Let’s begin with a little exercise. Recall a fabulous food you ate. What did it taste like? What did it smell like? Where you were? Who you were with? What did you speak about? I am certain you are able to retrieve a vivid memory. Our senses help us retain and remember information. Just think of how this benefits small children who are just beginning to explore and understand the big, wide world around them.
For children, the concept of just how big the world is, is not quite there, yet. One thing we know for certain, the benefits of learning through sensory play are crucial to our young learner’s development – socially, emotionally, and academically.
Sensory play is defined as any activity that stimulates children’s basic five senses: hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch. More recently, researchers have added two additional senses: vestibular, which is body movements, acceleration, and head position, and proprioception, which is how our brain understands where our body is in space. In simpler terms, these senses are movement and balance.
Play is the highest form of research.”Albert Einstein
Our senses are constantly hard at work, often working jointly, from day to night, and even as we sleep. Our brain receives signals from our organs – ears, eyes, nose, tongue, and skin – to understand what is happing around us.
Here is a quick anatomy refresher on the incredible ways our senses work for us:
- Our ears transform sounds waves into sounds signals toward the brain.
- Our eyes translate light into images for the brain to process.
- Our nose stimulates our brain to interpret smells.
- Our tongue has taste buds that carry signals to the brain.
- Our skin has specialized receptors that send touch signals to the brain.
Sensory exploration develops vital skills in our children, including language and social development, cognitive growth, problem-solving skills, and motor skills (gross motor, fine motor, and graphomotor).
Language and social development
Children learn how to talk to others about the world around them. Language is used to effectively communicate with parents, teachers, peers, and others in their world; supporting children’s social skills, relationships, and connections with others.
Brain development and memory are strengthened through sensory play. Sensory play supports children’s processing, understanding, and reasoning skills, to gain a greater understanding of the world around them.
Sensory activities encourage children to observe, ask questions, make decisions, and find solutions.
Touch exposes children to a variety of textures. These experiences grow their tactile sensory experiences and support their fine motor (small movements), gross motor (large movements), and graphomotor (movement used in writing) skills. As children develop skills in pushing, squeezing, pulling, twisting, throwing, and writing, they strengthen important muscles.
When we intentionally incorporate the senses into our children’s learning, we are further enhancing development in their creativity and imagination.
Children, and adults alike, typically learn best when more than one of their senses is engaged in the learning process. According to a report by DG Treichler in “Trends in Cognitive Science”, he states that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, and 50% of what they see and hear.
I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.”Confucius
We each have our own “best” learning styles; what appeals to us and how we best acquire information. Whether we learn best through auditory (hearing), visual (seeing), tactile (touch), kinesthetic (movement), or olfactory (smell and taste) – engaging multiple senses, will benefit all learners.
Another incredible benefit of sensory play is its calming effect. Squeezing, pulling, and poking fidget toys can help relieve stress and calm nerves. When my own children were in remote school last year, they each had a box of sensory toys that helped them stay focused and calm. I would suggest creating a calming space with sensory toys in your home or classroom.
HiMama has some engaging sensory activities for all ages, including painting with ice cubes, alphabet sensory bins, salt tray writing, and much more! Engage children in cooking, sensory tables, songs, dance, throwing, and catching –these enhance their abilities in thinking, processing, understanding, reasoning, and problem-solving.
When providing materials to children, be sure to select those that are appropriate for their age and development. Engage with your learners, initiate conversation, ask open-ended questions, and use self-talk so they can hear your exploration. It’s vital to promote quality interactions with children as they play to learn.
Here are some critical thinking questions and statements you might use while children are exploring with their senses:
- What happens when you _________? Why?
- I noticed that you ________. What did you notice?
- How do you think that works?
- Tell me more about _______.
- How could you change that?
- What does that remind you of?
Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”Fred Rogers
Children have a natural desire to engage in sensory play. Set up your home and childcare environments to encourage play, wonder, imagination, exploration, and creativity – building positive and important pathways in the brain. Let’s inspire children to gain a greater understanding of the big, wide world around them!