Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates your young child’s senses: touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. Sensory activities and sensory tables facilitate exploration and naturally encourage children to use scientific processes while they play create investigate and explore. Spending time stimulating their senses helps children develop cognitively, linguistically, socially and emotionally,
physically and creatively.
Young children are oriented toward sensory experiences. From birth, children have learned about the world by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, and hearing. Sensory play also contributes in crucial ways to brain development. Think of it as “food for the brain.” Stimulating the senses sends signals to children’s brains that help to strengthen neural pathways important for all types of learning. For example, as children explore sensory materials, they develop their sense of touch, which lays the foundation for learning other skills, such as identifying objects by touch, and using fine-motor muscles. The materials children work with at the sand and water table have many sensory attributes — they may be warm or cool, wet or dry, rough or smooth, hard or soft, textured or slimy. Discovering and differentiating these characteristics is a first step in classification, or sorting.
A lot of learning can occur while children are doing what they do best: playing and exploring! Consider the following benefits of sensory play to children:
Cognitive development. Even before children can speak, they are developing an understanding of things in their environment by actively exploring them with all their senses. As they become more verbal, they are able to describe similarities and differences in what they see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
Social skills. Working closely together at the sand and water table gives infants and toddlers opportunities to observe how peers handle materials, try out the ideas of others, share their own ideas and discoveries, and build relationships.
Sense of self. As they directly experience things themselves, children explore and communicate preferences, making sense of the world around them. For instance, they discover that they enjoy the feel of dry sand or that they have an aversion to slimy things.
Physical skills. Children develop and strengthen new motor skills through shaping, molding, scooping, dumping and splashing — these actions all support the development of small and large muscles. For instance, holding a scoop to fill and dump sensory materials works many muscles used in other parts of the children’s day, as when they hold a cup or spoon at mealtimes.
Emotional development. Sensory experiences can be very calming for many children and can help them work through troubling emotions, such as anxiety or frustration. For example,working with materials that require pressure and manipulation, such as play dough, can help children release physical energy or tension. Likewise, sensory materials lend to children’s expression of positive feelings, such as joy and excitement.
Communication skills. Through their choice of materials and actions during sensory play, children have opportunities to communicate both verbally and nonverbally. While splashing in the water table, a young toddler may display a look of surprise as her hand makes contact with the water or squeal in delight as she is able to make the water splash repeatedly.