Sensory Play: what is it and why is it important?

I asked this on my Facebook, Instagram
and twitter (I’m social network obsessed!) and got lots of interesting ideas and answers:

“When we use sensory description in narrative writing, we tell the students to take a mental snapshot of a person/place & then describe it…presumably sensory play would be activities that appeal to one or more of the child’s senses?” (Clare)

“stimulates one or more of the senses” (Becki)

“Lights, music, colours, textures, smells, treasure baskets, songs, explore, magical!” (Gillian)

” Letting baby explore and learn. The messier the better!” (Jade)

Sensory play can mean a lot of things, but ultimately, it is any type of play that engages one or more of the senses.
My sons are aged 13 months and 2.5 years. They’re typical little boys and love their toys. However, like most kids that age, they have the attention span of a gnat. That is until we do sensory play. They love it!
I’m quite new to this sensory play idea. My first experience of it was at a Sure Start stay & play group I took Harrison to as a baby. They had a sensory corner with chiffon-y drapes, mirrors, light up bubble tubes & fairy lights which the kids loved. I ended up buying some fabric from the market for Harrison (and then Alex) to play with, and they’ve both seemed really calm after playing with it.
They also did more messy sensory play. They would have ‘tuff spots’ (the big tray thingies that builders use!) with jelly, cold custard, spaghetti, yoghurt etc in, which they encouraged the babies to strip down to nappies and get messy in. I was horrified! Why on earth would I let my lovely clean little baby roll around in wellcustard or jelly?! It wasn’t until a few months ago when I discovered Pinterest I found out about the different types of sensory play and the benefits it has.

What are the benefits of sensory play?

It helps kids to develop their language skills and new vocabulary. Harrison has surprised me with lots of words when doing sensory play – gooey, gloopy, slimy, slippy, wet, dry, shiny, fluffy, rough and smooth being just some of his favourites!
It also helps them to develop social skills – they have to share materials ab equipment . Fine motor skills are honed – they mould, pour, scoop, dig, sift and sort amongst other things. Dramatic play can happen – our lentils become cakes, the cloud dough is sausages. Sea shells are cups. It allows their imagination to go wild, as only a child’s would.
These are just a few benefits. Children and adults with special needs often benefit especially.

What is a sensory bin?

A sensory bin is where the materials and equipment needed for sensory play are contained. The materials should encourage children to explore, discover, create and use as many senses as possible, whilst having a lot of fun!

How do I do a sensory bin?

I always start with a ‘theme’ to give a tiny bit of structure. The theme can be very loose if you want. Some ideas: Halloween, Christmas, Easter, seaside, autumn, dinosaurs, animals, under the sea, weather, bugs, garden, jungle, transport, weather…. The list could go on, only limited by your imagination!

You then need some sort of ‘bin’ or container. We use a large clear plastic tub from Ikea with a wipe clean mat underneath. I’m going to get a ‘tuff spot’ after Christmas if I can work out where to keep it! If we do it outdoors we use the kids water/sand table.

Then you need the materials and equipment. I always use a ‘base’ material which is the main sensory aspect and quite often the messy bit. Some ideas: lentils, rice, cold cooked spaghetti, dried pasta, dried beans (although my friend has used baked beans!!), jelly, shaving foam, ground coffee, playdoh, cotton wool, oats, seashells, water, water beads, bubbles, leaves, pinecones, silly string, shredded paper, feathers….
It goes without saying but always supervise and watch out for allergies, inhalation and choking hazards!!

Then you need to add accessories – spoons, scoops, sieves, plastic animals or figures, toy cars, plastic tubs, cups, gunnels, shovels, whisks, cookie cutters..,all depends if you have a theme as to what you could put in.

The final step – let the child play. Let then explore. Let them be creative.

“You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom, and it blossoms through play” (Kyung Hee Kim, 2011 in ‘The Creativity Crisis)’

Let them explore their senses, and most of all, let them have fun!