What is Sensory Play?
Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates your young child’s senses: touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing.
Sensory activities facilitate exploration and naturally encourage children to use scientific processes while they play, create, investigate and explore. The sensory activities allow children to refine their thresholds for different sensory information helping their brain to create stronger connections to process and respond to sensory information.
Adults can encourage sensory development in their infants by providing a safe and stimulating environment for discovery. Sensory exploration is important to infant development, specifically for establishing new neuronal pathways in the brain and strengthening already developed neuronal pathways.
Why is it important?
From birth through to early childhood, children use their senses to explore and try to make sense of the world around them. They do this by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, moving and hearing.
Providing opportunities for children to actively use their senses as they explore their world through ‘sensory play’ is crucial to brain development – it helps to build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways.
This leads to a child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks and supports cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interaction and problem solving skills.
We often talk about the five senses, these are:
Taste – the stimulation that comes when our taste receptors react to chemicals in our mouth.
Touch – the stimulation that comes from touch receptors in our skin that react to pressure, heat/cold, or vibration.
Smell – the stimulation of chemical receptors in the upper airways (nose).
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.
However there are two others we commonly miss:
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.
Balance – the stimulation of the vestibular system of the inner ear to tell us our body position in relation to gravity.
What is the impact on children’s learning and development
Every person has a threshold for sensory stimulation. If you have a high threshold, it is harder for you to register sensory stimulation. If you have a low threshold it is very easy to register sensory stimulation.
An easy way to consider this is, everyone’s sensory system is like a cup, some people have a really big cup (high threshold) which takes a lot to fill (more stimulation). Some people have a really small cup (low threshold) which doesn’t take much to fill (less stimulation).
People also have a behavioural response linked to their sensory system, some people who have a small cup, like to avoid their cup overflowing. Many people who have a large cup feel a need to fill it up. The craving to seek sensory stimulation when you have a high or low threshold is mostly unconscious and at times can be almost involuntary.
It is this craving, this innate desire that drives and dictates our ability, our capacity, our motivation to learn and develop. Our body will seek out the stimulation it requires, once this is satisfied, will the child (and even the adult) be able to move on and concentrate on learning!
Sensory Stimulation Theory
Traditional sensory stimulation theory has as its basic premise that effective learning occurs when the senses are stimulated (Laird, 1985). Laird quotes research that found that the vast majority of knowledge held by adults (75%) is learned through seeing. Hearing is the next most effective (about 13%) and the other senses – touch, smell and taste account for 12% of what we know. By stimulating the senses, especially the visual sense, learning can be enhanced. However, this theory says that if multi-senses are stimulated, greater learning takes place. Stimulation through the senses is achieved through a greater variety of colours, volume levels, strong statements, facts presented visually, use of a variety of techniques and media.