Find out how important sensory play is and which activities can boost the sensory systems.
When a child is born, its sensory systems are not fully developed, but they mature over the next few months. Each new experience gained through different sensations creates neural connections that help the development of the architecture of the brain. The senses are the child's tool for exploring and understanding the world.
What are the benefits of sensory play?
It helps brain development by helping to create new neural connections. This develops new skills and leads to optimal learning and retaining information.
Develops body awareness, i.e. the skill that combines body scheme, i.e. where our body is in space, and body image, i.e. where our body parts are and what they do. This skill is essential for the development of motor skills.
Improves motor skills, specifically gross and fine motor coordination.
Enhances the development of problem-solving strategies.
Improves language skills, as through the exploration of new stimuli, children discover new ways to describe objects found around them.
It helps emotional and behavioural regulation. Some types of sensory play can calm or help children with self-regulation.
Improves social skills. The process of sharing experiences with parents and other children during sensory play promotes social and emotional development.
We understand that the benefits of sensory play are many. Here are some activities through which each system can receive additional stimulation.
- Vestibular System : contributes to balance and orientation in space. It is the leading system informing us about movement and position of head relative to gravity. Activities that develop a healthy vestibular system are:
- Activities on the playground, such as seesaw, swing,merry-go-round, slide
- Swinging in a swing or hammock and moving it with the hands
- Bouncing on the bed, on a trampoline or sitting on a hippity hop ball
- Riding a bicycle and swimming
- Rolling from one end of the carpet to the other (like a barrel)
- Do somersaults on a soft surface
- Walking on the edge of the pavement with one foot in front of the other
- Balance beam
- Proprioception System : senses the position, location, orientation, and movement of the body muscles and joints. Proprioception is activated by input to a proprioceptor in the periphery of the body. The following activities are suggested to strengthen this system:
- Climbing a wall, a piece of furniture, a rope, a slide (from bottom to top)
- Monkey bars
- Crawling under furniture with alternating legs and arms (commando crawling)
- Pushing heavy objects and furniture
- Pulling a rope (tug of war) and stretching a resistance band
- Games with heavy balls, such as basketball
- Manually squeezing oranges to make juice
- Participating in household chores, for example carrying 2 supermarket bags, carrying a moderately heavy bowl of clothes to spread, etc.
For safety reasons we are careful how much weight a child lifts. The weight of the object should not exceed 10% of the child's weight.
- Tactile System : It has receptors in the skin and is responsible for processing touch information from the body. To enhance this system, it is good to have a variety of materials.
- Play with the sand or pebbles at the beach
- Play on grass
- Gardening activities to use soil, leaves etc.
- Rolling on blankets of different textures (fleece, cotton, etc.)
- Large boxes filled with different materials each or with combinations of materials (legumes, rice, flour, soapy water, shaving foam, finger paints, jelly, pebbles, soil, corn, pom-poms, leaves, pine cones, etc.)
- Use sponges with different sponges during showering
- Play in a ball pit
- Visual System : it is responsible for seeing. Through vision can we recognise an object and where it is in the room. Activities to strengthen the visual system are:
- Toys with different colours and lights
- Toys with contrasts (bright and soft colours) and shapes
- "Hide and seek": the child should find objects that you have hidden in the room or in the yard
- Labyrinths (3D where the child moves the base or on the paper)
- Construction games with a template (i.e. copying from a picture) or free construction
- Auditory System : it is responsible for hearing, identifying the sound and its source. The ear also plays an important role in balance and posture position. The following are usefull auditory activities:
- Bell parade
- Record backyard sounds and play back the recording. Try to recognize and name the sound and where it was located in the yard.
- Fill containers with items from the backyard. Shake plastic containers or even paper bags with the items and see if your child can name the objects.
- Play Marco Polo in the yard
- Musical instruments and music in general with different volume and tempo
- Production of music with objects (tapping objects by hand or with a wooden spoon)
- Kazoo sound hunt
- Olfactory and Gustatory Systems : The olfactory system is responsible for processing smell and the gustatory system is responsible for the sense of taste. Activities that the child can do are:
- Identifying different foods with eyes closed
- Experimenting with foods at different temperatures
- Classifying objects by smell (which ones smell bad and which ones smell good)
- Classification by taste (sweet, sour, bitter, salty)
The activities are just indicative. Activities of different systems can be combined. Always make sure that there is a variety of stimuli, but that it is not chaotic for the child.
It should also be good to remember that free sensory play is necessary and more important than organised one, as this is the best way for the child to develop his or her sensory systems.
From the Synopsis team
Angelina Chatzaki, Occupational Therapist