It goes without question that play time is essential for children to develop. Most parents now recognize that play is not just a way for children to entertain themselves, but also a way to develop gross and fine motor skills. However, the importance of play for the development of the senses and sensory processing is often overlooked.
When we think of our most favorite toys when growing up, they all have some sort of sensory component. Some kids are naturally drawn to tactile play items such as koosh balls, Play-Doh, Silly Putty, or Gak, while other were attracted to items that promote vestibular and proprioceptive input such as bicycles, scooters, trampolines, pogo sticks, etc. Every child has sensory needs that help them feel normal, and parents can help create sensory environments that allow young children to develop each sense.
Toddlers and young children use their senses to explore their world around them. By creating sensory rich environments, we can help them refine their use of senses and give them opportunities for experiential learning. Sensory exploration also develops the child’s creativity, cognition, and self-regulation ability. Sensory play includes activities that stimulate your child’s senses of touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing. Pediatric therapists also recognize and consider two lesser known senses; proprioception and vestibular sense when creating these sensory experiences. Proprioception is the ability to sense the position and orientation of body parts, and vestibular sense is the sense of the inner ear that registers movement (more specifically where your head is in space). These two senses specifically have been found to help children feel regulated and promote calming and attention.
Fortunately, sensory play can be done at home without a lot of expensive sensory supplies or equipment! Sensory play is very fun and is almost always intrinsically motivating for children. Be creative! You know your child best, and these suggestions will open the door for infinite possibilities. Please be cautious, tactile play should always be done with supervision and some activities should be customized according to your child’s age. Here are some examples of sensory play activities to try at home with toddlers and young children:
Tactile (Touch) System:
- Silly Putty
- Sand/Kinetic Sand
- Shaving cream
- Finger painting
- Water play
- Play with cooked noodles
- Create gack or slime (look for recipes on pinterest!)
- Find recipes for edible Play-Doh
- Create tactile bins with items such as uncooked pasta, beans, rice, sand, paper shavings, etc.
- Use of toys with light up components
- Experiment with colored light bulbs, blacklights, disco lights during play.
- Play with a Light Bright
- Play with light up balls and wands with the lights turned off (these can be found at the Target dollar spot or Dollar Store).
- Color on glow boards.
- Experiment with playing in dim lighting v. bright lighting.
- Make maracas or shakers with empty bottles and containers.
- Play clips of sounds from YouTube for your (older child) to guess.
- Experiment with playing music in the background during play time. (Create the environment you want or that is ideal for your child, i.e. soft melodic music, classical music, and nature sounds are relaxing; loud fast paced music can be energizing).
- Make a drum set with pots and pans.
- Sing simple songs with your children.
- Play the animal sound game.
- Create a “tasting platter” of new things for your young child to try.
- Cool Whip sensory play
- Freeze different tastes in an ice cube tray (for older children).
- Put fruit or different tastes in a Fresh Food Feeder.
- Jell-O Play
Proprioceptive System (these include “heavy work” ideas to stimulate joint receptors):
- Animal walks (crab walk, bear walk, snake slither, etc.)
- Bear hugs
- Sandwich your child between 2 body pillows
- Jump on a mini trampoline
- Push a play shopping cart or a laundry basket filled with items throughout the house.
- Squeezing Play-Doh with your hands or through and extruder
- Roll your child in blankets to make a “burrito”
- Pile up pillows and blankets to “crash” into.
- Tug of war
- Monkey bars
- Use a therapy ball to play (have your child lay over it on his belly or on his back)
- Scooter board play
Things to remember:
- Sensory play is NOT just tactile play; use all the sense during play and to set the tone of play time!
- Some children may need time to adjust to new textures, allow them to paint or explore with one finger and gradually increase the input to decrease the anxiety.
- The process is more important than the product – exploring paint, play doh, clay, and shaving cream is much more important than what they create.
- If there are extreme reactions to sensory input that happen fairly consistently, consider an evaluation from an occupational therapist.
Written by Rebecca Smith, Occupational Therapist