Look, listen, taste, touch, smell; these are the senses that, as adults, we use naturally, but from birth, children are exploring; learning to process all the new and exciting information surrounding them using these senses.
Children begin to make sense of the world around them as they grow through the exploration of new textures and materials. Sensory play is an essential and valuable way of engaging children in activities that will heighten their senses and enrich their learning. From day one, each new sight, sound and smell is a learning experience for them.
Sensory play is important in the Early Years for many reasons. Firstly, it helps develop language enrichment. Sensory play offers new opportunities to learn new words, such as “soft”, “wet”, “fluffy”, “rough”, “spiky”. We talk about what we feel, what we see, hear and smell. Naturally, adults begin to describe what they are doing. Children listen and copy the words they hear, extending their language. The language enrichment develops the more ‘wow’ words they hear during the sensory experience. Think of how many different ‘wow’ words you could incorporate into your child’s play.
Sensory play can also help with problem solving skills. Through experimenting with different materials, children develop problem solving skills as they find solutions to create new things and to overcome obstacles they come across during sensory play; such as how to make sand stick together. Being able to problem solve is a vital skill carried through childhood into adulthood.
In addition, sensory play helps develop fine and gross motor skills; helping identify objects by touch during tactile play including squeezing, pushing, pulling and pinching. When using pincer grips, it helps children to practice fine and gross motor skills and enhance muscle memory.
Sensory play also supports cognitive growth, enhancing thought process, understanding and reasoning. As children manipulate new materials, they lean to understand new concepts such as ‘under’ and ‘over’ as well as ‘sink’ and ‘float’.
At all nurseries within The Old Station Nursery Group, we have a variety of resources from paint, sand, water, cornflour, shaving foam, jelly and food play that encourage children to use all of their senses and enhance and support all of these ever-changing skills. There are endless resources you could find lying around at home that can you use for sensory play. Resources for sensory play can vary from mesmerising sensory lights, spiky balls and glitter toys to kinetic sand, jelly baff and scented playdough. Especially for our young babies, Christmas time will stimulate all those senses. From the smells of Christmas food, to the bright lights from decorations and, of course, the textures and sounds of wrapping paper.
Sensory play in the Early Years, therefore, plays a key role in children’s development. We should take every opportunity to engage, support and encourage learning through senses and even take the time to join in and play along with them. Over Christmas, why not explore some shaving foam with glitter and tinsel to work out those finger muscles. Perhaps you could create some Christmas scented playdough and see where your child’s imagination and your conversations lead you; who knows what fantastic ‘wow’ words you’ll come up with!
Sophie Mathis, Toddler Room Leader at The Old Station Nursery in Oxford