“For a small child there is no division between playing and learning; between the things he or she does ‘just for fun’ and things that are ‘educational.’ The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play.” ~upasna sunil wadhwani

From birth through to early childhood, children use their senses to explore and try to make sense of the world around them. They do this by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, moving and hearing.

Children and even adults learn best and retain the most information when they engage their senses. Many of our favorite memories are associated with one or more of our senses: for instance, the smell of a summer night campfire or a song you memorized the lyrics to with a childhood friend. Now, when your nostrils and eardrums are stimulated with those familiar smells and sounds respectively, your brain triggers a flashback memory to those special times.

Providing opportunities for children to actively use their senses as they explore their world through ‘sensory play’ is crucial to brain development – it helps to build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways.

This leads to a child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks and supports cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interaction and problem solving skills.

We often talk about the five senses. These are:

Taste – the stimulation that comes when our taste receptors react to chemicals in our mouth.

Touch – the stimulation that comes from touch receptors in our skin that react to pressure, heat/cold, or vibration.

Smell – the stimulation of chemical receptors in the upper airways (nose).

Sight – the stimulation of light receptors in our eyes, which our brains then interpret into visual images.

Hearing – the reception of sound, via mechanics in our inner ear.

However there are two others we commonly miss:

Body awareness (also known as proprioception) – the feedback our brains receive from stretch receptors in our muscles and pressure receptors in joints which enable us to gain a sense where our bodies are in space.

Balance – the stimulation of the vestibular system of the inner ear to tell us our body position in relation to gravity.

So, what is sensory play? 

Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates your young child’s senses: touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing.

Sensory activities facilitate exploration and naturally encourage children to use scientific processes while they playcreate, investigate and explore. The sensory activities allow children to refine their thresholds for different sensory information helping their brain to create stronger connections to process and respond to sensory information.

For example, initially a child may find it difficult to play appropriately with a peer when there are other things going on in the environment with conflicting noise. However, through sensory play exploring sounds and tasks a child learns to adapt to being able to block out the noise which is not important and focus on the play which is occurring with their peer.

Another example is a child who is particularly fussy with eating foods with a wet texture such as spaghetti, the use of sensory play can assist the child in touching, smelling and playing with the texture in an environment with little expectation.

As the child develops trust and understanding of this texture it helps build positive pathways in the brain to say it is safe to engage with this food. Sensory play literally helps shape what children to believe to be positive and safe in the brain. Ultimately, shaping the choices children make and impacting behavior.

Here are 5 reasons why sensory play is beneficial:

  1. Research shows that sensory play builds nerve connections in the brain’s pathways, which lead to the child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks.
  2. Sensory play supports language development, cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, problem solving skills, and social interaction.
  3. This type of play aids in developing and enhancing memory
  4. Sensory play is great for calming an anxious or frustrated child
  5. This helps children learn sensory attributes (hot, cold, sticky, dry)

Why sensory Learning?

Sensory learning – Sensory activities are those designed by educators to facilitate exploration encouraging children to use all their senses while they, create, investigate and explore. This is usually conducted through play although in the settings I have worked in also through structured planned learning activities. The sensory activities allow children to repeatedly process a range of sensory stimuli which in turn helps their brain to create stronger connections to process and respond to sensory information. According to the Independent review of the teaching of early reading (Rose Report 2006) multisensory learning is effective because it keeps children more engaged and focussed on their learning (Thompson 2011). This allows the development of core skills that can then be built on through sequenced planned learning.

Using sensory learning effectively

Sensory learning activities have the flexibility to be used in a range of settings and can be used to meet a range of learning needs from providing calming stimuli, reducing stress, stimulating proprioceptive activities to structuring in-depth experiential learning. Setting up meaningful sensory activities is not an easy option and takes a lot of planning and experience of using these techniques to create motivating progressive activities. When using sensory learning strategies we need to ensure we choose the right resources and present them in a way to ensure they are accessible to our learners.

This A-Z of Sensory Learning Activities will hopefully give you some ideas of what to do and how to maximize the potential of these simple classroom activities.

Great Sensory Learning Resources

I owe a big thank you to the following contributors to this post. All experienced practitioners in the field of sensory learning check out the links below for a vast array of resources linked to meeting the needs of sensory learners.

daschund balloon animal

activity. Can your child make smelly, scented, slimy bubble mixes using different dish soap? In maths linked work – Which size or shape wand works best. Use everlasting bubbles to count or cover a target. (I was going to have balloon- So I could post this picture.)

