interaction and problem-solving skills. 

With sensory play, there’s always much more going on than meets the eye.

Sensory activities, in addition to being fun and interesting for babies and young children, encourage children to explore and investigate. Furthermore, these activities support children to use the ‘scientific method’ of observing, forming a hypothesis, experimenting and making conclusions.

Sensory activities also allow children to refine their thresholds for different sensory information, helping their brain to create stronger connections to sensory information and learn which are useful and which can be filtered out.

For example, a child may find it difficult to play with other children when there is too much going on in their environment with conflicting noises or sights.

Through sensory play, the child can learn 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 with 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.

Other reasons sensory play is beneficial for children include:

  • It helps to build nerve connections in the brain
  • It encourages the development of motor skills
  • It supports language development
  • It encourages ‘scientific thinking’ and problem solving
  • It can involve mindful activities which are beneficial for all children

The desire to engage with sensory play comes naturally for children and should be encouraged and supported both at home and in early learning environments.

Recent research shows up to one in six children may have sensory symptoms that may be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life functions. 

That’s why ensuring each child enjoys an entire sensory experience is at the heart of what Goodstart Early Learning does - from encouraging them to get dirty in mud kitchens, or designing playgrounds with many different sensory elements.

In fact, Goodstart’s centre design brief aims to maximise childrens’ sensory experiences at Goodstart through lighting, acoustics, the indoor and outdoor environments, and the creation of spaces for exploration, open-ended interactions and small group experiences between children and educators.

The design brief standards are a result of input from various teams throughout the organisation, and provide guidelines to consolidate the knowledge they have gained from many years of providing early learning and care to Australian families.

All Goodstart centres are designed with sensory elements an essential part of the design, to promote play-based learning.

At new South Australia centre Goodstart Cheltenham, the playground was designed with sensory elements aimed at connecting children with nature and giving them the opportunity to explore different textures.

Sandstone, timber, natural lighting, plants and natural turf were all included in the design.

Centre director Romana De Angelis said the mud kitchen allowed children to get messy and experiment with water and soil while the bike pathways feature different sensory elements.

“There’s a great natural environment for the children to explore and all ages will be able to play in the garden together,” Ms De Angelis said.

"Inside, there are spacious rooms with natural lighting and a mixture of furniture reflecting a home environment. The neutral colours create welcoming spaces and carefully positioned play area create an environment that inspires learning,” Ms De Angelis said.


Sensory Play Activities

Here are some fun and easy sensory play ideas for you to try at home! 

How to make Taste-safe Foam

You’ll need:

  • 1 x Tin of chickpeas
  • ¼ teaspoon Cream of tartar
  • A few drops of food colouring (optional)

Drain the tin of chickpeas, reserving the liquid (and perhaps keep the chickpeas to make a meal later!) Then add Cream of Tartar and a few drops of food colouring. Beat on high speed with electric mixer until it turns to foam.

How to make Gloop

You’ll need:

  • 2 cups of cornflour
  • 1 cup of water
  • A few drops of food colouring (optional)

Mix all of the ingredients and then watch as it turns from a solid to a liquid, depending on the amount of pressure being used.

Sand Play

You’ll need

  • Sand
  • Water
  • Food colouring (optional)
  • Glitter (optional)

Add sand and water to a large bowl, then add your choice of food colouring and glitter and mix until the colour is combined. Pour the sand onto a tray and leave the food colouring to dry. Once dry, let children explore the texture with their hands and other materials.

  • It builds nerve connections within a child's brain which trigger a child's ability to complete more complex tasks
  • It is great for calming children who are showing big behaviours
  • Sensory play helps children learn about attribtues such as hot, cold, slippery, dry etc
  • It supports problem solving skills, social interactiion, motor skills, cognitive growth and language development
  • It can help in developing and enhancing memory function.

Hand painting


You’ll need:

  • Paint
  • Paper
  • Smock or old clothes

Get a tray about the size of a baking tray and add the different colours of paint all in blobs around the tray. Then put on a smock or some old clothes and watch the children use their bodies to explore the paint.

Alphabet Soup


You’ll need

  • A tray with water
  • Foam or plastic letters
  • Ladle
  • Bowl

Place the letters in tray filled with water and ask your child to use the ladle to scoop letters out into the bowl. Ask them to pick out specific letters such as those in their name.

Ice play


You’ll need:

  • Snap lock bags
  • Ice
  • Water
  • Tape to stick them to the floor

Begin by adding ice into the bags and then add some water on top. You then begin closing the bag as you push out as much air as possible to have the ice bouncing around through the water as you touch the bags.

More benefits of sensory play

  • It builds nerve connections within a child's brain which trigger a child's ability to complete more complex tasks
  • It is great for calming children who are showing big behaviours
  • Sensory play helps children learn about attribtues such as hot, cold, slippery, dry etc
  • It supports problem solving skills, social interactiion, motor skills, cognitive growth and language development
  • It can help in developing and enhancing memory function. 

Download our Sensory Play Brochure to print these instructions.

*Safety is always a priority – so don’t give children items that are a choking risk, always supervise children around water and consider which activities are developmentally appropriate and safe for your child.

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