Play is an essential part of a child’s development – it helps them grow, learn and understand the world around them.
Young children are naturally sensory beings and playful by nature, with everything they experience understood through their senses: staring at things, picking them up, tasting them, rattling them to make noise. This type of play – by learning from the world around them – is known as sensory play. In this post, we explore the importance of sensory play for children, especially those with autism and sensory processing disorders.
Image credit: Steve Ford Elliott (More bubbles) [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
What is sensory play?
Two and three-year-olds develop at an exponential rate and are constantly exploring. In the first three years of life, most children make sense of the world through five senses:
- Taste (tactile)
- Touch (gustatory)
- Smell (olfactory)
- Sight (visual)
- Hearing (auditory)
However, occupational therapists have identified two extra sensory systems:
- Body awareness (also known as proprioception)
- Sense of balance (also known as vestibular)
Creating opportunities for children to actively use their senses as they explore their world through sensory play is vital for brain development and the nervous system.
Sensory play can involve playing with textures, ingredients, substances and props to stimulate the core senses and build children’s awareness of using their senses. For example, playing in a sandpit develops a child’s sense of touch – is the sand rough, smooth, dry, wet, hard, soft? This sensory information is passed from the body to the brain though the central nervous system. As a result, a series of physical reactions are initiated in response.
Image credit: Pixabay
In this way, sensory play is the device through which children learn how to integrate and process sensory information. Stimulating the senses and sending signals to the brain reinforces the neural pathways that are important for more complex learning tasks, language development, social interaction, gross motor skills and all types of future learning.
“When children engage in sensory play, by moving their bodies through running, jumping and climbing (as well as manipulating toys and fun textures with their hands), sensory play can actually help children to improve the attention and focus that they need for learning”, says paediatric occupational therapist, toy expert and founder of ToyQueen.com, Keri Wilmot.
Sensory play ideas include:
- Letting kids paint with their fingers to explore the tactile system
- Playing with small hammers and building blocks to provide proprioceptive input
- Squeezing and squishing playdough to increase hand strength. Playing with scented playdough can also encourage kids to explore materials with their hands and noses simultaneously
This is also why sensory play is often referred to as ‘messy play’ as it can involve play with (and in) sandpits, water, playdough, shredded paper, etc.
Sensory play for children with sensory processing disorders
While sensory play is beneficial for all children, it’s particularly helpful for children with autism and sensory processing disorders.
As we constantly move through the day, sensory intake is happening. We receive all input through our senses via seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching (which sensory play engages) and it is our brain that organises sensory information to be able to use it. This is known as sensory processing, or sensory integration.
However, some children with autism can be hypersensitive or under-responsive to their surroundings, while some simply crave sensory input. This has been defined as sensory processing disorder (SPD) and is when the brain finds it challenging to process and respond to the information that it receives. For example, a child who is overly-sensitive to touch may find certain textures overwhelming, uncomfortable, or even painful.
Sensory Spectacle was set up in 2014 to help educate the wider public and create awareness of SPD. “Research states that over 75% of autistic people also have sensory processing disorder”, states Becky Lyddon, Founder of Sensory Spectacle. “[If] someone is sensitive to sounds (auditory input) this can mean that they are hearing and processing all the sounds in their environment. Someone may wear ear defenders or headphones to help filter out some of these sounds.”
Becky states that SPD can impact any of the sensory systems and so runs workshops, events and environments that help parents, carers, teachers and professionals to recognise the characteristics that both children and people with SPD have. The public can experience these sensations for themselves through experiential installations and environments. This helps parents to understand what sensations their children are seeking and avoiding.
Sensory Spectacle hosts installations to educate and raise awareness of the characteristics of SPD.
Where does sensory play fit in?
“Sensory play is hugely beneficial for all children, especially those with SPD”, says Becky. “Sensory play can be used to calm or alert sensory systems in order for someone to be able to engage in activities.”
“Some children may seek sensations relating to their SPD – this can be encouraged through play and supported as well. Some children who lick things may be seeking smell stimulation, so you could create a wonderful play environment using natural alerting smells, like citrus and mint.”
Play therapy is often used by occupational therapists to change how sensations are processed by the brain for children with SPD and other behavioural and mental health problems. Jeff Thomas from Play Therapy UK explains how sensory media is used in Play Therapy: “Children choose what they want to do in the sessions from a wide range of creative arts therapeutic media. Sensory play forms a large part of session time (60%) through the use of clay, sand trays, water, messy play, drawing and painting, music and puppets – all of which have a sensory element. The Play Therapist communicates with the children using the same medium that the child has chosen, sharing the sensory aspects.”
Sensory play outdoors
Image credit: Pixabay
Claire Francis from the Sensory Trust also agrees that sensory play is hugely beneficial for those with sensory processing disorders: “For children with sensory processing disorders, a multisensory approach is beneficial in allowing children to tap into the sensory inputs that they are most comfortable with.”
She argues that this ‘multisensory approach’ has been shown to provide “deeper, more memorable experiences” and that the more senses used when experiencing things, the more likely children are to be stimulated, engaged and focused.
The Sensory Trust believe in the value of nature and the outdoors for stimulating children’s senses and promoting health and wellbeing. “We use sensory experiences to enable an instinctive, longer lasting and more meaningful connection with the natural world, particularly suitable for those with different physical or intellectual access needs”, says Claire.
One simple activity that the Sensory Trust uses is a game called gofindit – a nature-based scavenger card game that encourages children to discover the natural world through all their senses.
Sensory play in the classroom
“For children who attend school, it is very important to offer children sensory play through recesses, breaks and opportunities to move their bodies throughout the day to improve their arousal and attention, which is needed to learn” – Keri Wilmot, ToyQueen.com
Sensory play can be beneficial for all children – whether they have sensory issues or not. “Many children learn through hands-on experiences”, says Keri. “Incorporating academic skills for handwriting and math with sensory play (by using manipulative [tools] and textures like sand and dough) not only makes learning fun, but it can have a lasting impact on a child’s ability to remember and perform new skills.”
To help you create a sensory environment in your classroom, we’ve put together some techniques and sensory play ideas:
- Bean bags in the classroom can help meet vestibular sensory needs as they allow the child to tilt back and forth while staying seated (unlike traditional school chairs). They’re also easily movable – perfect for a child who might need to sit away from direct sunlight or overly noisy radiators.
- You can also create a quiet space, made up of bean bags and cushions. This creates a space where children can find some peace and quiet. Alternatively, a blackout sensory den kit can be used as a calming environment.
- Sensory centres (such as the PS Car Sensory Centre) are great for developing children’s motor and sensory skills and introducing them to different colours, textures, shapes and sounds.
- Using tools such as a sensory wall and sensory panels are also perfect for helping children who require more visual input in class. They can also help develop children’s motor skills and co-ordination.
- Learning to play with sensory pads and other tactile strategies – rather than pencil and paper – also helps children with sensory needs, as well as encouraging others to focus their attention.
Are you inspired to look more into sensory play? Check out the rest of our Sensory range, designed for general early years learning as well as supporting specific educational requirements.