C – Cooking: what better than a sensory activity that you can eat afterward! This can be made fully age and stage appropriate. This image is of my Key stage 4 class using all their senses to make some cookies.

cooking sensory activity

D – Dough: Squash it, stretch it. Enhance it with essential oils. Stamp letters into it.

E – Eggs: These are great sensory food items, you can experiment with all the different feels and textures of eggs as you cook them in different ways.

F – Foil: This is a foil river that you can see my daughter using to explore water flow, capacity, gravity, floating sinking. Such a useful cheap and simple tool. Use it to enhance sensory stories.

foil river sensory activity

G – Gong: Gongs are fantastic for creating waves of sound that you can feel and hear. Read about a Gong Bath here.

H – Heated Toys these are available in a range of animals perfect for enhancing sensory stories. Monkey Puzzle by Julia Donaldson would be a great story to enhance using heated animal toys.

I – Ice: Many children really like playing with Ice. It is also a great sensory activity to use when it is hot outside and children are trying to regulate their temperature. You can freeze items in ice or even water beads to smash them.

J – Jumping: A sensory life has a great post outlining “10 Incredible benefits of jumping“. Many children just enjoy it, it burns off energy and can help regulate stress levels. You can easily incorporate maths – counting the bounces etc.

A-Z of sensory resources

K – Kinetic sand: This stuff is so unique in texture. It is very calming to watch if you pile it up and watch it crumble. Being hydrophobic it has an interesting effect when you put it in water. The Imagination Tree has a great simple recipe for making your own.

L – Lighting: Lights can be highly effective for multiple activities (See U – Umbrella). In this example, I have put lights under a clear plastic tray filled with Jelli Bath for an underwater sensory tray.

sensory learning resources

M – Material: One of my Son’s favourite books is “That’s not my Monkey“. For our “All creatures great and small topic we made tactile “That’s not my Lemur!” books. The best thing is multi-sensory material is often easy to find.

lemur tactile book sensory activity

N – Noodles or spaghetti are great for dyeing, colour recognition, and sensory play.

O – Olfactory: The Inspired treehouse has a huge list of smell related sensory activities to use here.

P – Putty

Q – Quiet: Do not underestimate the power of quiet reflection time to help reduce stress and process the day. Multiple quiet periods in a safe area can work wonders for focussing sensory learners on subsequent work tasks.

R – Rice

S – Signed Singing. Singing is a really simple way to engage sensory learners. Why not sign along to some favourite songs to add that kinaesthetic element?

T – The Tough Tray: The tough tray is now a classroom essential. So flexible and adaptable. Read this post to see how I adapted the tough tray to meet the needs of my classroom.

autumn sensory tray

U – Umbrellas: Sensory umbrellas or Storytelling umbrellas are a really effective way of creating immersive environments on a small scale. No need to decorate a room just fill create a storytelling umbrella – Read this post to learn more.

Sensory umbrella flo longhorn learning.jpg

V –  Vibration: Use vibration and massage to add a sensory element to the storytelling. Use as a calm down activity. This has been used effectively at my school as it can be used on the whole body and has a heating element.

W – Water beads: These are now used widely and come in a range of colours and sizes. My class used to like smashing them. My daughter likes running her hands through them. If you are making a beach tough tray they can stand in for water. Parenting Choas has a brilliant guide on using water beads.

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zyst trees garden sensory.jpg

X – Xyst: These trees or shrub lined pathways create a feeling of calmness and seclusion from the stresses and distractions of life outside. relatively easy to create with willow or saplings. A worthwhile addition to any sensory garden.

sesnory self regulation yoga puppy

Y – Yoga: Great for centering, self-regulation, etc. The benefits of yoga are well known so I will just post an image of my dog with a yoga ball.

Z – Zipline, as with swings a zip line is a very engaging proprioceptive activity that children and adults alike can enjoy. Why not design a sensory circuit that encompasses the activities at your local park?

Thank you for reading. 

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12 Benefits of Sensory Play With Activities You Can Do At Home

benefits of sensory play

The benefits of sensory play go beyond day care. Families can use sensory activities at home to encourage children to explore with their senses. Sensory activities don’t need to be fancy, and while they often involve messy play, sensory tables and tubs can reduce indoor messes.

Children naturally use their senses to explore their environment. While the five senses, taste, smell, sight, sound and touch are well known, there are also internal senses, such as balance, position and movement.

