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Child Development

Sensory Play: Early Exploration Through the Senses

Water WallHave you ever witnessed a child’s bad mood disintegrate with a splash in the bath? Or maybe you’ve seen intense concentration in a child’s face when sifting dry rice or sand through his fingers? Although children respond differently to sensory experiences, these experiences can be therapeutic, improve motor skills, raise awareness of how the world works, and contribute to language acquisition.

Exploration from Birth
When babies first interact with the world, they don’t have words to describe what they encounter, but they do absorb information through their senses. A newborn’s sight is limited at first, but as they get older their sight becomes more finely tuned. A newborn also begins to hear sounds in the womb and can distinguish her mother’s voice from other voices at birth. She can differentiate between sweet and sour tastes, will gravitate toward more pleasant smells, and is comforted by warmth and a soft touch.

FlubberAs babies mature, their awareness becomes heightened. A once “content” or “easy” baby may suddenly take fright at loud noises, be annoyed by a wet diaper, or reject the texture of a new food. These changes may confuse or frustrate parents, but they can also signify developmental maturity as the child begins to make sense of the world.

Language Acquisition
While babies may not have the words to describe their experiences, sensory play can help babies build vocabulary and understand language. By using words and questions that relate to the child’s experience, a parent or caregiver can link sensory experiences with cognitive growth. Here are a few examples of how you could articulate a sensory experience for a baby:

Touch: “I’m pouring warm water on your head. Do you feel the wet water?”
Sight: “Do you see the bird in the tree?” “Where do you see a squirrel? Oh, I see the squirrel on the fence.”
Smell: “Would you like to smell this flower? Mmmm, it smells sweet.”
Taste: “I think you like the lemon. Ooh, is it sour?”
Sound: “Do you hear the airplane? What sound does it make? Woooooosh.”

Using descriptive and action words such as cold, hot, bumpy, shiny, smooth, pour, dump, scoop, sift, and splash in the context of experiences will help solidify the meanings of these words in a young child’s mind.

Sensory Activities for Babies and Toddlers
Babies may be limited by their mobility and dexterity, but not their ability to interact with the world. Babies can enjoy the feeling of water in a pool or bath, take in the movement of wind on a walk, and respond to the sounds of music playing on the stereo. As babies become toddlers, they’ll want to feel a variety of materials, scoop and sort small objects, and experiment with the properties of cause and effect (i.e. what will happen if I dump this bowl of sand?).

Here are some of my favorite sensory activities for little ones:

    DoughSensory Play for Babies:
    To nurture site and touch experiences, place your baby on a soft blanket and billow a scarf overhead or offer a variety of objects for your child to touch.

    Water Scooping:
    Playing with water is a favorite activity for babies. Fill a large, shallow bowl with water and provide your upright baby with simple scooping tools for open-ended exploration.

    Bean Bowl Exploration:
    Fill a large bowl or shallow tub with dry beans,Paper rice, sand, or wheat berries. Babies will enjoying sifting these materials through fingers, picking them up, and pouring them out. Use your best judgement and pay close attention when introducing young children to small objects.

    Tearing and Feeling Wet Paper:
    The simple ingredients of paper, water, and a large tub make this engaging activity fun for your child and easy for you.

Sensory Activities for Preschoolers and Kindergarteners
Preschoolers and Kindergarteners act a lot like scientists when they learn through their senses. Loosely following the steps of the scientific method, a preschooler in a sandbox full of wet sand may ask questions that describe a phenomena (“Why is the sand so wet?”), construct a hypothesis (“Maybe the water came from that water pump or a nearby hose”), make a prediction (“I’ll pull on the water pump to see if it works”), test the hypothesis (pull on the nearby water pump), and draw conclusions (“Yes, that’s how the sand got to be so wet”).

Here are some of my favorite sensory experiences for preschoolers and up. These could also be appropriate for toddlers; just use your best judgment.

Water Beads

    Water Bead Exploration:
    Water beads are a polymer that can be found in the flower arranging area of arts and crafts stores. They are not edible and should be used cautiously with small children, but they’re a delightful and addicting play experience for preschoolers (and adults too).

    Cloud Dough Exploration:
    Cloud dough is a combination of flour and oil (8 parts flour: 1 part oil), and feels powdery like flour one moment, and then moldable like damp sand the next. It’s easy to make and its unique texture will delight you and your kids.Cloud Dough For gluten-free cloud dough, replace the flour with rice flour. It’s a bit grainier than cloud dough in texture and perfect for anyone who’s gluten-free.

    Slime (Flubber/Gak) Exploration:
    The recipe for this slimy substance includes a Borax (a clothing detergent) solution (1 tsp. Borax + 1/2 cup of water) and should not be introduced to children inclined to put things in their mouths. For everyone else, flubberits unique stretchy properties are full of problem-solving opportunities. The recipe calls for equal parts (4 oz.) glue and warm water, but the measurements don’t need to be exact. Add food coloring to jazz it up!

    How to Make Goop:
    At one moment it’s a solid, and at the next it’s a liquid…it’s unbelievably silly to play with, and I’ve witnessed adults get lost in the strange sensation of its texture.

Check out some of Rachelle’s sensory play ideas and crafts on our site:

  • Cloud Dough Exploration
  • Gak/Flubber/Slime Exploration
  • Rainbow Play Dough
    • Plantastic

      See and grow a Pet TickleMe Plant and watch how sensitive and interactive it becomes when you Tickle It
      http://www.ticklemeplant.com Great Gift Idea if you have kids or just love nature!

    • Kat

      An excellent article from Rachelle – Love it.

    • Pingback: Sensory Play for Babies: Percussion Using Household Items | What Would She Think?

    • Tess Lyon

      Hi there, i was wondering if you could send me the link for the salt painting video as i don’t seem to be able to access it. many thanks. Tess

    • shar

      what is sensory play exsacly???

      • http://www.wow-nice.com JeromeD

        It can be any play/activity that pretty involves the use of senses. Rachel gave some examples under “Language Acquisition” content.

    • http://www.wow-nice.com JeromeD

      I love how you itemized each sensory play. Been doing that with my toddler before encountering this article. Very informative. Thanks.


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