Family Ideas for Sensory Play

By Dawn Marie Barhyte

Young children learn best by experiencing the world with their senses. They need to see, feel, hear, smell and sometimes even taste things to understand them fully.

When they play using their senses - called "sensory play" - children also are learning. The more they have to use their senses, the more completely they learn.

By offering materials that make children use their senses, you're giving them quality learning opportunities. When children use their senses to explore materials, they are developing important communication, reasoning and problem-solving skills.

Physically, these kinds of activities also help them develop their small muscles. All of these skills get them ready for preschool and kindergarten.

Recent child development research suggests sensory play builds nerve connections in the brain's pathways, which helps the brain develop. These experiences are basically food for the brain. They lead to more complex learning tasks, so that children are able to do more complex learning.

But most important, studies show that children who don't have enough sensory play experiences may suffer learning problems. Giving them times to do these things is extra easy - because children love them!

Here are simple activities that introduce babies, toddlers and preschoolers to sensory play and and give them a head start on learning.

Sensory Activities for Babies

Purpose: To teach children that different objects feel different from one another.

Play: Sew together scraps of brightly colored, different kinds of fabrics to make a sensory play quilt. Or make a "texture board" by gluing different kinds of materials to cardboard. Fabrics to include are satin, burlap, felt, cotton, velour, terrycloth and fake fur.

Place the quilt or texture board where the child can reach it. If necessary, help the child touch the textured cloths and surfaces. Describe the textures and colors by naming each out loud as the child feels them. For example "Oh, this red satin is so soft."

Plus: Studies have found that using senses with babies like this helps the child's brain function while providing enjoyment and learning. Your reaction and enthusiasm to your child's exploration has been linked to higher IQ scores.

Sensory Activities for Toddlers

Purpose: To teach basic concepts such as warm, cool, wet, full and empty.

Play: One of the easiest and most soothing sensory activities is to introduce your child to water play. The water table, bath or a bowl can be an ever-changing source of sensory adventure. Provide water toys or use everyday items from the kitchen. Measuring cups, funnels, ladles and spoons, jugs, eye-droppers and squirt bottles can be used.

Describe what the child is doing: "I see you filled the measuring cup to the top. Can you empty it?"

Make it more interesting by adding blue food coloring. Then say, "Why don't we add some blue food color and watch what happens." Or provide a bowl of warm water and a bowl of cold water side-by- side to compare. Ask the child to show you which is cold, which is warm.

Plus: Toddlers are very active learners. They love pouring, filling, mixing and emptying. These scooping, pouring, mixing and measuring actions boost hand-eye coordination, increase vocabulary and strengthen thinking abilities needed for more difficult learning activities.

And by listening and following your directions, children develop a critical skill needed to become successful students.

Sensory Activities for Preschoolers

Purpose: To learn about shape, color, size and how items take up space (spatial relationships).

Play: Introduce your child to the delightful, sensory activity of finger-painting. Set out red, yellow, and blue finger paints. Have your child wear an apron or adult-sized shirt. Forget the mess and tell your child to be creative.

Make the activity more interesting by telling your child to try new things. Help him see what happens when the colors red and yellow are mixed. Children discover through cause and effect, so you can teach new words by saying "orange" out loud (the sense of hearing) so your child hears the name of the color.

Then your child can feel (the sense of touch) the orange paint, and see the vibrant color orange (the sense of sight).

Support your children's exploring by asking them to tell you about their picture or ask questions that boost memory. "Can you tell me about how you made the color orange in the upper right corner of the paper?"

Plus: Preschoolers are born explorers and the senses are their tools. Feeling, seeing, hearing - the more ways children experience color and texture, the quicker they will understand them.

As they experiment with color, children love the feeling of the cool, wet paint between their fingers. While children cover paper with paint, they learn about spaces. Also, as they paint, children are gaining control of their hand muscles, which is key to writing letters and numbers.


Dawn Barhyte is a freelance writer from Warwick, New York.