Sensory activities differ from other types of play as the emphasis on the senses amplifies the activity. Sensory play is any activity that activates one or multiple senses, and all kinds of play have the potential to become a sensory activity.

Our list of 12 benefits of sensory play will engage your imagination with activities that you can do with your child around your home. It also reveals:

  • How sensory play benefits babies and toddlers.
  • Secrets on protecting the home from messy play.
  • How to use sensory tables, tubs and bins.
  • Easy sensory activities for toddlers and babies.
Children combine mud, toys and nature, the benefit of sensory play.

12 Benefits of sensory play for babies and toddlers

1. Sensory experiences support cognitive development.

Sensory play for babies helps developing brains bridge nerve connections. But it isn’t just good for the little ones as brain development continues into adulthood. New and frequent experiences create connections that improve a child’s ability to do more complex learning activities.

2. Sensory activities allow children to develop their knowledge.

The use of sensory material creates hands-on, self-directed, and self-centred play, and it encourages discovery and development. This approach appeals to children who have different learning and thinking styles.

3. Sensory-rich play is inclusive.

Because there’s no right or wrong way to engage in sensory-rich play, it encourages inclusion. Sensory activities particularly benefit children with special needs, a second language and children who enjoy a practical approach to learning.

4. Play using the senses aids in developing and enhancing memory.

Scientists have identified the sense of smell as one of our strongest sense and memory links. Other research linking memory recall and senses suggests our memories are scattered across the brain sensory centres.

5. Sensory play encourages the development of fine and gross motor skills.

Motor skills are predetermined actions that involve your babies’ movement. Sensory play encourages babies and toddlers to move and participate in play, often using repetitive movements.

6.  Problem-solving, exploration and creativity are all benefits of sensory activities.

Children love to squish, pull, pour, stir, tap, rub, push, sniff, listen, transport, combine, make patterns and engage in role play – all things different stages of sensory play encourages including play with loose parts.

Loose parts in a wooden container enhance sensory play for toddlers.

7. Children who are agitated calm when doing sensory play.

Children engaged in sensory play often become absorbed in their activities. Playing outdoors or with sand, using scented candles to create a serene scent scape (with supervision), and the sights and sounds of bubbles and water help distract upset children and promote mindfulness.

8.  Sensory play supports language development.

Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling are all ways children learn to think, feel and compare their environment and the objects within it. Using multiple senses at the same time stimulates learning and language development, especially descriptive words.

9. New and varied sensory experiences are fun.

Different sensory activities stir different senses. By creating countless experiences and giving children with a host of new and varied challenges, children can discover new things about themselves and their world every day.

10.  Sensory activities assist children in learning differences and attributes.

When it comes to colour, sensory play provides the conditions for learning where children first discover the differences of each colour. Children learn about the attributes of an object or concept using their senses.

11.  Sensory play can suit any environment, outdoors or inside.

The outdoor environment provides a vast wealth of freely available experiences to promote a child’s senses. It’s also more suited to messy play. But it’s possible to explore messy play indoors and keep your home safe or tidy.

When your child engages in messy play, protect floor areas or table surfaces with an old plastic table cover. The bathtub or kitchen sink is also an excellent location for messy play, especially if you’re using paints or water. Sensory bins and tubs help with putting loose parts away.

12. Scientific thinking is supported through play with the senses.

Sensory play supports scientific thinking which involves inquiry, experimentation, hypothesising, researching and investigating encourages a child to use their senses to discover new aspects. It delivers on Outcome 4 of the Early Years Learning Framework.

Children with playdough and natural materials participate in sensory play for babies and toddlers.

Making use of sensory tables, bins and tubs

Sensory tables, bins or tubs are specially selected containers for keeping sensory activities tidy. Let’s say you are teaching your preschooler about dinosaurs, you could read them a book, but you could also set up a sensory table with a dinosaur theme activity for them to explore.

A sensory themed dinosaur tub  might include some toy dinosaur characters, but also kinetic sand, pebbles and stones, pieces of wood, pine cones, assorted seeds and plant material like leaves, moss or succulents.

Your sensory tub is limited only by the imagination and available materials. Themed sensory bins are perfect for exploring different topics, problem-solving and keeping the house clean. Match each theme with a book and song for extended learning and sensory fun.

Sensory tables and tubs may hold small items and objects that aren’t ideal for mouths. Always closely supervise babies and toddlers. Newborns can also engage in sensory activities with your help. You can brush objects against their skin, and shake and rattle containers for sound.

