The Importance of Sensory Play for Children

Most of you may recall when my babes were young, I used to have a parenting blog called "Montessori Meet Mot." Well, thanks to life in general, I have since stopped blogging as much on parenting/education in the home. My goal was to home school both children, however as we grew, our needs have changed. Both of my children went to a Montessori preschool, where the main focus was child led learning. My son completed his first year of public school as a first grader, and my daughter will be starting Kindergarten next year! We are all so excited, and they will be together again in school.

I find it is really important to supplement their academically rigid school day with play at home that encourages them to stimulate their senses, in a self led manner. Sensory play is essentially any play that focuses on any of the five senses: touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing. From birth, children are using these senses to explore and make sense of the big world around them. They learn best and retain the most information when something engages their senses, ultimately making a connection. Think back to when you were a child, the smell of grandma's apple pie baking, your nose was stimulated and your brain has made a positive connection and recalls a memory when you smell something similar to this day. That ability we have to make these connections subconsciously is the foundation to completing more complex learning tasks. This supports language development, cognitive growth, gross motor skills, social interaction and critical thinking skills.

It's easy to overlook how our senses affect everything we do on a daily basis. This can often lead to misconceptions of why a certain behavior occurs and can easily be managed better by focusing on potential underlying sensory issues. For example, children who are dubbed as "picky eaters" also fly under the radar as just being spoiled or not liking the taste of the food. In many cases this may be true, but not always... Some children don't like the textures (Texture Aversion) of certain foods and they can really benefit from sensory play.

When they are touching and smelling different textures in an environment with limited expectations, they begin developing trust and a better understanding of these strange sensations/feelings. This helps them build positive pathways in their brain allowing them understand that it is safe and okay to engage with these particular feelings. For a child who has always seems to turn away to spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, chicken noodle soup, you may want to let them explore cooked spaghetti noodles in play. Since this is a fun, self led, and natural engagement with zero expectations, they will hopefully over time make a positive connection with the particular texture to dinner time.

My son, who is 7, is diagnosed with High Functioning Autism. He is naturally clumsy, and has a hard time not bumping into or tripping over things throughout the day. For the longest time (prior to our diagnosis,) I thought he was just a rough and destructive child. I would always tell him, "be gentle." It wasn't until we saw a Developmental Pediatrician, that we found out he has trouble with "Proprioception," which is the perception by way of stimuli relating to one's own position, posture, equilibrium, or internal condition.

Impaired proprioception may be evidenced by things such as a child simply trying to spread peanut butter on a cracker, and the cracker always breaking because he is not aware of how much force he is using, and that it is too much in that particular situation. When we do typical daily things, such as sitting in a chair, we are not actively thinking "I am siting on a chair, I need to make sure I don't fall off..." instead while we are working on other things such as reading this article, our body's sensory receptors are taking care of this for you, taking the input from your muscles and joints, sending it to your brain, and coming up with a solution or physical response to keep your body flexed and balanced where it needs to be at the time.

Children who have impaired proprioception have trouble doing seemingly simple tasks and appear to be clumsy, destructive, or rough. It is not intentional, nor are they aware that this is atypical, as it is not a physical impairment we can see to compare to those around them and adjust, it is normal to them. They can't feel how other children and adults feel and respond to stimuli, they only know how they feel.

Many non-verbalized frustrations can arise and cause a multitude of emotional and behavioral responses such as anger, depression, and anxiety. Something as simple as wanting to be independent and spread peanut butter on a cracker for snack, can quickly turn into an outburst when the goal can not be achieved. Imagine telling your little one to run a race with a broken leg, we likely agree that would be a terrible thing to do, being it's not only physically but emotionally painful, setting an expectation he physically can not meet. Our doctor said that she has seen many teenage patients who have been struggling with these unrecognized impairments and has resulted in self esteem and depression. Being able to recognize an internal issue and deploying intervention early is key to everyone's well being, including the other family members.

These are just a few examples of children who have specific sensory needs that would benefit from enjoying sensory play. Not all sensory play is the same, so you can explore what is appropriate for your child specifically by asking yourself how you can incorporate this fun experience into a self navigated lesson, or non direct way of learning a skill?

Fine motor skills for instance are important to learn early on. This can be achieved through sensory play, while driving their Lego boat through a sea of water beads, picking these slippery and bouncy little suckers and putting them into a small container, pretending they are fish! You can do this by sitting down with your child and showing them how to play, this is also a good opportunity to incorporate social skills, and team work by saying things like, "Hey Mr. Tuggles! Wait for me, I'll grab these fish (water beads) and carry them over to the boat for you!" your child may respond appropriately by saying "thank you!" or he may not know how to. You can help guide the conversation in play by saying, "Don't worry, you can thank me when I get there!" prompting him to show gratitude when the mission is complete. If you want them to explore without being fully involved yourself, you can simply hand them some tools, and see how they choose to use them! Here is a video of when my daughter (who is now 4) was 17 months playing freely with water beads:

You don't have to have fancy containers, or a crazy set up. We always use what we have on hand. Another video of my daughter shows her using the dog bowl stand, it was the perfect height for her, and she enjoyed playing with rainbow rice using it to transfer scoops from one bowl to the other while I cooked dinner:

I enjoy making themed sensory bins myself, one of our favorites to give you an idea of a theme, one we really liked was the Chicka Chicka Boom Boom based on a childhood favorite about the ABCs (you can click here to order your copy:)

Another fun one we do is make "Cupcake Cloud Dough" See our Cloud Dough Recipe here, and you can do many different things to make it a fun theme! This one we added polymer clay sprinkles we found on etsy, and added birthday cake soap fragrance oil, and pink food coloring to it! This one smells yummy!

I use Soap/Candle Fragrance oils from VA Candle Supply. Here is the direct link for Fruit Loops Scent. You just need 1-3 drops! We also LOVE Birthday Cake Scent!

Need more sensory bin ideas? Head over to my Sensory Kitchen!

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