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What is sensory play and why is it important?

infant playing in red tray of oats


Are you a parent or carer of babies or children in the early years? Let me show you how you can easily help your little one thrive at home through sensory play.  Simply by having a little bit of understanding about how babies and young children grow and develop. 

By the end of this article you will know

  • what sensory play is
  • how to provide sensory experiences at home
  • and the benefit of stimulating the sensory systems to the brain and body development.

Sensory play is any activity that stimulates your young child’s senses. 


From birth, 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.

When children have lots of sensory opportunities and experiences it allows the body and brain to grow and develop.  By encouraging lots of brain processes as children play, investigate, create and explore.  This also develops motor skills and language and emotional development.


Sensory development at home 


We use our senses to learn from and understand our environment, this means our senses have to be ‘switched on’.  As parents and carers we get to create daily opportunities for sensory exploration in our environments.  Not only during play, but through being playful during focussed activity and daily routines such as meal times, rest and bathing.

Parents 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. This leads to a child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks. It also supports cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interaction and problem solving skills.


What does the environment have to do with sensory play? 


In the early years sector we commonly refer to any place a child is cared for as their ‘environment’.  Above all, it should be varied, safe, and child centred.

This includes in their homes, in childcare settings, inside and outdoors and their local community. We don’t need to compartmentalise a child’s care, learning and development.  It can and should take place, any time and any place a child is.  You can read more about environments in play here.

Sensory experiences in the environment can include the layout of the physical space – lighting, furniture, resources (toys, household objects), temperature.  Also consider influences from nature  such as smells, textures, sounds, and open spaces.

It is important for children to have a range of sensory play activities and spaces available to them at home. This would include opportunities for active sensory play and areas which are calm without a lot of stimulation.

The aim is to provide a sensory experience that meets the individual needs of the children in a fun and flexible learning space.


Sensory Play ideas in the home environment

  • Pillows and blankets with different textures.  These can be used on beds, sofas, floor to create cosy spaces and opportunities to crawl and climb.
  • Use furniture with throws and scarves  to create nooks and hiding places.
  • Shop your kitchen! Look for metal, wood and silicone utensils, gadgets, cups and scoops to mix, roll, squeeze, pour and explore.
  • Opportunities to experience food (helping in the kitchen or exploring during play).  This can be leafy veg, dried goods of pasta, rice, grains, oats, colourful berries.  Food in its cooked and raw states is great!
  • Lamps, string light, dimmer lights, multicolour lights, natural light, spot lights
  • Water – in the kitchen sink, on the floor in buckets and containers, in the bath and the shower, outside in the rain!
  • Different containers for play such as bowls, trays 


Now we have gathered some play resources – how will using them in play to help development?  To understand this, lets look at how the body will experiences these via the sensory systems.


What are the sensory systems? 


We often talk about the five senses, these are:

  1. Taste – the stimulation that comes when our taste receptors react to chemicals in our mouth.
  2. Touch – the stimulation that comes from touch receptors in our skin that react to pressure, heat/cold, or vibration.
  3. Smell – the stimulation of chemical receptors in the upper airways (nose).
  4. Sight – the stimulation of light receptors in our eyes, which our brains then interpret into visual images.
  5. Hearing – the reception of sound, via mechanics in our inner ear.

However there are three others we commonly miss:

  1. Proprioception (Body Awareness)– Using feedback our brains receive from stretch receptors in our muscles and pressure receptors in joints  This enables us to gain a sense where our bodies are in space.
  2. Vestibular – This system is about balance and coordination of the inner ear to tell us our body position in relation to gravity.
  3. Interoception – This helps us understand how our body feels inside. It lets us know we are hungry or hot and helps regulate body functions like heart rate and digestion


sensory play for organisation



What if my baby doesn’t like the sensory play?

After a while, it might seem like our little one does not like the sensory play. Do they seem bored or even distressed?

If so, we need to consider that 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.

Sensory thresholds can be high or low depending on how much or little we can tolerate sensory stimulation, which means we can feel over or underwhelmed by our environment.  If this happens a lot, or for long periods young children can become dysregulated and this can impact learning and development.  Being aware of and exploring thresholds with young children is really important for emotional development. 


Example of sensory thresholds and play.

A child who is easily startled by loud noises, may be gently desensitised over time with gentle exposure in a safe environment.  At home, this may mean parents will alert the child when an alarm or loud kitchen appliance may start.  In play this may mean the child;

  • can explore musical instruments.
  • may have control over volume of media.
  • may use ear defenders.
  • use more noisy resources outside where the noise level is less intense. 

All these, coupled with a supportive reassuring parent or carer can make the experiences less distressing, normalising and eventually pleasing for the child.

Sensory play activities can allow children to refine their thresholds for different sensory information. This then helps their brain to create stronger connections to process and respond to sensory information – we call this regulated.


dad baby mirror light


What impact do sensory thresholds have on children’s learning and development? 

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 may have a really small cup (low threshold) which doesn’t take much to fill (less stimulation).

People can also have a behavioural response linked to their sensory system.  This means that 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 that drives and dictates our ability, our capacity and our motivation to learn and develop.  Our body will seek out the stimulation it requires.  Only once this is satisfied, will the child (and even the adult) be able to move on and concentrate on learning! 

Importantly the size of our cup can change – that means the amount of stimulation it takes to fill our cups can be affected by daily activities, interactions with other and our environment.

For our little ones this means, we, as parents and carers need to notice these changes and be make adjustments


Examples of changes to sensory thresholds

If your baby is teething 

  • They may be experiencing pain.
  • Discomfort when eating and drinking,
  • Dribbling a lot more causing sore skin on face.
  • Have nappy rash as bowels can be affected.
  • Unable to sleep.

Their sensory cup is overflowing and they are overwhelmed by the sensory stimulation. So maybe during those trickier times the diet may need to be adjusted, more time spent cuddling and comforting little one, a chilled teether to soothe the sore gums, 


If your 14mth old is learning to walk

They will likely be very keen to explore this new mobile world as the develop their new skills.  Their sensory cup is suddenly bigger and they need a lot more stimulation to fill it.  So in this fun developmental leap – give lots of opportunities for physical exploration.  In other words…

  • Clear floor space.
  • Spend time outdoors.
  • Different surfaces – grass, sand, gravel, carpet, tiles to make it more challenging and exciting.
  • You could also have lots of barefoot opportunities to develop those strong feet and ankle muscles.


Let’s dive a little deeper – Sensory Stimulation Theory and Play

Traditional sensory stimulation theory tells us that learning occurs when the senses are stimulated, and that if multi senses are stimulated greater learning takes place (Laird 1985).  For our infants and young children, they will learn more about the world around them if they have lots of opportunities to explore it. 

For instance, a toddler will have a greater understanding of the concept of temperature if they experience it through different senses.

  • Warm blanket.
  • Feel radiant heat from a heater.
  • Hot water in a bath.
  • Heat from the sun.
  • Seeing, feeling and smelling heat from an oven as food cooks.
  • Contrast this to playing with ice cubes, the cold from playing in the snow, or a windy walk. 

You can see how play is an easy way to enhance daily activities and experiences in a multisensory way. If you would like more ideas to help you provide awesome sensory experiences at home and to better understand the benefits of sensory play, I can help.


How can I help your organisation support families with sensory play?

I work with organisations who support families. Through my training and workshops – staff, parents and children will all have an increased awareness of how to ramp up sensory experiences to support child development in the early years.

  1. For early years staff I offer evidence based training
  2. For parents and carers I offer practical sensory workshops and parenting programmes to learn more about how children develop and easy ways to support this at home



sensory play for organisation

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