It’s raining. Your little one is drenched. But her face is a picture of sheer delight and wonderment. With every energetic kick of the puddle, water sloshes over the tops of her wellies. She squeals as it trickles down inside her clothes. Do you wholeheartedly welcome this joy and fascination, or is your practical mind full of the woes of washing?
This is sensory play at its best – where children use their senses as a means to explore the world. But all too often we hold our children back because of etiquette, modern day worries or simply because the opportunities just aren’t there. In fact, research has shown that children’s exposure to sensory play opportunities is in decline. Yet sensory play is absolutely vital for child development. Let’s look a little more into this and what you, as a parent, can do to help reverse this worrying trend.
So what exactly is sensory play?
Sensory play is simply play that encourages a child to use their senses. Suitable environments will stimulate the child’s sense of sight, sound, touch, taste, balance and movement.
Why is sensory play so important?
From the day they’re born, children explore the world with their senses. Newborns use smell to find their mother’s milk, older babies automatically place objects in their mouths, and toddlers are often happier smearing food on their hands rather than eating it. This sensory exploration is crucial for brain development.
Neurons in the brain remain at rest until a stimulus in the form of a sensory experience fires up a new connection or pathway between them. The more connections that are made between neurons, the more easy it is for us to think and recall accurately. Learning in this way is optimised when all the senses are stimulated.
The worrying trend
There’s no doubt about the fact that children have less opportunities to engage in sensory environments compared to past generations. Whilst our parents would have roamed the outdoors, climbing trees and making dens, our children are predominantly confined indoors. In fact, a survey conducted by Mothercare revealed a quarter of British children spend less than 30 minutes a week playing outdoors. Of course sensory play doesn’t have to happen outside; opportunities can be made available indoors too, but the lure of screen entertainment is often too great.
Sensory play is your responsibility
It’s up to parents to ensure our children are exposed to sensory environments. Fortunately, it’s remarkably easy, requires very little preparation and is usually free! Here are a few ideas:
- Play with sand, shaving foam, water, dried pasta and lentils using containers, pouring vessels, tubes and sieves.
- Build towers out of empty boxes and maximise the crash as they are knocked to the ground.
- Sing and dance to music with ribbons, scarves and swirly skirts.
- Invest in simple bubble blowers and go to the park where children have the space to chase and observe the bubbles.
- Go on a nature hunt where your children are free to collect their own nature treasures.
- Create a treasure basket filled with everyday items chosen for maximum sensory appeal such as a seashell, lemon, bunch of keys, whisk and wool pom-poms.
This is just a taster to help you on your way to create sensory environments that will optimise your child’s learning. Remember, the next time they’re exuberantly jumping in puddles and soaking every item of clothing…your job is to embrace the sensory opportunities and let them play!
Thanks to Jackie Edwards for this article. Now working as a writer, Jackie started her career in the health sector, but after becoming a mum refocused and decided to spend more time with her family. When she’s not writing, she volunteers for a number of local mental health charities and also has a menagerie of pets to look after.