Ever noticed how babies and toddlers get into everything? As a baby explores the world around them, they engage in a lot of sensory play. Most things go in their mouth. Little fingers continually reach for new things. Cats are fair game as their fur is touched and tugged. Books are chewed, tasted, grabbed, flipped and looked at. Keys are jingled, chewed and thrown.
As babies and toddlers learn and grow, much of their play is focused on learning about their environment. Sensory play is one way children do this naturally- looking for activities that engage their senses. It’s also something we as caregivers can encourage through different play activates too.
What is Sensory play?
Sensory play is play activities that stimulate a child’s senses, which we all know as smell, touch, taste, smell and sight. There are also the two lesser-known senses of balance and movement too.
Sensory play doesn’t need to be complex; in fact, children naturally engage in sensory play all the time as they explore and seeks to make sense of their world. Child-led examples may include digging in a sandpit barefoot, swinging, splashing in puddles, picking flowers or popping bubble wrap.
Why is it important?
It’s a way for children to explore their world, and gain knowledge and skills. Benefits include:
- Cognitive and language development
- Development of fine and gross motor skills
- Enhanced memory
- Development of problem solving and curiosity
One example is playing a drum (or upturned ice cream container). While drumming the child can learn about and experiment with loud and quiet, hard and soft, and rhythm. Further, they also practise coordination as they continually tap the drum. Add in singing a song like “the ants go marching” and you’ve also introduced the opportunity for language practice too.
“Play is the way babies and children develop their sense of self, sense of the world, and sense of where they fit in. Children are biologically wired to play.” – Maggie Dent, author and educator.
Easy Sensory Play ideas
Here are a few simple ideas you could do with your child these school holidays*.
- Leaves- It’s Autumn, so that means leaves! Put on some gumboots and go play in the leaves. If they are wet, they’ll be soft, and smell damp. But if dry, the leaves will make a lovely crunch sound when trod on. Throwing leaves in the air and watching them tumble down is great fun. You could also collect different coloured or shaped leaves while on a walk. Use leaves and paste to make a leaf collage. There are endless ways to play.
- Playdough- A oldie, but a goodie. Playdough feels so nice when squished between little fingers, especially when still fresh and warm. You can make your own, adding food colouring if you like, or even glitter for older kids to enhance the fun. Fine motor skills are encouraged when using cookie cutters, or kid-safe scissors to cut the dough. Garlic presses make great playdough hair for creations! If kids try to taste the playdough, they will learn it tastes yuck, and also that they should listen to mum if she says not to eat it (we can hope, right?).
- Baking- Kids love to help in the kitchen. If you have the patience and don’t mind a little mess, it’s a great way for them to practise skills and build confidence. They will likely feel and smell the ingredients…. And probably taste too! Mixing ingredients, helping measure, rolling out cookie dough or using a cookie cutter are all great ways kids can be involved in helping you. As kids get older it’s fun practice for reading, comprehension and maths skills too as they follow the recipe instructions themselves.
- Water play- A shallow dish with water and some water toys is a quick and easy activity for warmer days. Add a little bubble bath mix or a drop of food colouring for a more interesting, bubbly water mix. Slightly older children might enjoy washing their plastic farm animals, matchbox cars or dolls as well.
- Finger painting- Kids love getting their fingers into mess, and paint is no different. Use some child-safe paint, and a big piece of paper, and let them create. I found setting up an easel outside and using an art smock limited some of the mess. If you have a child who is likely to eat the paint, you could make your own ‘paint’ by mixing baby rice cereal, water and food colouring. Rice cereal paint is safe for little mouths and still feels great to spread around on their highchair tray.
- Bushwalking- Even if you have a baby in a pram, they can appreciate this experience. Little ones enjoy the movement of the pram and the sights, sounds and smells surrounding them. Toddlers and older kids get to crunch their shoes on the leaves/gravel track as they walk. The smell of a eucalyptus bush after rain is amazing. While you walk, chat with your kids about what they notice- e.g. is the bird’s tweet loud or soft? Is the flower bright or dull?…. This is a great way to encourage language development too.
There are plenty more ideas on Pinterest and sites such as this.
Without even realising it, your kids are likely undertaking sensory play each and every day. Play is such an important part of the learning experience for kids, and bonus, it makes learning fun! I hope you can enjoy some fun with your kids these school holidays while MOPS groups are on break.
*Parental supervision is always advised. Please ensure the activities are age and developmentally appropriate for your child/children.