Sensory Play Therapy: Ways to engage your child’s senses
As a mother of three children, I used sensory play to help my kids learn about their world from infancy. With my first child, we did a lot of sensory bins I saw on Pinterest, just for the fun of it. It was after my second child was born with disabilities that I started to learn just how important it was for children to learn about their world through sensory play.
Sensory Activities will engage all five of your child’s senses:
Infant Sensory Activities
Playing with babies can be difficult, what is the point?
Infants are learning about the world around them, by touching, tasting, moving, pushing and pulling at everything they see. The reason infants put things in their mouth is to help identify the object.
Is it hard? Soft? Cold? Warm? Fuzzy?
Allowing your baby to move their hands along a variety of objects will increase their development and grow in their understanding of their world.
Find things that are hard, soft, bumpy, sticky. Don’t limit your baby to just feeling with their hands, rub things along their arms, stomach, and legs. If you have an exersaucer with a base, place baby in the seat, and put some jello or water beads in the base where their feet are located.
These toys are usually too small for babies to play with their hands, but allowing them to touch with their feet will give them those experiences, without the risk of choking.
Giving your infant toys with different textures will help them expand their knowledge of the world. Make sure all toys you give them are not small enough to fit fully in their mouth, but let them gum on wooden spoons, chew toys with tags, teethers that you can put into the freezer.
Even though your infant will not be able to vocalize the smells they are experiencing, you should still include it. Talk to them about the smells, even though they do not currently comprehend the words you are using, it will help expand their vocabulary later.
As an infant, contrasting colors are the most visually appealing. I choose toys that have are black, white, or red because these are the toys that will engage my child during this stage in their life.
Think about how many sounds your infant is experiencing for the first time. An object that makes any kind of sound will be helpful in broadening their experiences and engage their ears. Crinkling, snapping, clicking, and tapping are all wonderful sounds to promote a sense of curiosity in your baby.
Toddler Sensory Activities
Playing with toddlers can be very exciting, and expect there to be a lot of mess.
As you expand your sensory experiences you can move to more independent play. Allowing your child to explore the materials you give them is important for their critical thinking. They need to be able to go at their own pace and figure out what each material is used for on their own.
You can help guide the activities by grouping things together, such as sensory bins.
Sensory bins are containers of different materials for your child to manipulate.
You can choose to pick a theme for your bin, possibly fall, where you fill the base with leaves. Then add in scoops, some plastic or wooden farm animals, pine cones, cups. Your children will have fun exploring, pouring and playing - helping their critical thinking and fine motor skills.
Sensory play is based on capturing curiosity and turning it into a learning experience, and by presenting materials for your child to touch they will be instantly interested in what you have to offer.
Allow them to break apart the pinecones, run their hands down into the bottom of the bin, and cover their fingers with the leaves. All of these small actions are started by a question in the child’s mind, ‘What happens if I do this..”.
Choosing materials that are appropriate to be ingested can be helpful at expanding their exploration. Rather than using water beads, which are not edible, you can purchase boba tea which has a very similar texture and is safe to eat.
We love incorporating smell into our sensory activities. This is just another way to spike your child's curiosity. One of our favorite activities is to make playdough, then I will add one drop of essential oil, and roll the playdough into a ball.
As the child works the dough, the smell will be released and encourage the child to keep manipulating the dough. Using plastic scissors and knives is a great way to safely practice cutting skills without the risk of your child hurting themselves.
As your child grows, you can start putting similar colors together, and help them distinguish the subtle differences. Try putting together light and dark hues of the same color and allow your child to explore the differences.
I enjoy adding elements of hearing into my child's sensory bins. Using the above example of a fall themed bin, I have used plaeal leaves and asked my children to smash them and listen for the crinkling. They enjoyed the sensory of the leaves crunching in their hands, along with the sounds they made while falling apart.
Outdoor Sensory Activities for Older Children
As our children have grown, we have enjoyed allowing them to take charge in deciding what they would like to learn, and simply guiding them in the direction they are expressing.
My son and I enjoy going on nature walks and learning from the world around us. He is extremely curious about nature, so we spend a lot of time crouching down looking at bugs, touching trees and different plants, as well as seeing which animals we can spot along the way.
We will take sticks and dig in the dirt, sometimes using our fingers to pick up small bugs and allow them to crawl on our hands.
Most of our sensory learning now is with foods. At the grocery store my son will pick foods he has never tried before, and when we get home we will try them, talking about the taste and texture. We make a variety of foods for dinner, and discuss the different ways foods feel in our mouths.
Along with our cooking, we talk about the smells that we experience – picking out specific things we can identify.
When we are outside, we use our sense of smell to figure out what is going on around us. Perhaps there has been an animal nearby that left smell, or maybe we can smell the smoke from a barbeque or fire pit.
Using our senses to talk about what we are experiencing gives us both a better understanding of the world around us.
Continuing on our theme of hiking, we talk about the landscape that we see when we are walking. This will prompt our conversation into talking about other landscapes, and comparing the differences and similarities they may have.
Using our hearing to decide what is going on around us is an essential life skill. I love to use this time to help my child grow in their understanding of the world and how using their sense of hearing can help them decipher what is going on in their world.
Don’t limit yourself to feeling like you need to follow a structure, or make a huge show of a sensory experience - simply spend time exploring the world with your child. Make it fun and learn along with your child!
Learning to engage your child's senses will allow them to grow and learn about the world around them.