From the moment a baby is born (and even before birth), they are absorbing their world through the five senses – what they see, hear, touch, smell and taste. What adults often don’t realise is how important this sensory learning continues to be – through toddlerhood and the preschool years.
Babies are born with a brain full of neurons. Learning about the world through the five senses develops pathways between these neurons. The more of one type of experience the baby (and child) has, the stronger the pathway becomes. The stronger the pathway, the easier it is for a child to learn more about that part of the world, not just for now but for life. Pathways which are not used often, will eventually disappear.
Let me put it in the context of an example. A baby is born into a bilingual home, one parent speaks English and the other French, and the child grows up learning both of these languages thanks to the modeling of, and interactions with his parents. This child has developed brain pathways which a child who only speaks English has not. Once both of these children have grown to adulthood, which will find it easier to learn a new language? The first one. For the second child, these pathways have not been reinforced so by around the age of 10 years of age, the pathway has disappeared. It does not mean the second child cannot learn a new language as an adult, it will just be more difficult for him to do so.
By providing babies, toddlers and young children with a wide range of experiences which involve their five senses, you develop these strong brain pathways. Pathways which will help them to learn at preschool, through formal schooling and onto adulthood.
Reasons we don’t provide sensory play experiences
- Many parents dismiss sensory experiences as simply ‘play,’ not recognising the full learning potential – that the activity is actually impacting the physical development of their child’s brain.
- We have little time. In the busyness of today’s world we often run out of time to gather and prepare for a range of sensory experiences. Fortunately, there are heaps of simple sensory experiences hiding around your own home.
- They are too messy. In my work, I have met many parents who detest sand, finger painting, even playdough, because they perceive them as messy. With any sensory play experience, the tip to controlling the mess is putting simple measures in place which limit the play space (and therefore the extent of the mess). Set an activity up on a baking tray or in a large tub, put down a mess mat on the table or floor, or take it outdoors where the mess doesn’t matter quite so much.
30 Sensory Play Ideas to Get You Started
- Burn a range of essential oils or scented candles whilst your child is in the bath.
- Grow a herb garden together. Herbs offer a great range of smells and you know they are safe for little people to touch and taste.
- Visit a fish market or a florist.
- Play a simple smelling game by stretching the leg of a pair of opaque tights over the top of a plastic cup in which you have hidden a smelly surprise. Cut onion, peanut butter, coffee, vinegar, lemon and peppermint are all great smells to explore.
- Scent a batch of homemade playdough (recipe here) with any of the following – vanilla or other cooking essence, lemon juice, cinnamon, or a little dissolved coffee.
- Cover the windows of your room in sheets of coloured cellophane. As the sun shines through, have fun watching your room (and everything within it) change colour.
- Fill recycled clear plastic water bottles with water and glitter, colourful buttons or beads, popcorn kernals, lentils or coffee beans. Toddlers and preschoolers will enjoy a treasure hunt in a bottle, using rice and small objects from around your home.
- Fill small clear plastic juice bottles with different amounts of water and add a few drops of food colouring to each one.
- During tummy time, prop a mirror in front of your baby. Make faces representing a range of emotions in front of the mirror with your toddler or preschooler.
- Preschoolers enjoy playing ‘What’s missing?’
- Head outdoors for a nature walk. Notice aloud to your child the natural elements. For preschoolers, a simple pictorial treasure hunt sheet can be made by cutting pictures from magazines.
- Give your toddler a large plastic bowl with a little water in the bottom, a squeeze of dishwashing liquid and a whisk for bubble making fun.
- Fill a child’s play pool with shredded paper to dive into. Hide animal figurines amongst the paper for treasure hunt fun.
- Play a body naming game by tickling body parts with a feather.
- Add an element of texture to your preschooler’s painting experience by mixing sand with acrylic paint or sprinkling on sand or rock salt once the painting is done.
- Try shaving cream finger painting on a baking tray.
- Pop the bubbles in bubble wrap.
- Make a sensory play quilt or fabric book for your bub. Try felt, satin, cotton, hessian, polar fleece and fake fur for a range of textures. If you can’t sew, just securely glue a piece of each fabric onto a piece of box cardboard.
- Make your baby or young toddler a sensory treasure basket, choosing household items representing a range of textures – metal spoon, ribbon, ball of wool, stones, scraps of fabric, pine cones; the possibilities are endless.
- Make a sensory play tub by filling a large plastic tub with rice, popcorn kernels, dried kidney beans, anything that your toddler can pour, fill, empty and mix with. Add spoons, scoops and a range of plastic containers.
- Play a listening guessing game. Pop a box between you and your child and hiding the objects, make a sound with a household item for them to guess what it is. Try crinkling a plastic cup, shaking a container of rice, scrunching up a piece of paper or playing a percussion instrument.
- Play simple percussion instruments together. Play fast and slow, loud and soft, make a long sound and then a short sound. Find more ideas for playing with sound in this post.
- Make a noisy treasure basket of household items to shake, rattle and bang. Include pot lids, a wooden spoon, plastic bottles partially filled with rice or lentils, blocks to clap together, pieces of sand paper to rub together.
- Listen to taped stories as an alternative to watching television. Story Nory is a great web resource of stories to listen to.
- With preschoolers, play hide and seek and gently shake a bell or shaker as a clue to where in the house you are.
- Cooking with a toddler or preschooler is a great way to introduce them to a range of taste sensations. Remember to cook both savoury and sweet recipes.
- Finger paint with custard, mousse, jelly or instant pudding.
- Taste wedges of a range of citrus fruits – lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange.
- Make up a tasting plate of water crackers and dips. Hommus, french onion dip, mashed avocado, tomato salsa, basil pesto and cream cheese are all easy and child friendly.
- Visit a local farmer’s market. Taste fruits and vegetables on offer, fresh juice, an organic bacon roll, fresh baguettes or croissants.