Sensory play is a very simple concept that has been all but forgotten as parent, early childhood educators, and preschools have started to focus more on academic work than sensory exploration. In September 2015, the Washington Post wrote a great story talking about the decline in play in young children saying,
Research continues to point out that young children learn best through meaningful play experiences, yet many preschools are transitioning from play-based learning to becoming more academic in nature…In fact, it is before the age of 7 years — ages traditionally known as “pre-academic” — when children desperately need to have a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences on a daily basis in order to develop strong bodies and minds. This is best done outside where the senses are fully ignited and young bodies are challenged by the uneven and unpredictable, ever-changing terrain. (Strauss, 2015)
So, what exactly is Sensory Play and how can you make sure your child is getting what they need? Sensory Play is any activity that stimulates the senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, or hearing and engages your child. This play can be very simple, such as playing with a rain stick, or more complex, such as sensory bins and “messy play” involving sand, water, or paint. PBS explains Sensory Play as something that facilitates, “…exploration and naturally encourage(s) 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.” (PBS, 2016)
Let’s go ahead and pull the ways your child will benefit from Sensory Play as well.
Cognitive development consists of developing problem solving skills, being able to process information, reasoning, language development, memory, and decision making.
When your child is playing there are many times that problem solving, decision making, or memory will come into play. For example let’s say your child is playing with Play-Doh and has the choice to use several different colors as well as objects to create a picture that is on the table (such as a butterfly). They have to decide what material they need to do that as well as figure out how each piece goes together using a considerable amount of their cerebrum, the largest part of the brain.
In this same scenario, your child can ask for help either verbally, in Sign Language, or through pointing and gesturing. The great part about language development is everyone is different and, “Recent studies have shown that in around 97% of people, language is represented in the left hemisphere. However, in about 19% of left-handed people, the areas responsible for language are in the right hemisphere and as many as 68% of them have some language abilities in both the left and the right hemispheres.” (Mandal, 2013) That means working on sensory language skills such as American Sign Language, reading to your child, and continually talking with your child is helping their brain develop in many different areas at one time.
- Socially and Emotionally
Social and Emotional Intelligence is a fairly new field within the last 20 years. Many studies have found that IQ is important, however, Emotional Intelligence (EI) is more important in everyday success such as communication and leadership skills. In a study entitled Trait Emotional Intelligence as a Predictor of Socioemotional Outcomes in Early Adolescence, researcher Norah Frederickson f, found that Emotional Intelligence is a better indicator of socioemotional competence (ability to act effectively and appropriately in social situations) than IQ. (2012)
Children can use many different physical activities to learn such as running in a relay with mom and dad, climbing on blocks or rocks, and determining how to get on and off the bed or couch at home.
This is my favorite part of Sensory Play because you never know what your child will be inclined towards. Doing many different types of creative play will be able to help you figure out if your child likes drawing and painting or playing music. I have had countless parents tell colleagues and myself how they never would have guessed their 7, 12, or 18 month old would like a certain activity until they stepped out of their comfort zone and introduced it and the learning flourished!
These are all important areas that should be taken into account when starting your child on the path to learning. I will be the first to tell you that reading to your child and teaching them numbers and letters is fantastic, however, just like many things in life, everything has to be done in proportion. We want our children to succeed in every area, but we do not want to burn them out and have them in so many activities that they are worn thin and run ragged either.
In each category you will find different play techniques by age range starting from Newborns to 5 year olds. Each play topic will include a chart at the bottom to help you know which of the five sensory categories are being addressed. It will look like this:
|Sensory Development Area||Is It Used?|
|Social & Emotional|
If you have any questions please get in contact with me and comment below with things that have worked for your children in Sensory Play as well as academically.
Sources for this Article
Frederickson, N. (2012, February). Trait emotional intelligence as a predictor of socioemotional
outcomes in early adolescence. Retrieved March 14, 2016, from
Mandal, D. (2013, November 4). Language and the Human Brain. Retrieved March 14, 2016,
Sensory Play and Early Child Development. (2016). Retrieved March 14, 2016, from
Strauss, V. (2015, September 1). The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory
issues. Retrieved March 14, 2016, from