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Sensory Play In The Early Years: 25 Amazing Activity Ideas For You To Try

12 min of reading
27 May 2022
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What is Sensory Play?

Sensory play involves any activity designed to stimulate a child’s five main senses of touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste. The touch element can also incorporate physical movement along with balance.

There are 5 main senses, although heavily debated that there are more. We discuss movement within the umbrella of touch, sensory play can however be considered as just different textures to squish, pull, and handle. This is only the tip of the sensory iceberg; in this article we delve into why sensory play is important, the benefits behind facilitating exciting sensory activities for your nursery children, as well as equipping you with 25 easy and cheap sensory ideas to try for yourself.

What are the Benefits of Sensory Play in the Early Years?

Think about how we, as adults, process our senses to help us make everyday decisions. Through real-life experience we have been able to use our 5 senses to express certain things like: when there is potential danger (fire and smoke, emergency sirens, unsafe footing); our likes and dislikes (favourite foods and foods that make your stomach flip, certain materials we love or loathe); and finally our senses can spark memories (the smell of certain scent, the scenery of a favourite area). We can use our senses to inform our brain of all of these events due to concrete understanding and knowledge surrounding our senses. Therefore sensory play and activities are vital to helping young children to do the same.

There are countless benefits attached to encouraging children to participate in quality sensory play. Let’s look at some of those benefits!

Independent Play

When enjoying sensory activities, toddlers to school-starters can develop their independent play skills. Learning to explore without the confidence of others can begin to strengthen their likes, dislikes, and interests.

Language Development

Similar to the Curiosity Approach, the use of sensory play can encourage language development through social play. Opening up endless games and activities to play with the sensory equipment, this language can build on everyday discussions and questions between peers and also encourage vital back and forth discussions between adults and children.

Fine and Gross Motor Skills

By 12 months, children are continuing to explore the world with their hands and mouths. They will begin to show a preference for a dominant hand and can begin to hold smaller objects with precision (pincer grip). The use of sensory activities can develop their fine motor skills in a fun, exploratory environment with no expectations. This all eventually builds up towards securing learning skills (such as holding a pen or pencil). A number of touch activities also incorporate balance and movement, developing necessary gross motor skills needed to develop healthy habits with nursery-aged children.

Self-Regulatory Behaviours

Self-regulation can be a difficult task for adults and children alike. It is personal to the individual how they can regulate their extreme feelings and emotions. Some may choose a physical activity, calming music, reading in solitude as well as engaging in sensory activities.

Social Skills

For children to develop holistically, they require regular opportunities to develop socially. This may be with a friend or a small group, and by engaging with sensory play, children can remove intimidation involved in social interactions. By mirroring others’ behaviours and language, sensory play is a perfect opportunity to teach about sharing and cooperative play.

Problem Solving and Abstract Thinking

Wrapped up in messy play, problem-solving can be the underpinning of most sensory play activities. Linking with the Curiosity Approach, open-ended activities (listed below) can inspire all types of games, language acquisition and abstract thinking. Try to highlight on your nursery communication platform the option for ‘Messy play near you’ experiences away from the nursery base.

How can sensory play help SEND children?

Some children can feel overwhelmed when responding to information passed to their brain from their senses. This can be a developmental journey or maybe signs of additional needs (Sensory Processing Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Visual or Hearing Impairment). Sensory play can help to gently expose children to different experiences linked to their senses as well as being used as self-regulation strategies.

Sensory Processing

Challenges associated with sensory processing can be due to a child having over or under sensitivity to particular or multiple senses. Your role is to ensure your nursery setting is inclusive in culture to support these preferences and needs. It may be that these children benefit from more than a sensory soft play area or sensory table within the nursery, and would benefit from incorporating sensory play into everyday activities.

Social Skills and Speech and Language

Social skills can be particularly challenging for some children who require additional support due to communication and interaction delays or disorders. Using the vehicle of sensory play can allow children to remain in a comfortable activity, whilst introducing the challenge of social interaction and communication. This allows for friendships and relationships to be built.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness can be defined in a variety of ways, it is the process of focusing on the now. Participating in an enjoyable activity such as reading, yoga, sports, painting can help a person to find their flow. Mindfulness is an excellent strategy for those children who experience more extreme emotions as well as those within a typical range. A number of the ideas and activities listed below are ideal for introducing and encouraging mindfulness, which can be used as a calming strategy.

How does sensory play help brain development?

Sensory play is interesting, engaging and tactile learning and what’s even better is the science behind the use of sensory activities in assisting with children’s brain development. Let’s look at the science behind the play.

When learning with our senses, our brain stores the information in the sensory memory. This is where we begin to process and understand the world, progressing into short term memory and finally into long term memory. When problems are solved and novel ideas are created, this develops cognitive skills. Sensory play strengthens sensory-related synapses and functions which are vital for the development of sensory processing capabilities. This explains why it is so essential to facilitate sensory activities with newborns and toddlers alike.

25 Sensory Play Ideas and Activities

Sensory Bins

Possibly one of the easiest and cheapest activities to create; you will need a large container and a selection of objects with different textures. They can be natural objects (rocks, twigs, leaves) or small toys of different textures. You can fill the bins with water, rice, and cotton wool or leave the objects uncovered. Add a blindfolded element for more sensory exploration.

