Babies, toddlers, kids, teens, and even adults all need sensory play. Our world is made up of so many sensory experiences and using play to engage with them has a lot of benefits.
Sensory play focuses on using the senses–touch, smell, hearing, taste, sight, vestibular, and proprioception–in games and activities. The benefits of sensory play include cognitive and brain development, emotional regulation, language development, gross and fine motor skills, and general enjoyment.
Let’s dive into each of these benefits of sensory play!
1) Sensory Play Helps with Cognitive and Brain Development
If you’ve ever chased around a toddler as they grab everything is sight, try to put objects in their mouths, and fall down as they learn to walk, you are very familiar with how they learn through their senses. We experience everything through our senses. We touch, smell, hear, taste, see, and feel the world around us as we grow and develop. For kids, it’s their natural instinct to use these senses as early and as often as possible.
Without being able to talk or read yet, babies learn almost exclusively through their senses. Quite literally, every time a baby takes in new sensory information, the baby’s brain creates new connections that lay the foundation for future knowledge (source). They are also learning about sensory integration. How does the brain take in sounds, smells, sights? What does the brain do with those sensory inputs?
In those first few years of life, babies need to take in as much sensory information as possible so that their brains understand the world around them.
For babies, sensory play is natural, as it’s they type of learning and development they crave. As they get older, it’s still very important. Even as kids start school and traditional forms of learning, it’s crucial for their cognitive development to continue with sensory play. Even through adulthood, the brain will always benefit from learning through our senses. I mean, it’s how we experience the world, isn’t it?!
Sensory play always helps us build new brain connections and strengthen the ones we have, fine tune our sensory integration abilities, and help us explore the world around us.
2) Sensory Play Helps with Emotional Regulation
On the surface, emotional regulation doesn’t seem connected to sensory play. What do emotions have to do with touch, for example?
When we use our senses, we get a lot of information about our bodies. Let’s say that we’re digging in the garden and our hands get muddy. When our brains take in that tactile sensory experience, we get back a “feeling.” Like the Pixar movie, Inside Out, the mud may trigger feelings of disgust, joy, anger, or sadness depending on our previous experiences with it.
Let’s say you picked up the mud and were disgusted by it. If you weren’t used to mud and feelings of disgust it brought up, this could turn into a full blown meltdown. Mud is gross, get it off of me!!
On the other hand, let’s say that you’re familiar with mud. When you pick it up, you still feel disgusted, but you recognize the feeling and can label it as “disgust.” Instead of having a meltdown, you acknowledge the feeling of disgust and go wash your hands, like you’ve done other times when you’ve felt disgusted.
Being familiar with the tactile experience of mud prepares you to handle it the next time you encounter it and any other time you experience something that triggers negative emotions.
Sensory play is SO important for helping kids have new experiences that trigger new emotions. When those emotions come up, they learn how to recognize them and deal with them. Overtime, their sensory play has helped them build a repertoire of emotions that they’re familiar with and can successfully navigate.
3) Sensory Play Helps with Language Development
Naturally, this benefit of sensory play links to the benefit of brain development, as kids gain language skills as their cognitive skills grow. That said, we’re going to talk about how sensory play can have benefits for language development in other ways.
“What is that?” No doubt, this is a question we hear from kids all of the time. Kids are curious and want to understand the world around them. As babies grow into walking and talking kids, they start to use words to express themselves and their experiences. Sights, tastes, and feelings that are unknown now come with a question as to how to label them.
“What is that squishy stuff?”
“Where is that light coming from?”
“What is that smell?”
The more sensory play kids can engage in, the more sensory experiences they can ask questions about and find words for. As they become familiar with these textures, smells, and sights, they can expand them into their imagination.
Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who was famous for his 4 stages of childhood cognitive development.
Piaget’s second stage is called the Preoperational stage, which usually happens as a child begins to talk around the age of 2. During this stage, something really important happens–symbolic play.
Symbolic play is the beginning of pretend play. This is one of the first times where kids start to understand that words can symbolize an objects. They also start to understand that objects can be dissociated from what they symbolize (source). This is how you start getting soda cans that turn into spaceships and piles of sand that turn it castles.
Without sensory play, it would be hard for kids to understand the objects around them enough to then use them in new and inventive ways.
Once pretend play starts happening, kids need to learn how to talk about their sensory experiences so that other kids can join them in their fantasy. “Ah, this dirt is squishy, it must be lava! Stay away from the lava!” The more that kids can relate to each other about their sensory experiences, the better they can build out their pretend play worlds.
4) Sensory Play Helps with Gross and Fine Motor Skills
Have you ever noticed that babies try to engage as many of their senses as possible? They grab a spoon and want to put it in their mouths. They watch a video on an iPad and they try to grab it. They hear a nice sound and they clap their hands. From a very young age, our senses encourage us to get moving.
