As a busy family, finding time to engage in sensory play can seem daunting. Between school, work, extracurricular activities, and household chores, it can feel like there's barely enough time to breathe, let alone incorporate messy and time-consuming play activities into our routine. However, sensory play is not only fun for kids, but it is also essential for their development. Below we’ll explore some tips for busy families interested in getting started with sensory play, as well as tips for cleaning up, and why sensory play is beneficial for children.
What is Sensory Play?
Simply put, sensory play is any activity that encourages a person to use their senses. Typically, sensory play refers to the use of the five primary senses, which include the sense of sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. Sensory play can involve using materials that have a variety of textures, different temperatures, or a mix of scents. By including objects that have children using their senses, children are able to explore and experiment in a playful, low stress way. This type of play is important for a child’s development as it helps children learn about the world around them, develop their physical and critical thinking skills, express their emotions as well as explore their creativity. Activities can be as simple as playing with water and sand, or more elaborate such as creating a themed sensory bin. By giving children sensory play opportunities, families can help their children develop important skills that will last a lifetime.
Sensory play idea: grab a bag of lemons at the store and cut them in half.
Then, allow your child to squish them. Add a bowl of water and see
if they sink or float. This activity engages the sense of sight, smell, and touch.
Benefits of Sensory Play
As discussed above, sensory play is a critical part of early childhood development, as it provides children with the opportunities to explore and learn about the world around them. Here are 6 of what I consider the most important benefits to incorporating sensory play into your routine.
Sensory play can provide an outlet for children to direct their energy towards while giving them something to focus on. In fact, according to Sensory Intelligence Consulting, "Sensory activities are wonderful strategies to use in helping children/adults with ADHD in order to get rid of excess energy and to help direct attention to the tasks at hand."
Helps to develop fine motor skills
Fine motor skills are the precursors to handwriting. Sensory play most often involves pinching, pouring, smashing, touching, rolling, sorting and moving actions it requires children to use their hands in very specific and deliberate ways, which strengthens their hand muscles.
Sensory play idea: Grab a bin and add birdseed, a scoop, a bowl,
and a funnel and watch them explore.
Promotes language development
While playing with young children sensory play can be a great time to work on their receptive language skills by giving commands for them to follow (ie: Pinch the play dough, pick up the blue bowl) or by asking them questions like "can you scoop the rice into the cup?". Children can work on sequencing either by being asked to do something first and something next or they can tell the adult playing with them what they did first and last. As the adult, you can also introduce new vocabulary to your child when you are talking to them while they play or about their play. A great idea is to think about words that describe what they are experiencing with their senses: squishy, bumpy, loud, soft, high or low pitch, pleasant, sweet, wobbly, etc
Encourages scientific thinking and problem solving
Since sensory play is open ended, it allows children to create, explore, and use their imaginations. As they begin to play they will automatically try new things. This process can be encouraged by asking guiding questions like "what color do you think it will make if you mix the blue and yellow play dough?" Children can also sort and categorize by shape, size, color, texture or other attribute, which requires close observation, a scientific skill. Sensory play will also naturally present problems they need to solve. They may need to discover how they can build the tallest tower, which cup is going to hold more, what happens when they use a different tool to move an object or pour, they may decide they need to build a boat that will float or that their boat needs to be able to carry objects.
Helps make nerve connections in the brain
Sensory play has been shown to strengthen nerve connections in the brain allowing children to learn more complex concepts later on. It can also help enhance memory. According to Parenting for Brain, sensory stimulation is a necessity for brain development in babies. But, the benefits don't stop in infancy "when your child is allowed to use multiple senses to accomplish a task, they will learn more from the experience and retain more information.
Sensory play idea: Grab a no-prep sensory kit from Broccoli Boxes!
Tips for Busy Families
Give yourself time
It would be a mistake to plan for sensory play 30 minutes before you need to run out the door or right before a big transition. Sensory play requires time. Your children will likely become engrossed in their play and may have a difficult time pulling away from it, if you don’t give yourself enough time to transition. You’ll also want to plan a few minutes for cleaning up afterwards. If you plan for it and know you’ll need that time, then you are less likely to become overwhelmed and frustrated by it.
Set aside a dedicated space for sensory play
It can be as simple as a corner in your living room or a table in your child's bedroom. Having a designated space will help keep the mess contained and make clean-up easier.
Sensory Play Idea: Take several different containers and water to your
designated sensory play spot (possibly outside for this one) and let them play!
In the beginning, try sensory play activities that require minimal preparation and clean-up. For example, playing with playdough, a sensory bin filled with rice, or water play in the bathtub are all easy and fun activities that don't require a lot of time or effort. Then, when you are more comfortable and are feeling adventurous you can try to put togehter a more complex set up, but it's not required and it's all helpful for your kids.
Make sensory play a part of your routine.
For example, you can set aside 20-30 minutes every day for sensory play. You can also incorporate sensory play into everyday activities, such as cooking or cleaning, by involving your child in the process and encouraging them to touch, smell, and taste different ingredients.
