This post was originally published on PBS.org, by Danielle Steinberg
How Sensory Play for Children Develops Life Skills
Children (and adults) learn best and retain the most information when they engage their senses. Many of our favorite memories are associated with one or more of our senses: for instance, the smell of a summer night campfire or a song you memorized the lyrics to with a childhood friend. Now, when your nostrils and eardrums are stimulated with those familiar smells and sounds respectively, your brain triggers a flashback memory to those special times.
Angie Dorrell, a NAEYC accreditation validator and former commissioner, puts this in perspective when she says, “Imagine trying to teach a group of four-year-olds about melting without allowing them to hold an ice cube as it melts in their hands or to watch cheese on bread in the microwave. As a grownup, imagine learning how to use a computer without actually sitting in front of a computer!”
Ultimately and without a doubt, we need to experience certain properties with our own senses in order to comprehend and communicate important properties.
By giving children the opportunity to investigate materials with no preconceived knowledge, you’re helping them develop and refine their cognitive, social and emotional, physical, creative and linguistic skillsets. Here’s how:
Cognitive – The most obvious cognitive skills sharpened by sensory play are problem solving and decision making; simply present a child with a problem and various materials with which to find a solution, and you can almost see the connections their brains are making. A few examples from Angie Dorrell include deciding how to build a boat that will float, how to turn whipped cream green, or how to make sand stick together. In addition, children can build math skills such as comparing size (big versus small), counting and one-to-one correspondence (matching numbers to objects), timing (does water or oil move faster?), matching (same sizes and shapes), and sorting and classifying (buttons, beans or rice), and science skills such as cause and effect (what happens when I add water to sand?), gravity (water slides down a funnel, not up) and states of matter (ice melts). Without realizing it, children grow into amateur scientists by making predictions and observations, and even develop analysis skills.
Linguistic – Children can’t define parts of language until they’ve experienced the true meaning of the word. The attempt to convey something without the proper words to do so can be frustrating for children—and adults! Sensory play encourages children to use descriptive and expressive language, and to find meaning behind essentially meaningless words or gibberish. Take for instance, the word “slimy.” Sure, you can explain what it means with different adjectives, but until you experience something slimy firsthand, that’s all it will be: words. Angie Dorrell adds that children develop prewriting skills as they pour, spoon, grasp and work on eye-hand coordination tasks while using various materials.
Social and Emotional – Certain sensory play options, like sensory tables, allow children to be in complete control of their actions and experiences, which boosts their confidence in decision making and inspires their eagerness to learn and experiment. Sensory play can also teach kids about cooperation and collaboration. Angie Dorrell suggests, “As the children work together or side by side, they learn to understand someone else’s viewpoint. The children also have the opportunity to express themselves and become confident in sharing their ideas with others.”
Physical – Fine motor skills are often defined as the coordination of small muscle movements (usually hand-eye coordination) that enable us to perform a variety of important tasks. For children, these tasks might include tying shoes, zipping zippers and even turning the pages of a book. Gross motor skills involve the larger muscles of the body and include activities such as walking, running, pushing, pulling and throwing a ball. Some examples of sensory play benefit the development of fine motor skills by encouraging manipulation of materials, such as mixing, measuring, pouring and scooping, while other examples, such as exploring surfaces, lifting, throwing, rolling and water play, help develop gross motor skills. Even recruiting your child to help you build a sensory table for future explorations is exercising motor skills.
Creative – “Sensory experiences,” explains Angie Dorrell, “provide open-ended opportunities where the process is more important than the product; how children use materials is much more important than what they make with them.” Prompting your child to think creatively in order to solve problems or engage in make-believe helps them express their creativity and build self-esteem.
Discovering Our World Through Sensory Play – Exposing children to sensory play helps them develop and refine the use of their senses. Sensory play can be divided into five classifications that, as you may have guessed, correspond to the senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. Here are a few examples of easy, inexpensive and creative ways to spend time with your children while engaging them in sensory play at home.
- Play games or engage in activities that require the use of muscles: jump on a trampoline or the bed, crab walk, have a three-legged race, make a fort or an obstacle course, play leap frog or hopscotch, try tossing or catching games (use different objects like stuffed animals, water balloons or bean bags) and play tug-of-war.
- Include your child in chores that encourage the use of muscles: let him push a laundry basket or grocery cart or clean together (wiping the counters, sweeping, mopping … every parent’s dream come true!).
- Make use of stimulating textures or objects around your house. For example, in the kitchen, hammer ice cubes in a plastic bag, play with whipped cream or cookie dough, go on a texture scavenger hunt, sip seltzer or drink through a straw.
- Partake in sensory activities that don’t require any objects: have a parade or march around the house, pet an animal or simply cuddle.
- Experiment with light around your home: play by candlelight, play flashlight tag, make shadow puppets and wear sunglasses.
- Explore with colors: Add food coloring to bath water, paint each other’s faces, or tie-dye clothes or other fabrics.
- Test the sense of sight by: playing catch with a balloon, completing mazes or dot-to-dot puzzles, tracing your body or hands, playing “I Spy,” peek-a-boo or a variation of hide-and-seek.
- Engage your child’s musical side: play or listen to an instrument or sing songs.
Play different listening games: sit very quietly and try to guess the sounds you hear, make a chart of things you hear outside, talk about different animal sounds you’ve heard, play musical chairs.
- Experiment with volume: play with the stereo dial to investigate loud and soft sounds.
- Utilize your kitchen: cook with strong-smelling scents, i.e., garlic, ginger, cocoa, lemon, vinegar, vanilla, mint, lavender; match scents while blindfolded (in opaque containers).
- Make use of the great outdoors: go on a “smelly walk” (wet grass, fertilizer, bakery), plant flowers.
- Read scratch-and-sniff books.
- Experiment with opposites: try frozen foods versus hot foods, salty versus sweet, crunchy versus soft, etc.
- Try foods that require a sipping or sucking motion to help calm children, as well as crunchy and chewy foods that increase alertness.
- Always keep a supply of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains and calcium rich foods that enhance children’s health, and therefore senses.
- Cooking is another great way to encourage children to explore tastes: sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Make a list of the best examples you can think of in each of these areas of taste.