When babies play with blocks and other toys, they’re learning how to manipulate objects with their hands. As they get older and start playing with smaller toys like beads, they work on their fine motor skills.
Sensory play not only gives kids practice with manipulating objects, it actually can strengthen motor pathways in the brain. Studies have found a connection between the sensory and motor cortices of the brain (source).
Sensory play is an important way to get kids moving and get better at moving!
5) Sensory Play Can Make Daily Life Easier
When kids are sensitive to sensory input (sensory defensive), it can be hard for them to engage in daily activities. At every turn, there is sensory input that could be overwhelming and hard to handle. Kids can even develop anxiety as they try to avoid uncomfortable sensory input.
When kids enjoy sensory play, especially at a young age, they’re more likely to develop a tolerance to many different types of sensory input. A child that is ok with squishing slime is more likely to be ok with accidentally getting toothpaste on their hands. What could have been a meltdown for a kiddo with sensitivities is merely a quick hand washing for a kiddo who engages in a lot of sensory play and is familiar and comfortable with a texture like toothpaste.
A child’s level of comfort with sensory input can impact the whole family.
Studies found that families chose different types of activities when they were being intentional about either seeking out sensory-filled experiences or trying to avoid them (source). If kids had shown negative reactions to sensory input, families felt like they needed to avoid certain activities and plan around their child’s sensory sensitivities. On the other hand, families with kids who showed positive reactions to sensory input were able to have a wider array of family activities to choose from. It can add a lot of stress to a daily routine to plan around all of the potential sensory issues that may come up.
As we’ll talk about next, sensory play is a skill that can be intentionally worked on. Doing so can help kids become more comfortable with many of the tasks and situations they encounter everyday, which can end up reliving a lot of stress for the entire family.
6) Sensory Play is a Skill that Can Be Worked On
Of course, it’s never a child’s fault if they have sensory sensitivities. It’s not a choice. It’s a skill that simply needs to be worked on. Some kiddos will start with more sensitive tendencies, while others will start with very little sensitivity at all (hyposensitive). That’s ok. All kiddos can benefit from sensory play, whether they are hypersensitive, hyposensitive, or somewhere in between.
For kids that are defensive and hypersensitive, it may take more time to get comfortable with sensory play. Jumping into a shaving cream or slime activity from day 1 is probably going to be overwhelming and too much. Overtime though, gradual exposure to more and more sensory play activities will eventually help kids tolerate more and more sensory experiences.
Start slow and realize that any skill takes time and gradual progress.
For kids that are hyposensitive and less responsive to sensory input, it’s possible that they have no hesitation jumping into sensory play. But, maybe they jump too far. Kids who are hyposensitive often have a hard time differentiating between sensory sensations and are unaware of the sensory world around them.
For example, a kiddo with hyposensitivity may not realize that their hands are dirty or that someone is calling their name. For these kiddos, sensory play is not about becoming more comfortable with sensory sensations, but about understanding and recognizing them. Overtime, they can hone their skills of identifying the sensory experiences going on around them. Going back to our example, they can learn what dirt feels like and more easily recognize when its on their hands.
No matter where kids are on their sensory journeys, sensory play is something they can get better at overtime when it’s adapted to their needs.
7) Sensory Play Can Help with Picky Eating
If you were always taught not to play with your food, now’s the time to forget that lesson.
A study of preschoolers found that playing with real fruits and vegetables made kids more likely to taste fruits and vegetables than kids who only had visuals or non-food play objects (source). So, let kids play with food!
Not only will sensory play with food help your child become more comfortable with new foods, it may give you new information about your child’s preferences and dislikes. Treat this as a food discovery exercise for both you and your child.
Do they like squishing pasta?
Are they avoiding the yogurt?
Why do they like the smell of pizza?
As your child plays, take note of the foods they become more comfortable with overtime. Maybe your child will even taste a food as they play! Yes, this is a clean hands zone.
8) Sensory Play is Fun!
Maybe this doesn’t seem like a benefit, but it definitely is. How often is it the case where something really important is also really fun? Not often.
As you’ve already seen, there are a LOT of benefits to sensory play. The fact that it’s also fun means that kids can often get a lot of these benefits without even knowing it. When a toddler finger paints or a child squishes slime, they aren’t consciously thinking about all of the great benefits they’re getting from it. No, they’re just having fun!
What if your child doesn’t think sensory play is fun?
If your child avoids sensory play, it’s likely they’re hypersensitive and uncomfortable with the sensory experiences they’re being exposed to. This is a clear sign to slow down and try something a little less sensory intensive. If your child doesn’t like slime, try play doh or clay. If they’re still uncomfortable, try foam blocks or sponges. Scale back until you find something that your child is comfortable and has fun with and go from there.
