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What is Sensory Play? [and benefits of sensory play]

Sensory play is an essential part of childhood development. It allows children to explore, experiment, and learn about their environment through their senses. Sensory play involves engaging the senses of touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing.

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Children who engage in sensory play often develop better cognitive, communication, and social skills.

This article will discuss the benefits of sensory play for children and provide tips on how parents can encourage sensory play.

What is sensory play?

So what do we mean when we say sensory play? Simply put, sensory play is any activity that engages a child's senses. And no, it doesn't require a perfect sensory table, themed sensory bins, or fancy homemade play dough.

It can include anything from playing with mud, sand, or water to exploring different textures with their hands or feet.

Sensory play encourages children to use their senses to explore and learn about their world. Sensory play can also involve using different materials to create new and interesting sensory experiences.

Examples include playing with play dough, finger painting, or even cooking and baking. Even going outside to play is considered sensory play!

5 Benefits of Sensory Play for Children

Sensory play has many benefits for children, including:

  1. Cognitive Development: Sensory play helps to develop a child's cognitive skills, including problem-solving, critical thinking, and memory. Children learn about cause and effect, develop their imaginations, and explore new ideas.
  2. Language Development: Sensory play helps children develop their language skills by providing opportunities for them to communicate with others. As children play and explore, they learn new words and concepts, which they can use to describe what they are experiencing.
  3. Social Skills: Sensory play helps children to develop their social skills by encouraging them to share, take turns, and cooperate with others. Sensory play can also help children to develop empathy and understanding of others.
  4. Sensory Integration: Sensory play can help children with sensory processing issues to develop better sensory integration skills. Children with sensory processing issues may have difficulty processing sensory information, which can affect their ability to learn and communicate.
  5. Emotional Regulation: Sensory play can help children to regulate their emotions and reduce stress. Sensory play can be calming and therapeutic, helping children to feel more relaxed and in control.

Sensory Play Outdoors [why it's the perfect place for sensory play!]

The outdoors is a wonderful place for sensory play because it offers a wide range of natural materials and experiences that engage the senses in unique and meaningful ways.

Here are some reasons why the outdoors is such a great place for sensory play:

  1. Natural materials: The outdoors is full of natural materials that can be used for sensory play. From rocks and sticks to leaves and flowers, these materials offer a variety of textures, colors, and scents that can engage multiple senses at once.
  2. Open space: The outdoors provides plenty of space for children to move around and explore, which can help them develop their gross motor skills and spatial awareness. This freedom of movement can also encourage imaginative play and exploration.
  3. Fresh air: Fresh air can be invigorating and stimulating, and it can help to clear the mind and improve concentration. Being outside in the fresh air can also help children to regulate their breathing and increase oxygen flow to their brains, which can improve their overall mood and cognitive function.
  4. Seasonal changes: The changing seasons offer a variety of different sensory experiences, from the sights and sounds of spring to the textures and smells of autumn. Children can learn about the natural world and how it changes over time, while also engaging their senses in new and exciting ways.
  5. Multi-sensory experiences: The outdoors offers many opportunities for children to engage multiple senses at once. For example, running through the grass can provide a tactile experience while also stimulating the sense of sight and hearing. Listening to birdsong or feeling the wind on their face can offer auditory and tactile stimulation at the same time.

Overall, the outdoors provides a rich and diverse sensory environment that can help children to develop their sensory processing skills, enhance their creativity and imagination, and promote their overall health and well-being. So use this list of nature activities to get your child outside for at least an hour per day!

When can a child start sensory play?

Sensory play is suitable for children of all ages, from newborns to teenagers. Babies and toddlers are particularly receptive to sensory play and can learn through exploring with their hands, feet, eyes, nose, and mouth. 

But no, that doesn't mean you need to start trying to get your infant to participate in sensory play! Many of the things you do with your infant count as sensory play so try not to stress about stimulating or adding in specific types of play. It's totally unnecessary!

When your child is a little older (or your child has specific sensory needs) and you want to start being more intentional about sensory play, you can use these tips to encourage more sensory play.

Tips for Encouraging Sensory Play

Here are some tips for encouraging sensory play with your child:

  1. Provide a variety of materials: Offer a variety of materials for your child to explore, such as sand, water, playdough, or paint.
  2. Use everyday items: Encourage your child to explore everyday items, such as kitchen utensils, fabrics, or natural materials like leaves and rocks.
  3. Be open-minded: Let your child take the lead and explore the materials in their own way. Resist the urge to direct or control their play. This is true for sensory play and in general for free play. The more we interrupt the less our child is able to. get into the flow of play.
  4. Create a sensory bin: Use a large container and fill it with different materials, such as rice, beans, or shredded paper. Encourage your child to use their hands or tools to explore the materials. Again, this doesn't have to be a perfectly curated thing!
  5. Play together: Join in your child's sensory play and engage in the exploration together. This can be a great bonding experience for both parent and child. But also know that playing with your child constantly is absolutely unnecessary–so don't feel guilty if you don't love to “play” all the time.

Overall, it's important to understand that sensory play is an essential part of childhood development, and it offers many benefits to children. Sensory play encourages children to use their senses to explore and learn about their environment.

If your child has a sensory processing disorder or just seems to need more sensory input in their day to day, consider implementing a sensory diet at home (or at school).

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