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What is sensory play? The benefits for your child and sensory play ideas - Cleveland Clinic | My Baby My Star

You can probably name all of the main senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. But do you know why they are so vital and why they become even more important for growing children?

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Sensory Play focuses on activities that engage your child’s senses and help them develop language and motor skills. It also aids in cognitive growth, encourages social interactions, and encourages experimentation.

Sensory play can also address two sensory systems that are often overlooked: our proprioceptive and our vestibular systems.

Our sense of proprioception relates to awareness of our own body. It helps us know where body parts are relative to each other and tells us how much force we need to use when holding, pushing, pulling, or lifting objects.

Our vestibular sense, also known as movement or balance, allows us to maintain balance while engaging in activities.

Examples of sensory play include riding a bike, playing slime, or just listening to music.

Recreational Therapist Leah Young, CTRS, and Occupational Therapist Suzanne Messer, MS, OTR/L share why sensory play is so important and what sensory activities you can easily do at home.

Benefits of Sensory Play

Sensory play plays an important role in your child’s development from birth to early childhood. It helps build neural connections in their brain pathways that can help your child complete complex tasks.

“When your child engages in sensory play, it helps their brain develop and learn from certain aspects of their environment,” says Messer.

Here’s how sensory play can benefit and help your child.

Helps with language skills

Your child’s language skills develop naturally through sensory play.

“When a child engages in any type of play, including sensory play, they learn through experiences in their environment and learn different ways of communicating emotions, wants and needs,” explains Messer.

By activating the senses, your child will learn to describe what they are doing and how it feels, eventually using more descriptive words to communicate.

Helps with fine motor skills

Sensory play can help your child develop fine motor skills, such as B. tying his shoes, writing and closing his coat. Through tactile play that focuses on building, pouring and shuffling, your child builds on their ability to use small muscle groups and coordinate movement.

“Tactile play is a great way to engage and train a child’s fine motor skills in a fun way,” says Young. “Allowing your child to freely explore small sensory content such as dried pasta, dry cereal, rice, or even slime or playdough can strengthen and build their fine motor skills.”

Helps with gross motor skills

Gross motor skills include sitting, crawling, jumping, and running—activities that engage your child’s large muscles in the arms, legs, and trunk (abdominal area).

Whether your child is just learning to walk or has tried throwing a ball, the key is to give them plenty of time to practice these skills freely.

Helps with cognitive growth

Asking questions, thinking about how things work, conducting experiments, and analyzing results are all part of healthy cognitive growth. This is how we learn something new and find things out. That’s how we solve problems.

“During sensory play, your child trains their problem-solving skills,” says Messer. “It encourages them to explore how to play and engage with different experiences, how to deal with challenges they encounter, how to move rice from one container to another, or how to balance on a swing.”

Has a calming effect

Your sensory system can help calm you down. This is especially important for children in their development.

“Sensory play can be used to regulate your overall level of arousal,” says Messer. “You can use it to stimulate a child who might be a bit sluggish. On the other hand, sensory play can help a child who may be hyperactive or have trouble paying attention.”

The pressure of hugs, weighted lap pads, and sensory seats can help soothe and signal it’s time to stay put.

Promotes social interaction

Through sensory play with siblings or peers, your child will begin to develop social skills. They learn to communicate, solve problems and adapt to the game of others.

“Whether you’re on the swings in the park or playing with blocks, sensory play is something everyone can participate in,” says Messer. “It’s very inclusive.”

Ideas and activities for sensory play

According to Young and Messer, finding activities that stimulate your child’s senses is easy. Here are a few ideas.

Sensory containers

Use a plastic tub or large container and fill it with various items like sand or scraps of paper.

Other ideas are:

  • Water.
  • making pom poms.
  • cotton balls.
  • easter grass.
  • Packing peanuts.
  • Keys.

Young likes to create sensory containers out of dried rice, pasta or beans. You can even add tools like small toy shovels or buckets. Depending on your child’s age, small toys or figures can also encourage imaginative play. Just make sure you use items that aren’t a choking hazard and provide supervision when using smaller items like these.

“Let your child explore and get used to the potentially unfamiliar textures,” Young suggests. “There is no need to direct the play. Take a step back and let your child explore and experiment freely.”

finger painting

Sure, it might be a little messy, but finger painting is a great activity for infants and toddlers. If you’re doing this with a toddler, help paint their hands and feet with a soft brush, and then make prints on a piece of paper. If you’re feeling creative, turn your prints into works of art for a cute keepsake. For toddlers, it can be a relaxing activity and help them express their feelings.

First, set up an area with paper and finger paint. You can do this outside on a nice day to reduce clutter around the house, or set out an old blanket or sheet for the child to work on. Then let your child dip, mix, and toss to their heart’s content.

“It helps kids get used to this sensory experience and how the texture of paint feels,” says Young.

Using playdough or slime works just as well.

play with food

The next time you decide to tell your child to stop playing with their food, think again. Playing with pasta or cereal can help develop their senses in a number of ways.

“At four to six months, your child is ready to learn about nutrition,” says Messer. “Whether it’s touching food or just watching family members eat.”

So let them taste, squish, and smear while they learn about texture, taste, and smell.

Play outside

When the weather gets warmer, make sure your kids go out in the garden to play. This is especially great for toddlers. Think of playing in the sandbox, just running around, or even rolling in the grass—these are all forms of sensory play.

Older children can play hopscotch, use the swings or ride a bike.

“Anything that makes them jump, crawl, roll or push is great,” says Messer.

bath time

Filling up the tub for bath time has more benefits than just cleaning your child up. Anything from bubbles to toys to squirting can be a sensual experience.

“It can be so easy to add different bubbles to the water,” says Messer.

listen to music

Just listening to music can have a positive impact on your child’s development. It can help with vocabulary, lift your spirits, and even help build coordination.

Aside from just listening to songs, you can let your kids use household items as homemade musical instruments – think wooden spoons and pots.

There is no set amount of time that your child should engage in sensory play. But be aware that there is a lot of sensory play going on in their daily lives and activities. Here are a few tips on how to get the most out of playtime.

  • Look for ways to add more senses. Even something as small as your child sitting on a cushion while playing with their blocks can activate their balance system. “As a parent or caregiver, think about how you can really amplify sensory experiences,” says Messer.
  • Don’t think about it. You don’t need to buy any special items or equipment. There are many activities that you can already do. “So many of these things are already in your house,” Young notes.
  • But be creative. Try mixing up their experiences by giving them a new meal or trying a new activity – basically, try to keep things interesting and engaging for your kids. “For example, try making bath time a little different,” suggests Messer. “Whether it’s using a different washcloth to show him a different texture or showing your child what squirting feels like.”

“Sensory play is a way for your kids to become more flexible and adaptable in other areas of their lives,” says Messer. “By engaging their senses and developing those skills, the world becomes a lot less scary because they’ve developed the right tools to deal with whatever comes their way.”

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