It’s important to make sure that sensory play stays fun. As soon as it loses its fun, kids will be less likely to engage with it, which will lessen its benefit. Yes, kids need to be challenged and it’s important that they try new things. But, sensory play is play afterall. Even if they need to move more slowly than other kids, let them engage with sensory play at their own pace and progress in a way that make sense for them.
As always, it’s important for me to mention that you should be working closely with your child’s occupational therapist when it comes to their sensory play. An OT that knows your child well can develop an individualized plan for helping your kiddo progress with their sensory needs. All information in this post is generalized and solely meant for informational purposes. If you have any questions about how it relates to your own child, reach out to your OT.
Ideas for Getting All the Benefits of Sensory Play!
Now that we’ve talked about all of the benefits of sensory play, let’s talk about some things you can do to help your kids get these benefits. Remember, these sensory play ideas should be tailored for your own child’s needs. Not all kids will respond to every type of sensory play in the same ways. Be really in tune with your child and know when a sensory experience may be too much for them to handle at that moment.
Shaving cream, finger paint, food, slime, dirt, and sand are all great ways to have fun with sensory play. The messier the better! Put beads, blocks, or other objects in the mix so that kids can also work on their fine motor skills.
If your child isn’t ready for the full messy experience, try Play Doh or clay that can still give their hands a new texture to explore without going too far with the mess.
Doing anything outdoors can be a great way to guarantee a mess. Go to the playground or the beach and dig in the sand. Go on a hike and collect leaves. Go to an arts and crafts class and make a project. While sanitation is always key, there can be a lot of benefits to controlled mess that helps kids explore new sensory experiences.
Water tables and sprinklers are not only refreshing on a hot day, they can help your kiddo learn to tolerate unexpected sensory experiences like splashing water. In a controlled environment like a water table, you can help your child gradually get used to water unexpectedly touching their skin without having the chaos of a crowded swimming pool or water park.
There are a lot of different types of water tables and sprinklers to choose from based on your child’s age and interests. Don’t get too caught up in the benefit of it. If you pick one that your child will be excited to use, you’ll naturally get the benefit since they will want to use it more.
If a sprinkler or water table seems like too much to start with, try playing with some toys in a small bucket of water. Or, you can get a sponge wet and see if your child will “paint” the sidewalk with it.
Now’s the time to break out your favorite tunes! Children can get a lot of benefits from listening to different types of music that incorporates different types of sounds. Try different genres that use various types of instruments and have your child try to identify them. You can do this with nature sounds too.
While always being careful about volume levels, try out headphones vs. speakers and loud vs. soft. How are sounds different when listened to in these different ways?
You can also work on auditory sensory play by getting crafty. Grab sine bottles and some rocks and make a noise maker. Grab a shoe box and make a homemade guitar. Look around your house and see what types of objects can make some fun and new noises that your kiddo can explore.
There is a lot to see in this world! Vision is one of the senses that often gets forgotten about. It’s so important, but so unappreciated. Luckily, it isn’t too hard to find sensory play activities that focus on vision.
Grab an I Spy or Where’s Waldo book and play a game of seek and find. Hide objects around the house and have your child go on a scavenger hunt. If it’s the holidays, take a trip around the neighborhood to look at the Christmas lights.
As much as possible, try to avoid the visuals of screens when you’re intentionally trying to engage in visual sensory play. Our kids look at enough screens all day and can be challenged to use their vision in a different way.
Everything we do every day involves sensory input. No matter what you do, you’re going to have a sensory experience. For a lot of kiddos, the problem is that they get stuck in their ways. Getting messy is uncomfortable, so they learn how to stay clean. Loud noises are overwhelming, so they learn how to stay in quiet places.
It can be really helpful to make sure that kids are having varied sensory experiences. Are they smelling new smells? Tasting new tastes? Seeing new sights?
Even if you don’t have a great idea for a new sensory play idea, just go do something new. Go to a children’s museum that has a lot of displays for your child to interact with. Go to a zoo where there’s a petting zoo and animals for your child to pet. Go to a toy store and play with some new toys.
Think about your child’s daily experiences and how you can change it up a bit. When you do, there’s no doubt that you’ll introduce some new sensory play experiences.
Sensory play is not only fun, it’s also has a really important role in helping kids grow up and gain the skills they’ll need later in life. As you’ve seen, there are a lot of benefits to sensory play. Heck, even adults should be having more fun with sensory play given these amazing benefits! The next time you child is having fun with sensory play, join in. No matter how old we are, it’s always important to make the most out of our sensory filled world.
Diana is a registered occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders and autism.