Sensory Bottles

Sensory bottles are an excellent strategy for both mindfulness and self-regulation. They are made up of water, clear glue, food colouring and glitter, and can be tipped upside down to see the glitter fall slowly down to the bottom. Just be careful to check the lid is tightly glued shut!

Cotton Ball Art

Hang some large pieces of paper onto an outdoor surface (a fence is perfect), dilute water-based paint with water on a paper plate and place some cotton balls in the paint. Your children will aim and fire at the paper, creating an abstract masterpiece whilst exploring sensory textures.

Ziplock Painting

Messy play without the mess! Place blobs of thick paint into a sturdy ziplock bag with a piece of paper inside. Your child will move the paint around with their hands, feeling the squishy sensation whilst creating artwork. Double win!

Giant Bubbles

Hoola hoops or a wire coat hanger are the best for creating giant bubbles. Dip them into a washing up liquid and water mixture, and swirl them in the air. The shiny colours from sunlight bounce off the bubbles creating a sensory feast for the eyes.

LED Lights

Lava lamps or LED lights around a darkened room are excellent visual stimulation for young children, as sight is their first explored sense.

Water Sensory Table

The introduction of a water sensory table is recommended for nursery settings. With a large, deep water tray and different sized containers, children can use funnels and pipettes to collect the water. It is an excellent introduction to capacity in early Maths.

Oobleck

The logic-defying science experiment is perfect for sensory exploration. You will need cornflour and water (you can add non-staining food colouring but take care with regular food colouring as it will stain). Once the water is mixed into the cornflour, the mixture becomes both a solid and a liquid!

Water Beads

Water beads expand when submerged in water, children can place them in water and watch them grow. They are a soft yet slimy texture that can be very calming for them to run their hands through.

Slime

Slime can be created a hundred different ways, mainly from kitchen-based products like bicarbonate soda, pva glue and non-staining food colouring. Research different recipes as some slime can be soft and squishy whilst others slimy and sticky- offering a sensory range!

Mud Pies

Back to the roots or the ground with this next idea, good old fashioned mud pies. This involves a selection of movements for push and pull stimulation as well as the difference in soil when it is wet and dry.

Soap Foam

Following perfectly on from messy play, this activity can promote handwashing habits as well as engage with sensory stimulation. Place some washing up liquid, some non-staining food colouring and water in a blender. This will create soap foam. Lay it in a shallow tray and explore the texture.

Find it Tubes

You can add small objects (sequins, small toys, shells, buttons) into a large bottle and fill it ⅔ of the way with dry rice. The children will shake the bottle to try to find the objects. It can be useful to record which items you put in as you do it to create a checklist for searches.

Ice Cube Painting

Using an ice cube tray, pour different paint into each section. When semi-frozen you can place an optional lollipop stick in for fine motor skills. Using a large piece of card or paper, wipe the melting paint cubes to make an image.

Food Play

There are studies to support the use of messy play with food and the increased likelihood of a child then trying this food. Away from the dinner table, try mashing and spreading different food to explore textures- if they want to give them a taste, that’s okay too!

Sound Tubes

Creating musical instruments is a sensory treat! Add some dried beans, rice or pasta into different sealable containers. Ear defenders can be used to reduce overstimulation.

Balance Beam

Balance and movement are often thought as additional senses, this very well may be the case! Encompassing in the ‘touch’ category try to develop their sense of balance by using a raised beam or even a ‘beam’ masking taped to the floor.

Swing

The motion of swinging can be an act of self-regulation for many children with ASD. Encourage children to safely try swinging in different methods: lying on their belly, being gently swung from side to side.

Sandbox

A firm favourite in nurseries, due to the difference in dry and wet sand textures as well as being able to grab and crush sand between hands and even bare feet.

Tasting Fruit

Fruit can be tangy, sweet or even a little sour. With parental consent, begin to introduce different fruit during snack times. This can be an optional addition or substitute, always make sure they have the safe option of their known snack.

Tasting Sweet Food

Sweet food is often preferred over tangy or sour if you have children with overly sensitive palettes. Try some food where sugars are naturally occurring or limited like some fruits and yoghurt.

Planting

Green fingers can stimulate lots of sensory experiences as well as increase responsibility and fine motor skills. Introduce the use of a trowel or other digging implement to further their coordination skills.

Bread Baking

This is an unusual sensory opportunity to interact with both soft and squishy material (dough) as well as the finished product (harder external material). Although this can take longer to complete, this is an activity that offers endless sensory exploration.

Bubble Wrap

Find yourself with bubble wrap you need to recycle? Add paint to the mix and we have a bubble wrap paint party! Your child will need some adult supervision in case the surface becomes slippery. Place a piece of paper or card on a wipeable floor, blob a mixture of paint colours to the page and lie the bubble wrap on top. The children can pop the bubble wrap and make art!

Frozen Toys

Place some small, plastic toys in a beaker of water and allow them to freeze. Your children can explore the different touch feelings of cold and warm. Explore smashing the ice from a height if they enjoy the additional push and pull sensory feelings.

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