Sensory play and sensory activities are some of the most talked about parental “must-dos.” And rightly so. Research shows that sensory activities help infants and toddlers in various ways, from aiding in language development to cognitive growth.
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As parents and caregivers, we want to do everything we can to help our children develop and thrive. We must also realize that going crazy with curated Pinterest-worthy sensory activities isn't a must-do.
There are many natural and simple ways to do sensory activities with your infants and toddlers (and beyond!) that don't require a ton of effort on your part.
In this post, we'll discuss the importance of sensory activities for infants and toddlers and provide some simple ideas for sensory activities you can do with your little ones.
But first, let's talk a little more about the sensory system, sensory play, and why it's actually important (knowing the why is important!).
What is the sensory system?
One important aspect of early childhood development is the sensory system. The sensory system includes the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell) and the vestibular and proprioceptive senses (which help us understand our body's position and movement in space).
The sensory system is like a set of special tools our body uses to explore and understand the world around us. Our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and other parts of the body have special sensors called receptors that help us detect different things like light, sound, smells, tastes, and touch.
When these sensors detect something, they send signals to our brain, which then interprets the information and makes sense of it.
For example, when we see a rainbow, our eyes send signals to our brain that let us see the different colors and appreciate the beauty of it all.
A well-developed sensory system is important for us to feel safe, communicate with others, and enjoy life. Any problems with our sensory system can affect our ability to see, hear, smell, taste, or feel things properly.
What do we mean by sensory play?
When we refer to sensory play, we are referring to activities that engage a child's senses.
Sensory play involves creating opportunities for children to explore different textures, sounds, smells, tastes, and visual experiences in a safe and structured environment.
Sensory play aims to help children develop their sensory processing abilities, which are essential for their cognitive, physical, and emotional growth.
Sensory play is particularly important for young children as they are learning about the world around them and developing their neural connections.
Examples of sensory play activities might include playing with different textures such as sand, water, or play dough, exploring different smells through cooking together, or creating art with different materials such as feathers or cotton balls.
Why are sensory activities important?
Through sensory activities, children can learn to regulate their emotions, improve their coordination and motor skills, and develop their creativity and imagination. Sensory activities can also be calming and soothing for children, which can help them feel more secure and comfortable in their environment.
Doing sensory-focused activities can also help children who may have sensory processing difficulties or other developmental delays, by providing them with opportunities to practice and improve their sensory integration.
Here is a list of sensory activities for infants and toddlers
Sensory Activities for Infants
Infants are born with a natural curiosity about the world around them, and they use their senses to explore and learn. It's important to understand that you don't need to do special or fancy sensory activities for infants. Just being in the world and awake is usually all the sensory stimulation they need. Overstimulation can happen quickly with infants (and even older children!), so keep it simple.
Here is a list of sensory activities for infants:
- Sensory bottles – Offer a simple sensory bottle like this one. Your baby will love watching the colors move around in the water. Just make sure you aren't going overboard with showing it to them all the time–they only need this extra stimulation occasionally.
- Tummy time – Place your baby on their tummy on a soft blanket or playmat. This position allows them to strengthen their neck and back muscles and also gives them a new perspective on their surroundings. The floor is where the development of gross motor skills starts. So, for example, learning to crawl, pull up, stand, and walk is all developed from being on the floor, NOT inside any of the containers advertised to help babies learn these skills.
- Texture play – Introduce your baby to different textures by providing them with different fabrics to touch and feel. You can also place a variety of fabrics in a basket for your baby to explore. We love silks for this!
- Mirror play – Place a mirror in front of your baby and watch as they discover their own reflection. This activity can help with self-awareness and facial recognition.
- Take them outside. Outdoor play is one of the best, most natural ways for infants to get sensory input. Exposing them to different weather elements, for example, the feel of leaves or wind and seeing rain and snow, are sensory experiences.
- Water play – Fill up a shallow container with water and let your baby explore with their hands and feet. You can also add in some bath toys or cups for them to pour and splash with.
- Music play – Sing or play soft music for your baby. You can also play instruments or make sounds like tapping and clapping to expose them to explore rhythm and music.
- Provide them with contrasting black and white toys. We love this play kit from Lovevery. Black and white contrasting toys are often recommended for baby sensory development because they provide high visual contrast, which is one of the earliest visual stimuli that babies can perceive. At birth, a baby's vision is not fully developed, and they can only see high-contrast colors such as black and white and shades of gray.
