Updated: Aug 16
The "ins and outs" of sensory play including what it is, the purpose, benefits, and must-have supplies.
I remember coming home from a friend’s house as a child and telling my mom all about this super fun activity we did. Drum roll please....We played in a container of rice! I’m sure my Mom had the look that all parents have when their child would rather play with the empty box than the $50 toy that was inside. But honestly, that neighbor kid’s Mom should have won an award for simplest way to occupy the entire neighborhood.
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As I’m recalling the story now, I’m realizing that my neighbor most likely didn’t just have a ton of leftover rice and decide to throw it in a bin for their child to play with. She knew how important sensory play is and about all the hidden learning opportunities going on with that magical container of rice…
"It’s an important part of early childhood development, and providing opportunities for children to actively use their senses as they explore their world through ‘sensory play’ is crucial to brain development." - Goodstart Early Learning
What is sensory play?
In the simplest form, sensory play is any activity that engages the senses. Sensory play can be as simple as exploring play dough to creating a sensory bin. There’s no wrong way to do sensory play! And the best part is, sensory play can be designed for everyone (babies, toddlers, preschoolers, school aged kids, even adults!)
What is the purpose of sensory play?
Ever wonder why kids have to always be tasting or touching EVERYTHING? Children learn through their senses. We learn and retain information better when we can touch, smell, taste, see, and hear something. This is why children will often jump in hands first when they’re exploring a new substance. The purpose of sensory play is to blend a multi-sensory approach into learning. Learning and discovering through play should be the framework to your child’s day.
Why is sensory play important?
The benefits of sensory play are endless! Sensory play encourages development in social skills, problem-solving, creative thinking, self-control, practical life skills, sequencing, and sensory tolerance. Here's some specific categories and examples of how sensory play benefits your child's development:
Science & Math Skills: Although your child might not be able to verbally communicate the scientific process yet, they are still exercising scientific inquiry by participating in sensory play. Children develop a question which leads them to investigate (staring, licking, grabbing, squeezing, etc.) While investigating, they are using their senses to collect data and learn the answer to their question. Children are also often measuring, making estimates, predictions, observations, and conclusions while they participate in sensory play. They problem solve and learn about cause and effect as they manipulate the materials.
Language Development: Through sensory play, your child will be introduced to new vocabulary when new or unfamiliar items are used. Guide children to expand their language skills as they describe or explain their play experience. Ask questions like, “What do you feel/see/smell?” “Can you show me how to stir?” “What does that make you think of?” Encourage your child to use their imagination to come up with stories or characters while they explore.
Motor Development: As children explore, they will use a variety of fine and gross motor skills. Children will practice mixing, squeezing, and grabbing simply by manipulating the base material. Adding additional learning tools and fillers, such as tongs, tweezers, and scoopers, can expand motor development.
"Play is the work of the child." - Maria Montessori
Must-have sensory play supplies:
This list contains affiliate links.
Want to start incorporating more sensory play into your child's day but not quite sure where to start? Being prepared (and having clear expectations) is the first step! Like any skill, sensory play takes time to learn, don't assume your child will know what to do if you hand them a big bin of dried rice. Here's a list of must-have sensory play supplies:
A sensory bin: We liked using this large under the bed storage bin when E was younger because she could get inside and explore with her entire body, but if your child is more on the destructive side, opt for a smaller shoebox sized container to start with. Only offer enough materials you're willing to clean up during this initial learning stage, also less materials is often less overwhelming to the child.
Messy mat: A messy mat provides a visual boundary for your child to explore. One of our sensory play rule is, "Everything stays in the bin or on the mat." (including your child...I speak from experience). A messy mat also makes for easy clean up, just wipe it clean, and I love that I can save any materials that spill by folding the mat in half and pouring the materials back into their area. This saves me so much time (no vacuuming) and allows me to reuse the materials over and over.
Sensory bases: There's an unlimited number of sensory bases you can choose from. Some great first sensory bases are taste-safe options like water/ice, cereal, cornmeal, oatmeal, gelatin, rice, cooked pasta, or whipped cream. 99% of the sensory bases I use are saved in an airtight bag and reused over and over. In fact, we still use the same batch of rainbow rice that I made when my daughter was 6 months old. Slowly build your stash of sensory bases and eventually progress to sensory bases like cloud dough, chickpeas, beans, rocks, corn kernels, split peas, and dyed dried pasta.
Recycled items: Don’t be afraid to dig through your recycling bin for clean "tools". By "tools" I mean, containers, scoopers, and egg cartons. Kitchen utensils such as measuring spoons, muffin pans, spoons, bowls, and a whisk are also perfect! You don’t need to go out and buy a ton of extra materials.
Loose parts: When the joy of the sensory base begins to fade add some simple loose parts to keep the fun going. Pom-poms, craft sticks, recycled pouch lids, paper towel rolls, and pipe cleaners are easy items to add to make your sensory play experience more interesting.
Animal figurines: Animal figurines are one of our most played with items. They are a versatile way to extend sensory play while encouraging pretend play with older children. We've slowly been adding to our animal figurine collection over the past year and they're still used daily (in all types of play!)