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Benefits of sensory play for preschoolers (with free printables)

Ages zero to five are the most important for a child’s development, therefore choosing the right activities for them is critical.

Preschoolers first learn to understand new things via their senses. Each time that they encounter something that is cold, sticky, or wet, for example, it reinforces their understanding of which types of objects typically have these characteristics. Sensory play establishes a foundation for preschoolers to be able to work towards more complex tasks, strengthens language development, improves problem-solving skills, and supports cognitive growth.

In this article, we’ll take a look at why sensory play is essential for developing physical, social, cognitive, and many other skills in preschoolers. As well, we’ve rounded up a few sensory play activities you can do with your children with printable instructions

What is the importance of sensory play?

The importance of sensory play cannot be understated. By encouraging the use of all of a child’s senses (sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell, motion, and balance) through play, you can support cognitive growth, language development, gross and fine motor skills, and much more.

Preschoolers require exposure to activities that stimulate all of these senses, allowing them to dive in and explore new materials and concepts. Using their senses is one of the most natural and basic ways for toddlers to learn new information about the world around them.

How to facilitate sensory play in the classroom

Sensory play is a type of play activity that stimulates the children’s senses. Most often, sensory play is done in a large container called a sensory bin. These containers allow children to explore space, measurement, and texture among other things in a contained environment. Having a specific area for sensory play allows children to think outside the box and get a bit messy without worry. When you set up sensory play in your classroom it is important to set up expectations for children, such as washing their hands before and after to avoid spreading germs or the materials inside the sensory bin. You should also consider that younger children like to put everything in their mouth so anything you place inside the sensory bin should be considered ok to ingest and not too small to create a choking hazard. 

It is to be noted that some children may not be interested in sensory play for a variety of reasons- and that’s ok! Sometimes the thought of getting messy, having a lot of stimulus around them, or parallel play with other children may be a bit overwhelming. Here are some alternatives to formal sensory play for those children:

  • Create individual sensory bins for children who may not enjoy getting messy with other children.
  • Start with a sensory board to introduce different textures without the mess to children.
  • Model with them. Show and tell how they can play in the sensory bin and model how to wash your hands before and after sensory play if the mess factor is too much for them.
  • Offer scoops, spoons, and a smock to help children stay clean if they’re concerned about this aspect.
  • Lean into those sensory activities that they do enjoy. A small action like washing their hands and being fascinated with the warm running water and bubbles may seem like a waste of water to you but to them, this is their sensory experience. Let them have fun! Another favorite material for sensory play is shaving cream!

The benefits of sensory play

Building nerve connections

Research demonstrates that as children actively use their senses in conjunction with one another, this helps to build pathways between nerves within the brain. When it comes to the importance of sensory play, this is a crucial factor because it establishes a foundation for preschoolers to be able to work towards more complex tasks, strengthen language development, improve problem-solving skills, and support cognitive growth.

Cognitive development

Preschoolers first learn to understand new things via their senses. Each time that they encounter something that is cold, sticky, or wet, for example, it reinforces their understanding of which types of objects typically have these characteristics. A child will then begin to form connections between things that have similar properties.

This fruit tasting activity encourages children to explore new fruits and reflect on their own food experiences while tasting new textures and flavors.

Improving social skills

During sensory play with their peers, preschoolers will watch how others use the same materials they are playing with. Children communicate amongst each other different ways that they can use the material and together will uncover new ways to shape, move, hold or manipulate a substance or object.

This cloud and rain sensory bin is a great way to encourage sharing amongst children in a social setting. Only having one set of scoops, funnels and cups encourages children to share with each other and practice their language skills while exploring textures of the water beads.

Strengthening fine motor skills

Sensory play activities often involve touching, pouring, pinching, sorting, and moving actions. Preschoolers primarily use their hands to explore, and in doing so, they build upon their fine motor skills that will later be used for writing, buttoning clothes, zipping jackets and tying shoes. This ice cube painting activity allows children to explore mixing colors and practicing their pincer grasp to create beautiful watercolor paintings.

Through the exploration of new tastes, smells, and textures through sensory play, children will discover new ways to describe objects they find in the world around them. For example, a rock will become much more than a rock as they feel it – it is now smooth or rough, or perhaps cool to the touch. Foods begin to be described as sweet, salty, spicy, or crunchy.

This salt tray writing activity allows children to practice their fine motor skills and letter recognition while exploring the granular texture of salt.

Like these activities? You can find hundreds more in our database of daycare activities.

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