Involve your child in the clean-up process.
Encourage them to help clean up their toys and put them away. You can also involve them in the process of cleaning up any spills or messes that occur during sensory play. You could sing a clean up song to help make it more fun for them or turn it into a game. For example, you could tell your child, "I see 3 cups. Can you find all the cups and put them in the sink?"
Get your child involved in clean up!
Use washable materials for sensory play.
Avoid materials that are difficult to clean or that may stain, such as glitter or food coloring. Instead, opt for washable paint, playdough, and sensory bin fillers like rice or beans.
Supervise your child
Always supervise your child during sensory play activities to ensure they are using the materials appropriately and safely. Keep an eye on your child's reactions and behavior to make sure they are comfortable and engaged in the activity.
Remember, the most important thing is to have fun and be creative! Sensory play can provide endless opportunities for learning and exploration for both you and your child.
Tips for Clean-Up
Use a designated space
By having a designated space for sensory play activities you can choose a location that will be easier to clean up. You may decided the kitchen is the best spot, becuase there isn't any carpet or maybe you have an outisde space like a balcony or front porch that would make clean up easier. You want to choose a place where you aren't going to be anxious the entire time about the possibility of a "mess" happening.
Use a mat or tray
Along the same lines as having a designated space is to use a mat, tray, or large paper under sensory play activities to contain the mess, which will make clean up easier. For example, you can place a plastic tablecloth or tray under a sensory bin to catch any spills.
Here this family spreads out a nice big blanket before beginning to play
with their Knights and Dragons Broccoli Box.
Keep a vacuum or broom close by
If you keep a vacuum or a broom close by then you won't have to search for them in the moment. We like to keep a hand vac close and charged for any spills and the mess is cleaned up in a jiff! Bonus: many kids will love to use a hand vac and will then also feel a snese of pride for getting involved in the clean up. Use a vacuum or broom to clean up dry materials such as rice, beans, or sand. A lint roller can also be useful for picking up smaller particles.
Use a damp cloth or sponge
To clean up wet materials such as water, paint, or even playdough a damp cloth or sponge will likely be all you need. You can also use a mixture of dish soap and warm water to clean up more stubborn messes.
Safety should always be a top priority when using sensory play activities with children. Here are some safety considerations and tips to keep in mind:
Choose appropriate materials
When selecting materials for sensory play, make sure they are age-appropriate and non-toxic. Avoid small objects or materials that can be a choking hazard, if your child is putting things in their mouth. Cups, measuring spoons, scoops, and bowls are always fun!
Sensory Play Idea: Make some colored gelltin, you can find it without
sugars and dyes at your local grocery store, and make it with
some of your child's toys inside. Then, let your child play and explore.
Always supervise children during sensory play activities to ensure their safety and prevent accidents.
Clean and sanitized materials
Ensure all materials used in sensory play are clean and sanitized to prevent the spread of germs. This is especially important if you have several children all sharing a sensory play set up, like in a daycare setting. This is especially important during times when illnesses are more common.
Allergies and sensitivities
Be aware of any allergies or sensitivities that children may have to certain materials and avoid using them. For example, if you child can't be around gluten look for a gluten free playdough, like Whoa Dough.
Be mindful of sensory sensitivities
Some children may have sensory sensitivities, so it's important to introduce new materials slowly and observe your child's reactions. Don't force it. Sensory play should be an enjoyable experience, so don't force your child to engage with a material they aren't ready for. Introduce it multiple times, have it available for them to look at and experience at their comfort. You can encourage playing with these materials by playing with them yourself and talking about the experience. For example you may say, "oo! This is soft and squishy. It doesn't stick to my hands. I notice I'm able to mold it with my hands."
Sensory Play Idea: Add shaving cream to a try with drops of food coloring.
Then, let your child mix and play. If you child is hesisitant to get their
hands "dirty" you can add a paint brush.
Safe play area
Create a safe play area for sensory play activities by removing any sharp objects, blocking off hazardous areas, and ensuring there is enough space for children to move around freely.
Set clear expectations
Establish clear rules and expectations for behavior during sensory play activities, such as no throwing or hitting. When we were first beginning to use rice and beans in our sensory play, I played with my son and modeled how to keep the materials in the bin. We talked about not throwing or dumping the bin over. When he invetibly did throw or dump the bin, we immediately cleaned it up together and put it away for a little bit. He soon saw the connection between dumping the bin and not being able to play anymore and he stopped.
Have an emergency plan
This one is just a good thing to have in place no matter what. In case of an accident or injury, have an emergency plan in place and know how to respond quickly.
Don't let sensory play intimidate you - it's easy and fun for the whole family! Try out some of the tips and ideas shared in this beginner's guide, and don't forget to share your favorite sensory play tips in the comments below.
Sensory Play Idea: Add water to a container and cut sponges into different
shapes. You can also get two containers of water one with cold water
and one with warm water to add another sensory element to your child's play.