While playing with different sensory items is often self-directed, you can observe and ask open-ended questions to prompt learning, like:

  • What does it smell like?
  • What do you hear?
  • Can you describe the different items?
Children play around an Australian animal themed sensory table.

Sensory activities for toddlers

Nature play, water play, sand play and mud play are all types of sensory activities for toddlers that are easy to set up.

Older toddlers won’t need much direction to engage with these sensory environments; they just need your okay. Each context offers endless opportunities for exploration and play-based learning.

Sensory tables and tubs allow you to bring these environments indoors and you can collect many of the items while outside with your child.

A nature tub, for instance, might contain a collection of items like shells, branches, flowers, an assortment of leaves, pine cones, seeds, grass, ferns rocks, soil, sand and mulch. Some containers might also include a fallen bird nest, starfish or feathers.

Child engages in nature sensory activities for toddlers and preschoolers.

More sensory play ideas for babies

If you’re weaning your baby, a useful activity is to cut up different types of foods for them to taste, smell and feel. Different foods present a new sensory experience. This rewarding experience is also relevant for toddlers, as it can introduce them to new tastes and textures.

Large ice cubes in a bowl make for an exciting and refreshing sensory activity for babies and toddlers. Hot days are perfect for this sensory play idea. When the ice is fresh, your baby’s fingers can hold it firmly, but when it begins to melt it will slip from their hands.

Clear lidded containers are ideal sensory tubs for seeing, hearing and smelling activities. You can make rattles with the containers by adding materials from around the home, like rice, spaghetti tubes or cereal. Different shaped containers will also challenge your baby’s grasp.

Your house is full of sensory materials, and there are heaps of sensory themes and ideas to discover. For many children, sensory play comes naturally as they interact with their environment. It is us adults that need reminding of the benefits of sensory play and how to include it in our child’s day.

Babies and toddlers trying new tastes and textures is a rewarding sensory play idea.

Kindle your child’s imagination with sensory play at Petit Early Learning Journey

IiSensory play creates capable and resourceful children who create their own knowledge. It encourages learning through curiosity, exploration, creativity, enthusiasm and self-examination. At Petit ELJ, we embrace sensory play inside our studios and in the outdoor environment.

The 10 Best Sensory Toys & Gifts for Children with Autism

The 10 Best Sensory Toys & Gifts for Children with Autism

Autism is commonly accompanied by sensory issues. The American Psychiatric Association even added sensory sensitivities to the list of symptoms that help diagnose autism in 2013. If you have a child that is dealing with sensory issues, you might want to try bringing home some sensory toys for them to play with.

Sensory toys are designed to stimulate a child’s five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. They might include elements such as bright, contrasting colors, sounds, or different textures. These toys are meant to help children develop their senses in a safe and natural environment using play.

What Are Sensory Issues?

There are two types of sensory issues that might affect a child with autism: hyper-sensitivities and hypo-sensitivities. Both types of sensitivities affect how the child processes and reacts to different types of stimuli. According to Autism Speaks, these can include, but are not limited to:

  • Sights
  • Sounds
  • Smells
  • Tastes
  • Touch
  • Balance
  • Body Awareness

Hyper-Sensitive Children

Children who are hypersensitive are overly responsive to stimulants. This is often called “sensory overload.” Both regular and extreme stimuli, like bright lights or strong smells, can affect hyper-sensitive children, leaving them feeling overwhelmed. There are a number of strategies that can be used to help children with sensory hypersensitivity. In order to ensure appropriate support is in place, parents should consult with an occupational therapist or professional to determine the best way to support their child with hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli.

Hypo-Sensitive Children

As opposed to hyper-sensitivity, some children with autism are actually under-responsive to senses and stimulants. One example of this is a low sensitivity to pain. A child who has hypo-sensitivity also may be under-responsive to body signals that affect balance control and physical coordination. Some accommodations that can be made for children who are hypo-sensitive include weighted blankets, strong tasting or textured foods, and activities that practice physical skills such as dancing, jumping, running, and catching.

How do sensory toys help autism?

Sensory toys help children with autism relax, focus, and calm down to a scenario or event. It helps them grasp objects with decreased dear and discomfort, ultimately helping them play naturally. Futhermore, sensory toys help develop social learning skills like negotiating, planning, and sharing.

How Are Sensory Toys Used For Autism?

