What is sensory play?
Sensory play is a term that is frequently used in early year's education and SEN settings. In essence, it is any activity that involves or stimulates the senses. These could be activities that involve sight, touch, sound, taste or smell. Many of the more tactile sensory play activities are also referred to as ‘Messy Play' as they enable the child to have the freedom to get a bit messy while also having fun!
Why is sensory play important?
From the moment we're born we use our senses to process and interpret the world around us. We know from research, sensory play is crucial for the development of all children. But it's particularly valuable for children with SEN who face additional barriers to learning. Receiving appropriate sensory stimulation helps them self-occupy, experience positive emotions and bring about relaxation. All while improving their ability to cope with seemingly 'normal' experiences.
Below are some examples of the role sensory play can have in early development:
- Sensory play builds stronger neurological connections which provide children with the improved ability to process and respond to different stimuli. This in turn helps children to accomplish more complex tasks as they grow.
- A “side effect” of sensory play is the development of skills such as language, cognition, problem-solving and fine motor skills through physical interactions.
- Improved cognition and stronger neurological connection also mean that memory is improved, contributing to later learning.
- Additionally, it encourages social interactions and communication between peers in a stress-free, natural way. There is not a defined outcome, which takes away the pressure and allows them to become more comfortable in various social situations.
- When using the senses, a signal or ‘feeling' is sent to the brain as a result of an experience, whether it be tactile visual, auditory etc. Through sensory play, youngsters are able to identify, recognise and acknowledge a variety of sensations, feelings and emotions. Over time they are able to better regulate their emotions. It also helps them build a ‘repertoire' of familiar emotions while successfully navigating more difficult ones.
- Finally, a major benefit of sensory play, particularly for children with SEN, is the soothing aspect. It helps bring about a sense of ‘calmness' and relaxation and prevents/reduces stress, anxiety and the feeling of being overwhelmed. Their level of concentration and focus increases and they're able to re-centre themselves as they are completely absorbed in the activity and can enter a ‘state of flow'.
Sensory play is educational and therapeutic, but most importantly, it's fun! To help inspire you, we've put together a list of 5 activities for every sense:
Sensory Play Activities
Set up a den with blankets, sheets, and cushions. Use fairy lights, glow in the dark toys and fibre optic wands to create a light show. Sensory light rooms have many benefits, including aiding concentration, mood stabilisation, and motor development.
The calm, sensory lighting can help to relax and soothe youngsters with autism, and have been found to have a positive effect on children of all abilities.
Sensory bins are a hands-on experience for children. They can explore the container for a unique sensory experience. This can help calm and focus them, and above all are loads of fun!
Try filling a bowl with multi-coloured dry rice, hide treasures to be discovered and let little ones explore. Engage their senses with bright colours, interesting sounds and textures.
Use flowers, spices and fruits to make scented playdough! Some of our favourite scents are gingerbread, lavender and peppermint. Try the recipe below to make calming, lavender playdough:
You will need:
2 cups of plain flour
2 tablespoons of neutral oil
Half a cup of table salt
2 tablespoons of Cream of Tartar
Lavender essential oil
Purple food colouring
1 cup of boiling water
Dried lavender for decoration
Pour the boiling water over the salt so it dissolves. Mix the flour, oil, and cream of tartar in a separate bowl. Next, pour in the salt and water mixture and mix everything together.
Add between 5-10 drops of the lavender essential oil and mix well. Depending on the consistency you may need to add more flour or water. Once you have the right texture, place the dough on a worktop and knead well until it becomes playdough.
Make a small dip in the playdough and add the purple food colouring. Knead the dough until you have your desired colour. Finally, add the dried lavender for decoration and you have playdough ready for a relaxing sensory experience!
Try making some edible paint! Not only is this taste-safe and loads of fun, but this activity also encourages learning through messy and sensory play. Follow these easy instructions to get painting:
You will need:
2 cups of plain flour
1 cup of water
1sp of food colouring of your choice
Whisk the flour and water together until it reaches a smooth consistency ideal for painting. Add your food colouring and stir well until the colour is mixed in evenly.
The paint will keep for 2 days in the fridge, so make sure to get creative straight away!
You can also make edible paint by blending plain or dairy-free yoghurt with fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, strawberries, and spinach.
Play percussion instruments together, experimenting with fast and slow, loud and soft, long sounds and short sounds. Simple music-making activities can enable awareness of differences between sounds without dependence on visual elements such as television.
Create a cool popping sound by using Fidget Pop Tubes as percussion instruments and releasing an exciting noise when they are stretched. The tactile tubes help to ease anxious minds and are ideal for restless hands and busy fingers.
Any form of play will prove beneficial for children's development, but as the desire to engage with sensory play comes naturally, it should be supported in early learning environments and at home. By engaging in regular sensory play, children are unknowingly refining their sensory information and improving their cognitive development, amongst a variety of other skills.
An important aspect when choosing an activity is ensuring it is appropriate for each child. Think about how they'll experience it and consider what they will learn or gain from it. Depending on their needs, the activity may differ from child to child. By creating exciting sensory spaces and experiences in your educational setting, children with Special Education Needs can reap the wonderful benefits that arise from engaging in sensory play.