Autism Awareness Week brings recognition to young people with autism, and those who may experience the world differently when it comes to processing sensory information. 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.
With children who may be on the autistic disorder spectrum (ASD), encouraging the use of their senses is incredibly important; they may struggle with processing sensory information as they may be sensitive to certain sounds for example. Using sensory activities are effective learning tools to engage all areas of the brain; helping with cognitive, emotional, physical, social and communication development, and can help to ‘retrain’ the brains response to new sensory information. This may help autistic children to cope better with different sounds, new textures, or a variety of scents and tastes.
Some of the benefits of sensory play, especially for autistic children include:
- Stimulating the brain, helping children to process new sensory information.
- Helping to develop language skills. 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, and 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. For non-verbal autistic children, it may help them with their communication 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.
- Improving social skills, through turn-taking and sharing with others.
- Improving self-regulation- for children with autism, sensory play can help them to learn how to respond to sensory stimulation in a much more positive way, boosting their self control.
- Helps to 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’.
Within our settings, sensory play is just one of the great ways that help the children to develop their skills. It also allows for a wider understanding of the world around them, through looking, listening, tasting, touching and smelling. At our nurseries across 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. 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.
Below are some ideas of what you can do at home to support your child’s sensory development: