Sensory Play – 10 things you need to know

A child playing with paint
Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

Sensory play is any activity that stimulates at least one of your child’s senses. This could be hearing, sight, touch, smell or taste. It also includes play that involves movement or balance. You might have seen other parents using play dough, cold pasta or making their own sensory box.

  1. Sensory experiences start in the womb, where the baby is warm and secure. Babies get to know your scent and voice and begin to establish a relationship and connection with you right from the start.
  2. Sensory Play does not only involve touch and smell but also movement and balance.
  3. When babies are engaged in Sensory Play, it promotes brain development. By feeling and experiencing different things, we build neural connections which then promote problem solving and understanding. The more we allow babies to explore and practise their skills, the stronger the neural pathways develop.
  4. Sensory Play also promotes language, gross and fine motor skills and social and emotional development. During sensory play, talk to your baby about the experience. Give names to the textures, smells and sounds. Narrate the experience but allow for silence when appropriate.
  5. Through Sensory Play, you can learn what resources and senses calm your child. This is useful as they get older as it helps with emotional regulation and can be really beneficial for children who are anxious and frustrated. You can incorporate a Sensory Area or Sensory Bag for your child to go to when they are experiencing strong emotions. For some children, it might be a blanket to wrap around themselves or to hide under. For others, it might be a certain piece of music or story or even a scent that they like. 
  6. Introduce experiences which stimulate more than one sense at a time.
  7. Don’t expect or have plans for the play to go a certain way. There is no “right” outcome; just be there to supervise, encourage and support the play. Allow your child to guide their own learning and experience. Allow enough time and don’t try to do it when you have a time limit. Sensory Play promotes creative thinking and we don’t want to suddenly stop those thoughts and ideas.
  8. Sensory Play is great for babies who are being weaned or who are fussy eaters. Handling the food, putting it in their mouth and interacting with it can help to remove the fear and unknown of the food source. Make sure there is no pressure to taste or touch, instead just allow familiarity to build in time, letting them gain trust and reassurance.
  9. Sensory Play can develop muscle strength by encouraging pulling, holding and squeezing items. You can add in tongs and tweezers to use as your baby becomes more adept at handling the material, for instance with spaghetti. Have different containers and see if they can pick up the spaghetti with the tweezers and move it to a container. Alternatively, support Gross Motor skills by allowing your child to run or crawl through the leaves outside. 
  10. Sensory Play can be done in a group to support social and emotional development. However, if more than one child is playing with the material then make sure there is enough for everyone who is taking part. Allow for your child to play independently at all ages. We often put pressure on children to play together and interact but it is also a skill to work or play on our own as well. As your baby gets older, their social interaction in play develops. We start with Unoccupied Play, where infants are moving randomly but with no clear purpose, then we move to Solitary Play where children play on their own. Play is still individual and children often appear unaware of other children playing in the same space. During the Toddler years, play evolves and you will see children watch each other play. They may be inquisitive and look as though they want to join in the play but may not yet have the skills to do this alone. Observing and noticing which stage your child has reached is really important so you can support them in coming together with others. In time, and as confidence and curiosity grows, your child will start to interact and engage in cooperative play.