Sensory Play, Explained

I do a lot of posts on Instagram or on my Instagram stories about sensory play and sensory-focused activities I do with my kids. And there’s so much all over the internet…it’s a widely used play activity in the developmental realm of babies and toddlers. But over the years I’ve noticed that much of the sensory play I see on the internet really has to do with tactile sensory play, which isn’t the only type. If you’re interested in knowing more about what sensory play is, and what it helps to develop and facilitate with your baby or toddler, then this post is for you.

Sensory Play, Defined

Sensory play is exactly what it sounds like: play-based time designed to stimulate a child’s senses. This means sensory play is loosely descriptive of any activity or experience in which a child explores through touch, smell, taste, sound, and sight. And in the case of many sensory play activities, tables, or centers you might see in a classroom, daycare, or on the gram, the play component refers to a mostly unstructured, open-ended experience driven by the curiosity of the child. Yes, there are many crafts or structured activities with a sensory component or a sensory focus. But sensory play itself is usually child-centered, unstructured, and open-ended, allowing the child to explore given materials in ways that peak their curiosity and makes sense to them.

Even though we tend to see tactile sensory play (touch: water tables, play doh, slime, kinetic sand, foam, shaving cream, ice, etc.), there are actually many other types or characteristics of sensory play as well. If you want to know the fancy terms, sensory play also includes vestibular sensory play (gross motor including balance and movement), proprioception sensory play (coordination actions like pushing and pulling and developing spatial awareness), auditory sensory play (bang those pots and pans all you want, girlfriend!), visual sensory play (using toys or activities with high contrast, visual tracking of objects as they move, etc.), and olfactory and taste sensory play (think exploring flowers through smell or allowing kids to use edible materials for play). If you’re interested in reading more about these lesser known types of sensory play, this website is a great resource.

Sensory Play vs. Sensory-Focused

I alluded to this a bit already, but sensory play is actually quite different from sensory-focused activities. In this sense, we want to be sure we are thinking of sensory play as child-centered…meaning we are thoughtful in the choice of materials we provide for kids to play with, but we do not dictate WHAT the child does with those materials and we do not impose our own ideas for how the child should play with those materials. (And we even let them pick their own materials if they desire.) You might have an idea of what your child might actually do with the materials you provide, but the beauty of it is often they end up doing something entirely different using their imagination and idea of pretend play, as well as initiate their own self-exploration of the materials. An example of sensory play would be putting out kinetic sand with various digging tools and loose parts and allowing children to explore freely and talk about what they are doing either with you, peers, or a sibling. An example of a sensory-focused activity might be having a child practice letter formation in a sand tray or using colored feathers to create a wreath. In our stay-at-home days, we have a dedicated time for sensory play, and we have a separate dedicated time for a craft of the day, which is usually sensory-focused or has a sensory component.

Fostering Independence and Language Development

There are LOTS of benefits to sensory play. Brain development and cognition, fine and gross motor skills, problem-solving skills…I could go on and on. But I want to focus on two that I think are most realistic for parents to be thinking about. First, sensory play time, if it’s a part of your structured daily schedule, can allow you to disengage from direct play/supervision with your child which actually gives you time back and allows them to work on independent play skills. Obviously, it’s important to actively supervise because any time there are small parts involved, from a safety perspective, you want to be there in case something gets eaten that’s not supposed to get eaten (etc.). But, if you are able to set ground rules with older toddlers like 1) no eating and 2) stays on the table/on the tray, then you can work towards giving yourself mama time while the kids are engaging in sensory play. These are our two rules, and my almost 5yo is able to follow this – I can be in a different room and trust that he is safe. My almost 3yo still needs active supervision from a distance – maybe I’m on the couch “reading a book” but I’m still actively listening and watching in order to jump in when I need to. My 1yo needs direct, close-proximity supervision because of her desire to explore with taste. I do believe it is really important to encourage independent play, and this is a great way to do so.

Second, sensory play time is a huge opportunity for language development, whether it’s through pretend play with the materials provided or peer-to-peer interaction if you’re lucky enough to have siblings to engage in sensory play together. If you want to encourage language development during sensory play as an active participant yourself, you’ll want to model and introduce new vocabulary (“Wow, this sand is so rough and bumpy. It feels kind of like sandpaper. It is not smooth and soft like playdoh!”), and model how to have a conversation without giving direct orders (“Wow, I can put my sand in this sand castle mold and fill it up. When I turn it over it comes out of the mold in the shape of a castle! What do you notice happens when you use the starfish mold?”). If you want to encourage social language development through peer-to-peer interaction and pretend play, you’ll want to model and introduce social norms like turn taking (“Hmm, there’s only one large shovel today. Have you talked about who will go first?”), how to solve a problem with words (“Dom, you’ve been using the shovel for a really long time, I think it’s my turn now. Could I please have a turn?”), and how to decide on what you’d like to do together (“Luca, what could we do with our shovel and playdoh today? Do you have any ideas? Maybe we could make a fort for our critters?”).

Don’t Stress the Mess

Here’s the biggie that got me when I started doing sensory play: It. is. messy. And our materials might not look the same at the end of a sensory play session as they did at the beginning of a sensory play session, so we have to be prepared for that and accept it. This can be hard for me, and I’ve worked on letting it go. But, I used to be that type that would put out play doh and literally only allow my kid to open one color at a time so he didn’t mix colors. Or if I put out kinetic sand in two different colors – one tray for each kid – I’d be strict about only playing with the tray that’s theirs and not mixing the colors. Or only allowing them to play with the things I purposely placed out (when they asked me if they could go get their matchbox cars to see if they could create jumps and tracks in the clay…I said no). I realized though, that I was limiting their play in doing this, and also limiting their exploration (how would they ever know what happens when you mix two colors, or learn that if we put all colors together we get brown?). This was a hard pill for me to swallow, being the anal retentive perfectionist I am.

But I also found ways around it! So if you’re anal retentive like me, here’s some tips.

  1. Keep two bins/baskets of sensory materials – the ones you’d like to keep intact, and the ones that are getting older and deemed ok for mixing and messing. I did the rainbow foam in this activity because it was nearing the end of its life – it was getting too dried out to continue to play with, so I didn’t care if they mixed it together (which they did!) because I knew this was the last play before the garbage.
  2. Keep the good bins stored. If you want kids to have access to sensory materials on their own, then give them access to the mixing and messing bins while the good bens are stored somewhere else entirely.
  3. Rotate single items at a time from the good bin to the mixing and messing bin. Notice they’re getting short on rainbow rice? Grab SOME of that good stuff from the new bin and add it to the old bin, rather than tossing all and therefore replacing it all. Do it slowly and in spurts rather than all at once.

Sensory Play, In Conclusion

Social media sites are FILLED with bloggers and experts and individuals sharing their sensory play ideas and experiences and documenting them in a way to be helpful to us as consumers, so that we have ideas to replicate for our own children even if we aren’t considered experts. Pinterest and Instagram have endless ideas, and they come in really handy. I just want to remind you that you can make the ‘prettiest’ sensory play station for your children, but it won’t stay pretty, and that’s how it should be. And heck, you don’t need to put so much pressure on yourself to even make it look pretty in the beginning if you don’t want to. After all, sensory play is messy, sensory play is chaotic, sensory play is unscripted. It’s supposed to be that way. So while it’s fun to set out materials in an engaging and enticing way, we need to let go of the expectations that they will actually stay that way, and also let go of the expectation that they need to be that way from the get-go. Some days I just put the play doh out, other days I make elaborate set-ups. Both ways are equally appropriate, and will yield the same experiences.

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