Playtime and childhood often go hand in hand, or even seem synonymous for many people. We may think of the phrase “kids will be kids” and smile fondly at memories of a time when we could play all day, without any care or responsibility weighing on our shoulders. However, what we tend to overlook is the crucial development that occurs during playtime. During the critical years in the beginning of their lives, kids explore touch, taste, smell, hearing, emotions, movement, and balance as they play by themselves or with others.
Benefits of Sensory Play
1. Expand language skills
As children experience sensations, they learn new words to describe them. A favorite blanket might now have words attached to it such as “super soft, plush, cozy.” Grass may go from being described as merely “green” to being “prickly”, adding yet another dimension to the child’s language skills. Stimulating the senses enables kids to learn how to describe the world around them.
2. Increase creativity and cognitive skills
The more we expose children to a variety of stimuli, the more active their imagination becomes. When being exposed to varied stimuli, kids will learn to ask why and think critically. As they wonder what your voice will sound like if their fingers are stuffed in their ears, they are engaging in scientific thinking, a basis for exploration. Encourage your children to try new ways of approaching a situation so that they can think creatively and thoughtfully about it.
3. Strengthen sensory-related synapses and brain functions
Muscles grow stronger proportionally to how we use them; the same goes for our brains. During the critical years, our brains are strengthening connections, called synapses, and developing them further. The more kids use the synapses related to taste, touch, smell, hearing, movement, and balance, the stronger those synapses will become. This is particularly important for kids with sensory processing disorders, as they may need to strengthen the connections in their brain in certain areas.
4. Refine sensory thresholds
Sometimes, until we experience something, we don’t know how we’ll feel about it. Giving kids the time and space for sensory play allows them to experience a variety of stimuli in many different ways. A child’s threshold can be high or low depending on how they register that information. Through this exposure, each child’s sensory thresholds, the limit for what registers for them and what they can tolerate will become clearer. It is important as a parent or teacher to keep an eye out for this, as not all kids will know how to identify their thresholds for themselves.
5. Improve fine motor skills
Many activities that fall under sensory play require the use of small muscle groups. For example, using tweezers to pick up pom-poms or removing hidden items from putty involves intrinsic hand muscles. Many activities, however, are built on multiple muscle groups. Opening a bottle of bubbles requires intrinsic hand musculature and then actually blowing the bubbles requires kids to use the oral musculature of their cheeks and lips.
6. Produces a Calming Effect
Many types of sensory play involve concentration, which can help soothe internal turmoil by focusing the child’s energy and attention on one task. This creates a feeling of calm that can help children cope with new or otherwise overwhelming sensory experiences.
7. Expands Problem Solving and Motor Planning Abilities
As children experiment with play, and find imaginative ways to make play happen, they are developing key problem solving strategies. Sensory play activities allow kids to work on their motor planning skills, so that they are able to carry out directions for new types of play experiences and perform tasks that are requested of them.