How do you do sensory play with an infant?
As a baby, you can't (and shouldn't) expect them to engage too much in any structured play. Babies' jobs are really to exist in the world (and eat, sleep, and poop 😂).
As parents, our job is to provide them with a safe and loving environment to explore. We don't need to stress about “stimulating” them yet!
If you're finding you want to encourage sensory play for infants go slow and focus on the activities listed above–they are very naturally stimulating vs. many of the toys you'll find that tend to overstimulate babies.
Sensory Activities for 6-Month-Olds to 12-Months-Olds
At around six months old, babies become more mobile and develop their fine motor skills. Here are some sensory activities that are appropriate for 6-12 month-olds:
- Sensory bags – Fill a resealable plastic bag with various items such as pom-poms, feathers, or small toys. Seal the bag and let your baby explore the contents.
- Musical instruments – Provide your baby with age-appropriate musical instruments such as rattles, shakers, or drums. Encourage them to make noise and explore different sounds.
- Edible sensory play – Provide your baby with safe and edible materials such as cooked pasta, soft fruits, or mashed vegetables. Let them explore the textures and tastes with their hands and mouths. Baby-led weaning is great for this!
- Bubble play – Blow bubbles for your baby to watch and pop. This activity can help with hand-eye coordination and tracking skills.
- Light play – Use a flashlight to shine different colored lights on the wall or ceiling and let your baby watch and reach for the lights. You can also create a light table by placing a light under a translucent container filled with objects for your baby to explore.
- Sensory board – Create a sensory board by attaching different textures and materials such as faux fur, bubble wrap, or ribbon to a piece of cardboard. Your baby can explore the different textures with their hands and fingers.
- Sensory art – Provide different materials for your child to create sensory art such as finger painting, textured collages, or even creating art with food materials like pudding or whipped cream. Here is a list of our favorite art supplies.
How do you do sensory play with 6-12-month-olds?
When doing sensory play with 6-12-month-olds, it is important to keep the activities simple and focus on activities that are age appropriate. Remember that this age group, while they are starting to be more mobile, is still prone to overstimulation.
Sensory Activities for 1-2-Year-Olds
Children become more independent at this age and begin developing their language and social skills.
For toddlers, you can start offering more structured sensory activities that will help them develop their motor skills and their understanding of the world around them.
Here are some sensory activities that are appropriate for 1-2-year-olds:
- Sensory bins – Fill a container with different materials such as rice, beans, or sensory beads, and provide scoops, spoons, and small containers for your child to play with. You can also add in small toys or objects for them to discover and explore.
- Play dough – Provide your child with age-appropriate play dough and tools such as cookie cutters, rollers, and stamps. Encourage them to use their hands and imagination to create.
- Water play – Set up a water table or provide your child with buckets and containers for them to play with in the bath or outside. This activity can help with hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness.
- Sensory scavenger hunt – Hide different objects around the house or yard for your child to find using their senses.
- Ice play – Freeze small toys or objects in ice cubes and let your toddler explore them as they melt. You can also offer frozen fruit for your toddler to suck on and explore the cold texture. Just be sure to supervise closely to prevent choking hazards.
- Body painting – Cover a large piece of paper or a canvas with non-toxic paint and let your toddler explore by crawling or rolling on the paper. This activity allows them to explore new textures and sensations.
- Sensory board – Create a sensory board by attaching different textures and materials such as faux fur, bubble wrap, or ribbon to a piece of cardboard. Your toddler can explore the different textures with their hands and fingers.
- Scented play – Offer scented items for your toddler to smell and explore, such as herbs, spices, or flowers. You can also use scented playdough or make your own scented bubbles for them to play with.
- Mud play – Playing in the mud is a great was for children to get sensory input. It's messy but actually very good for them! Read more about why I recommend mud play here.
- Nature exploration – Take your child on a nature walk and encourage them to explore their surroundings using their senses. You can ask them to describe what they see, hear, and smell, and even touch different textures and materials. Here are 25 more nature activities your kids will love.
How do you do sensory play with toddlers?
Toddlers are in full-on exploration mode. So sensory play is great for this age group. When encouraging sensory play try to focus on providing the invitation to play and then giving them space to actually play without too much input from you. This is your chance to sit back and let them explore.