The use of sensory toys to help children with autism is becoming more and more common. There are many different types of sensory toys available, appealing to one or more of the different senses. Sensory toys work to engage a child’s senses in an enjoyable way.

Sensory toys used for autism can help children focus better, calm down, and relax, however, sensory toys do not replace formal and evidence-based treatment for autism spectrum disorders. In the end, sensory toys are meant to help a child learn more about their senses in a fun way. Through the use of play, a child with autism may better understand their senses and how to manage them.

A photo of a Child with occupational therapist touching sensory integration equipment.
Child with occupational therapist touching sensory integration equipment

The 10 Best Sensory Toys for Autism

You can find sensory toys and gifts online and in most stores. If you are trying to determine what the best types of sensory toys for autism are, here are a few options you might want to consider.

1. Sensory Mats

A great sensory toy for children with autism is a series of sensory mats. These are small mats that each utilize a different texture. Children can then use their hands or feet to feel and play with the different types of textures. You can even have your child close their eyes and go through the different mats while you ask them to describe what they feel.

2. Chew Toys

It’s not uncommon for parents to use chew toys for an infant, especially while they may be teething, but another use of chew toys is for children with autism. Chew toys are made of a non-toxic silicone material and can be hand-held objects or jewelry-like pieces worn around the neck or wrist. They come in a variety of textures, from dots, ridges, and patterns, or they can be smooth as well. Chew toys are meant to develop biting and chewing skills, as well as provide sensory stimulation.

3. Sand, Slime, or Putty

Another type of sensory toy that might be beneficial for your child is sand, slime, or putty. These allow your child to play while also developing fine motor skills. Children can play with the substance alone or they can incorporate other objects as well. Also, the substances are often brightly colored, appealing to their visual senses.

4. Pin Art

Pin artboards are great for both kids and teens with autism. These toys feature steel pins that allow a child to make and look at imprints in the pins. You can use your hands and fingers to make imprints as well as other objects and toys. The unique feeling of the pins when touching the pin artboard makes it a great no-mess sensory toy for children with autism.

5. Rainmaker Toys

To appeal to a child’s sense of hearing, try a rainmaker! A rainmaker is a fun toy that can help a child with autism relax when playing and listening to the soothing sounds of “rain.” The bright colors and cascade of falling beads are another bonus with this toy, allowing a child to engage with multiple senses at once without it being overwhelming.

6. Fidget Spinners

You have probably already encountered fidget spinners, as they became the latest craze a few years ago. These toys help a child focus by keeping their hands occupied. Not only great for children with autism but also children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD). The smooth and fast rotation of the spinners are enjoyable for many children, and with many different designs available, you are sure to find one that your child loves.

7. Electric Dog Pet

Sounds can be a struggle to a child with autism. However, one study showed that the sounds from home appliances and common pets noises from toys actually helped desensitize children with autism who may be struggle with noise. 

There is ongoing research on the benefits of using interactive robot toys for children with autism. The Electronic Pet Dog Interactive Puppy is a great way to get your child to interact with objects and get used to different sounds. This Electronic Pet Dog responds to your child’s touch and presents cues. This may help with the auditory process and social interaction as your child adapts more to the toy.

8. Senseez Vibrating Cushion

This vibrating cushion is a great way to help calm your child by its smoothing motion and calm sound. Additionally, recent study noted how vibrating sensory toys can help improve verbal initiations and responses in children- prompting them to engage in social interaction.

9. Body Sox

This interactive toy works by allowing the child to put themselves into a colorful, see-through and breathable lycra sock. Children with autism find that pressure helps to relieve anxiety and initiate relaxation.

10. Reflective Balls

These sensory reflective balls help children with autism by helping them develop a visual sense. Studies have shown that children with ADHD and autism have less of the ability to process visual sensory information. This is a great solution to help get your child started!

What kind of toys do toddlers with autism like?

When it comes to picking out toys for children with autism, the same general toys that are played with amoung toddlers remains the same. Puzzles, blocks, balls, cars and books are all great for toddlers regardless of their condition.

Sensory Toys & Gifts at Carmen B. Pingree

At Carmen B. Pingree, we understand the sensory difficulties children with autism may face, which is why we have occupational therapists that will guide children and parents through different options to support their children with hypersensitivity or hypo-sensitivity to sensory stimuli. We incorporate the use of sensory toys when appropriate to supplement our primary treatment modalities as well. The use of toys that help engage a child’s various senses can help them learn and become more familiar with these senses in a safe and natural play environment.