First, what is sensory play?
Sensory play is play that engages children in activities that stimulate one or more of their senses. This includes sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, and movement. It creates an opportunity for children to learn about their environment and bodies through experimentation. Sensory play builds new connections in the brain. It encourages language development, motor skills development, social skills, and self-regulation. It helps children create fun and positive experiences with new sensations. Sensory play can look different depending on the child, the environment, and the tools involved.
Here are some common myths you may have about sensory play:
Myth 1: Sensory activities always involve a big mess
When many people think about sensory play, they think it must be messy! Fill up a sensory bin with rice, water, shaving cream, or potting soil and a bit of mess is expected! The mess can be a big part of the fun and learning! But remember that sensory play does not exclusively mean touch. Sensory play can involve many different parts of the body. Some activities that don’t involve getting messy include: going on a nature sound scavenger hunt, comparing the sounds of musical instruments, mixing paint colors in Ziplock bags, or taste testing foods from your garden. Activities can be fun and engaging without being messy!
Myth 2: All kids love to get messy!
Each child will respond to sensory activities differently. Children shouldn’t be forced into something that makes them overstimulated or upset. Some children are sensitive to specific sensory input. The focus should be on creating an opportunity for exploration.
Encourage your child to try something new, model the activity if they seem hesitant, and modify if needed. Not all children will enjoy getting messy. Forcing a child to engage in an activity that is upsetting will not encourage learning or exploration. Be ready to mix it up if your child seems overwhelmed or upset.
Say that you are carving a pumpkin. The activity was intended to be about touching the fibrous strands and seeds inside the pumpkin, but your child is upset or uninterested. Where are the opportunities for modification?
Try putting the pumpkin “guts” in a bowl so you can make visual observations, let your child smell the pumpkin and have them describe what they smell, provide gloves so their hands do not get sticky, use a spoon to stir the insides of the pumpkin, listen to the “squish” sounds of the pumpkin, or knock on the outside of the pumpkin before and after you take out the seeds. Does it sound different? There are many ways to still create sensory experiences without putting hands directly into the pumpkin.
Myth 3: It is only for students with disabilities
Children with disabilities often have a focus on sensory activities. Sensory play is great for learning life skills, pre-math skills, creating tools for self-regulation, and learning to process sensory input from daily life. But these are not learning opportunities exclusive to those with special needs. Sensory play can benefit all children!
Myth 4: Sensory play is always unstructured/always structured
There are no rules to sensory play. It can include a wide range of activities, so it cannot be defined by one rule. Some activities may need structure and prompting to initiate, while other activities should be open ended and child lead.
- Unstructured/child lead: Children playing at a water table can be very unstructured and child lead. They will experiment with dumping, pouring, splashing, and measuring at their own pace. Allow for experimentation with different size containers, a spoon vs a fork for mixing, what happens to the water when you pour it down the funnel? A child can follow what interests them most.
- Structured: Taking children on a nature scavenger hunt may require an adult to model the skill. The scavenger hunt could include the introduction of unfamiliar vocabulary and possibly a provided check list or picture list. This activity would require prior explanation and may need scaffolding.
Myth 5: Sensory play can only happen at a sensory table
Of course, sensory tables are great for sensory play, but they are not the only place where it can happen! There are endless opportunities for sensory play. Play in a fountain, pour in the sandbox, dig in the garden, run through an obstacle course, paint outside, or practice on the balance beam. Sensory play can happen wherever children love to play!
Sensory play is an opportunity for adults and children to get creative! Follow the child’s interests and let them show you how much they love to learn.
Continue learning through sensory play in the preschool outdoor classroom with The Adventurous Child Sensory Table!
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