Humans have sensory needs that must be met for optimal emotional and brain development. In infancy, these needs are met by skin-to-skin contact with caretakers, snuggling, rocking, and overall meeting of their physical needs. However, as children grow, sensory needs become more complex and require exposure to opportunities to explore the world.
Sensory play is essentially any experience that involves the 5 senses and movement needs. There are myriad products available to provide sensory play for children, which can be overwhelming to new parents. However, a child’s sensory needs can also be met through creative use of everyday items.
1 - Touch
This need can be addressed by exposing children to textures and materials. Just letting a child be barefoot is a great way to meet this need. Putting a kiddo’s bare feet and hands into grass, sand, water, or even a box of packing peanuts can provide children with amazing sensory play.
A bath is a sensory dream for kids of all ages. Add in some bubbles to up the ante, and as the child reaches toddler age a little shaving cream to squish and smear on walls can add additional sensory play to the bath. For kiddos who can sit up safely, toss in a few plastic cups or bottles and let them experiment with pouring. Even the easy addition of ice cubes can add interest (and science) to a bath.
For sensory seeking kiddos, many products are available to assist with touch needs. Elastic bands let kids push against resistance, sensory socks provide gentle pressure along with sensory swings/hammocks, and even specialized chairs are available to provide deep pressure for children who benefit from that.
2 - Smell
Many smell inputs are met through food or cooking with your child. Even young toddlers can help in the kitchen with simple tasks that get them around the smells of cooking food. Other smell sensory items are scratch and sniff stickers, smelly markers (designed to be smelled, not the toxic permanent kind), or simple games where children try to guess what a smell is.
3 - Taste
Kitchen and mealtimes are big for this sensory need, again. Exposing children to foods of varying textures and types is important from a sensory standpoint but is also a great way to avoid picky eater problems later in life. Products like flavored blowing bubbles are also available, and it is fairly simple to play games with blindfolds or eyes closed to do tasting games.
4 - Vision
Visual input is extremely important for sighted kiddos. Colorful lights, balloons, paints, and natural items like flowers can be used to fill this need. Many visual aspects are used in other sensory play as well so going out of your way to provide visual stimulation is often not necessary. However, it is this input that makes our screens so intriguing, so use them sparingly.
Spinning tops, pinwheels, and star projections or flashlight play are simple ways to increase visual interest, but an overall winner that meets several sensory needs is basic finger painting.
5 - Sound
Parents can attest that kids are great at filling their own sound sensory needs. Those baby coos that turn to squeals and screams are ubiquitous among families with young children. Assisting sound sensory input by playing around with control of sounds is a great way to address this need. Speak in whispers, play with walkie-talkies, stop and listen to identify 5 sounds you can hear, and add in movement to play stomp/tiptoe type games that work on noise control too.
6 - Movement/Proprioception
This isn’t identified as one of the 5 senses, but is arguably the most dramatic of sensory needs, especially with sensory seeking kids. Gratefully, many playgrounds are now designed with movement needs in mind and there are more options than just basic swings and slides. In a home setting, movement needs can be met without special equipment by building obstacle courses, the age-old floor is lava game, red light/green light, relay races, spinning to get dizzy, and any kind of hanging/pulling/climbing are all great ways to meet movement needs.