Why is Sensory Play Important in the Early Years?

From birth and throughout early childhood, children use their senses to explore and make sense of the world around them. As adults, we sometimes forget that it is often our child’s first time tasting something (your family’s famous spaghetti Bolognese), smelling something (the wet soil after it rains), hearing something (an owl in the middle of the night), feeling something on their skin (a snowflake landing on their nose) – children discover the world by exploring it with all their senses.

What are the Senses?

Senses refer to the different ways we perceive the world. Our brains use many senses but the five most common ones are sight (the stimulation of light receptors in our eyes, which our brains then interpret into visual images), hearing (the reception of sound, via mechanics in our inner ear), taste (the stimulation that comes when our taste receptors react to chemicals in our mouth), smell (the stimulation of chemical receptors in the upper airways – the nose) and touch (the stimulation that comes from touch receptors in our skin that react to pressure, temperature, or vibration). We also include body awareness (also known as proprioception – the feedback our brains receive from stretch receptors in our muscles and pressure receptors in joints which enable us to gain a sense where our bodies are in space) and balance (the stimulation of the vestibular system of the inner ear to tell us our body position in relation to gravity).

The more senses your child engages during their learning, the better they become at executing more complex learning tasks and support cognitive growth. Sensory learning supports language development, body awareness, gross motor and fine motor development, social interaction and problem-solving skills, to name a few.

Because it is important that children experience and explore the world with all of their senses, psychologists, learning therapists and educators (especially early learning experts) have developed sensory activities specifically designed to enhance sensory learning. They are activities in which your child’s senses are engaged and stimulated (including activities that engage movement and balance).

You will find that, at home, you also provide these opportunities for your child. For example, when your child plays in the bathtub, or plays with mud in your backyard, or washes dishes – they are engaging in sensory learning.

Sensory play is important because it plays a role in your child’s brain development. Our brains have trillions of brain cells called neurons. We learn when these neurons connect to one another. These connections are called synapses. In the first five years, your child’s brain grows more than at any other time in their life, as explained in this article. An infant is already born with about 50 trillion synapses, but by age three, these have grown to 1000 trillion!

The more opportunities your child has to learn, the more synapses are formed between neurons. By the time your child enters elementary school, the neurons that have not connected to one another (formed synapses) are pruned. That is why I am such an ardent advocate for early learning: it is when your child is developing the brain they get to use for the rest of their lives! That is also why created our CEFA Early Learning schools and carefully developed its curriculum: to offer an environment perfectly designed for your child to learn in various essential ways (not just the typical ways we associate with learning, like reading, or listening to a teacher). One of these ways is through sensory learning.

Sensory play is essential for your baby from the moment they are born, and also through the early years: it is one of the ways your child’s brain develops. It strengthens sensory related synapses and functions. Exposing your child to diverse sensory experiences is needed for their maturing brain to develop the proper sensory processing capabilities. The early years are especially important for exposing your child to sensory learning because many of these senses develop optimally (if not only) during a window of time called “critical period”. In other words, if your child is not creating these synapses in the early years, they will not be created later in life – that “critical” window of time to create them will have closed. Sensory play is essential for newborns, babies and young children (which is why an early learning centre cannot only offer worksheets, teacher-led “lessons” or be an extension of elementary school). It is very important that your child’s school be well versed in the way your child’s brain develops, at a neurological level. Otherwise, the program offered will be lacking it essential elements like sensory learning. If your child does not attend an early learning school, you must, as a parent, ensure that you provide plenty of opportunities for your child to learn through all their senses at home. The brain they are building in the early years is the brain they will have to work with for the rest of their lives.

Research has also shown that sensory play is important for elementary school children. I personally feel that elementary schools are lacking in this area, and that parents should supplement their child’s sensory learning at home. Go out and play in the rain, cook together, taste all kinds of food, play with goop and rice and slime. Many of the activities offered here on my parenting site are great for older children too. More importantly, make sure that your child has time to play, cook, wash the dishes, and do regular things rich in sensory stimulus. Even adults retain more information when they engage multiple senses while learning.

Top 5 Reasons to Include Sensory Play in your Child’s Day:

1. It builds neural connections in the brain, leading to more complex learning tasks and a more developed brain, for life.

2. Learning through multiple senses enhances memory and cognitive growth.

3. Helps your child self-soothe and find calm, develop coping mechanisms and reduce anxiety or frustration.

4. It supports language development, including mathematical language (especially attributes like hot/cold, smooth/rough, wet/dry)

5. It enhances gross and fine motor skills development, spatial awareness, problem-solving skills and social interaction.

If your child attends our CEFA Early Learning schools, you do not have to worry about providing enough sensory experiences at home – most of our activities, even the ones we plan for writing, reading and S.T.E.M., have a rich sensory component to them, and children have plenty of time to play freely in a classroom that is especially designed as a sensory rich environment. If your child is too young or too old to attend CEFA Early Learning schools, or if there is no school in your area, do not worry! Most of the free activities I share with you on this website are sensory rich. For activities designed specifically for sensory learning, try these sensory games. There are so many more activities you can do with your child that engage the senses, and every week, I am adding more activities for you to explore with your child. Also, you can add sensory learning by thinking of all the ways your child’s (and your) senses are activated: listen to the birds singing during your next nature walk, or jump on a puddle or in a pile of leaves and hear and feel the experience! Play with dough at home, or cook together and taste, smell, feel the different foods on your fingers and in your mouth. Listen to different music together, dance to it. Balance on a log, climb, swing, jump, run! Feel how the different fabrics feel: your clothes, the cushions, the couch – children love to run their fingers through your new super soft (but dry clean only) wool sweater – do it in the name of sensory learning.

As you play, help your child engage all their senses by talking about it. This is also excellent to develop your child’s vocabulary and language skills. For example, ask your child how things feel (How does the wind feel on your face? Do you like the smell of this orange? Do you like the colour of the pomegranate? How does it feel between your fingers when you seed it? Can you see through it? Can you hear it pop in your mouth when you eat it? What does it feel like? Does it feel different than eating an orange? An apple? A grape? Etc.). The idea is to invite your child to use as many senses as possible throughout the day during normal activities. Also, children naturally engage their senses during play if you just give them time and the opportunity to try, so go on – live a little and welcome a mess from time to time!

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