If you’re a toddler or preschool parent, you’ve probably seen the #sensoryplay tag on your feed at least a few times… usually accompanied by a bin of dyed rice and small toys. And while cute, themed sensory bins may be a fad, sensory play certainly isn’t! It’s a critical part of early childhood with huge development benefits, and it goes far beyond sensory bins. Here’s what you should know about sensory play and why it matters!
What is Sensory Play?
As you could probably guess, sensory play is play that engages the senses. Of course, that includes the big five – sight, touch, taste, sound, and smell – but it also includes our sense of balance and location (more on that later). Many sensory play activities focus on touch, encouraging kids to explore different materials and textures through good ol’ messy play (i.e. sensory bins, play foam, slime, etc.). But anything that engages the senses and your child’s attention and focus can count as sensory play. So when your toddler helps you cook and comments on the smells and sounds of food in the pan, they’re getting a great sensory play session too! Playing with scented bubbles in the bathtub, shaking maracas, and having fun taste testing new foods are all examples of sensory play too.
Sensory Play for the Proprioceptive and Vestibular System
Sensory play extends even beyond the five senses to our less commonly-known senses: proprioception and equilibrioception. Our proprioceptive system is responsible for our sense of place in a given space. It’s how we can feel where we are in relation to other things, even when our eyes are closed. Our vestibular system is responsible for our equilibrioception, or sense of balance. Activities that engage these systems like swinging, balancing, climbing, spinning, and walking backwards can all be considered sensory play as well!
Why is Sensory Play Important?
Supports Cognitive Development
Sensory play actually helps develop the neural pathways (i.e. nerve connections) in babies and toddlers’ brains! The rich sensory inputs and problem-solving challenges that come with sensory play help support healthy cognitive development, laying the foundation for future learning.
Refines Motor Skills
Many sensory play opportunities also include fine or gross motor practice. Things like pouring items in a sensory bin or rolling out playdough build fine motor skills, while activities swinging and balancing refine their gross motor skills.
Encourages Exploration and Curiosity
By providing rich sensory experiences for your toddler, you help them discover the world around them. When they get a chance to explore new sensory experiences, their curiosity and natural drive to experiment and problem solve are sure to take over.
Enhances Learning and Memory
Kids, and adults for that matter, learn more effectively when multiple senses are engaged. This is why so many preschool and elementary teachers try to combine sensory play with learning activities. Activities like tracing letters in shaving cream or using hand motions and songs to learn new concepts are just a few examples of how sensory play can make academic learning easier and more fun for kids.
Feeling inspired to incorporate more sensory play into your toddlers’ life? Check out our Sensory Play Ideas for Toddlers to get started!