Sensory play in child care

Published on Wednesday, 17 July 2019
Last updated on Friday, 17 December 2021

Article hero image

Sensory play might involve making mud pies and smelling the daisies, but there's more to this immersive activity than meets the eye.

As children are playing, important things are happening inside their brains, so let's look at what sensory play is, why it's vital for under-fives and how carers and parents can encourage sensory play in every child's day.

What is sensory play and why is it crucial for young children?

Essentially, sensory play is any activity that stimulates the senses through touch, taste, smell, sight or hearing. It also involves movement, body awareness and balance, and by engaging the senses, this kind of play provides opportunities for children to explore, create, investigate and generally enjoy themselves!

It's not just fun and games, though. Whether a baby is feeling around their first sensory bin, a toddler is peering through transparent rainbow blocks or a preschooler is sniffing scented play dough, research points towards sensory play being vital for young children's development.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University says that 90 per cent of a child's brain is developed in their first five years, with 'sensory pathways', such as vision and hearing, being the first to develop. More complex brain circuits are built on these earlier, simpler circuits and in the first years of life, sensory stimulation helps to build and cement neural connections in the brain.

In line with this, researchers at Michigan State University, say that, 'Combining the sense of touch with the senses of vision, hearing, taste and smell helps build cognitive skills' that allow youngsters to learn, remember, problem-solve, understand, discover, master new skills and complete increasingly complex tasks'.

The good news is that sensory play doesn't have to involve messy mud kitchens or ambitious field trips, although they're definitely fun. Instead, sensory play can be encouraged in early learning services and at home, for big gains with minimum fuss.

What are some rewarding ways to sensory play?

As we've seen, sensory play has a key role in building children's brains and helping them develop in their first five years.

Here are some specific ways that youngsters benefit from sensory play, plus several ideas to try:

  1. Builds fine and gross motor skills.
    By touching, squishing, pouring, exploring and moving their muscles in big and small ways, children get to practice their motor skills. Sorting shapes with tweezers and going on a nature bin scavenger hunt are two skill-building exercises.
  2. Supports language development.
    Talking about different smells, textures or colours supports children's communication skills and puts words, thoughts and experiences together. Sensory play can boost children's social skills, and this sand and water ocean sensory bin will definitely create a talking point.
  3. Encourages problem-solving and scientific thinking.
    Children learn about cause and effect, "what happens if I pour water into this bowl of oats?"; they have a chance to conduct experiments and test theories, "what colour will I get when I squidge yellow and red play dough together?", and they can create solutions, "this slime doesn't fit in the small jug, so I'll put it in the big one!".
  4. Changes how children think about different sensory attributes.
    Exposure to things that are noisy, cold, sticky, or dry teaches youngsters about the world and may make them more receptive to certain experiences or foods, see this research about preschoolers and fruit and vegSpaghetti Worms and Pom Pom Ice Cubes are two ways to get a funny, new feeling.
  5. Can be calming.
    Whether they're suffering separation anxiety after drop-off or are feeling frustrated, tired and emotional, things like calm down jars and lavender play dough can help children feel better at care and at home.
  6. Sensory play is fun!
    Whether they're catching bubbles, mixing finger paints, shaking a maraca, tasting edible play dough, or smelling the roses, young children are very keen on sensory play. So, it's up to us adults to build on that enthusiasm and excite the senses.


Good Start Early Learning
Early Years Resources

Related Articles

Article image

Child's play - Three theories you may not know

The interesting theories on child's play that you may not be aware of.

Article image

Anji Play - Radical joy in early childhood education

The Chinese approach to early childhood development known as Anji Play.

Article image

Epigenetics - How children's experiences shape their genes

Children benefit from supportive relationships and quality early learning, and according to an emerging field of scientific research, these early experiences can actually change youngsters' genes.