Sensory play helps your child's brain develop, lays foundations for later learning experiences, and helps your child with fine motor skills. Learn the top 10 sensory play benefits for kids, plus sensory play activities for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers that you can do at home.
Kids' sensory bins, tables, and play experiences are super popular on social media right now. And there's a good reason for this. Sensory play has a wealth of benefits for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.
The hands-on experiences of sensory play stimulate children's senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell, and sometimes even taste.
When you give your little one a sensory experience, it helps them process and make sense of new surroundings.
This aids their brain development – which can promote language and learning skills later in life. Plus, sensory play can also help your little one develop motor skills and coordination.
Today, we'll go over the top 10 benefits of sensory play for children, as well as sensory play ideas for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.
1. Sensory play helps brain development
Sensory play helps your child build neuron connections, or connections between pathways of the brain. As your little one engages in sensory play, they’re learning about the shapes, textures, colors, smells, and other attributes of objects. Their discoveries form the building blocks of observational and reasoning skills, and lead into the learning skills needed for school.
2. It helps build language skills
Sensory play helps your child learn new ways to describe their surroundings. For instance, they might feel the rough bark, the bumpy shell, the squishy ball, and the cold water, and learn all these new words to describe what they touched.
Using multiple senses at once plays an even bigger role in developing descriptive language. And during sensory play, your child will also learn new words for objects, learn to compare different objects using words, and learn how to tell others about what they’re doing.
3. It nurtures fine motor skills
Fine motor skills are body skills that require the smaller groups of muscles in the hands, wrists, and fingers. Some of these skills include writing, buttoning and zipping clothes, using utensils, and pouring food or water. Many sensory play activities, like pouring, pinching, building, and scooping, also involve these muscle groups. So, they help your child learn to coordinate these muscles to complete tasks.
Fine motor skills are key for lots of tasks that promote independence!
4. It fosters problem-solving and experimenting
Sensory play often involves activities like figuring out how to pour materials into a cup, trying to fit an object through a tube, learning about the different sizes and weights of objects, sorting objects, or even coming up with new play ideas and seeing what happens.
These activities help develop the problem-solving skills needed for math, science, and other areas of learning.
Comparing, sorting, and seeing what's the same and different about objects are all early math skills.
And when your little one asks questions (in their head or out loud) and thinks about how things work, this also fosters problem-solving skills. Little ones will learn how to observe, experiment (try new things), and predict what will happen when they try something new during sensory play – a very early head start to using the scientific method.
5. It’s child-directed play
Letting your little one explore and discover at their own pace fosters persistence and curiosity, which help your little one succeed in completing tasks and coming up with ideas as they get older. Child-led play also promotes imaginative play, creativity, and storytelling skills.
6. It can be calming
Activities like moving their hands through water and hearing the sounds the water makes, feeling oats run through their fingers in a sensory bin, and squishing play dough can all be soothing to kids.
Plus, sensory play promotes concentration. Concentrating on any activity can also foster mindfulness and calm a child – if they're absorbed in something they enjoy, it's hard for them to stay restless or upset.
7. It's inclusive
Kids of all abilities and language backgrounds can enjoy and benefit from sensory play. There are so many ways to explore the same sensory play experience, since it's open-ended. And if kids of different backgrounds, abilities, or ages play together in the same sensory experience, they learn how to interact with each other and adapt to each other's play styles.
8. It helps your little one's memory
Touching, smelling, hearing, or even tasting something builds stronger memories than just seeing it, because a child's memory is linked to all their different sensory processing areas of the brain. In particular, smell forms the strongest memory experiences. Create experiences that engage multiple senses at once, and you'll help build memories that stick with your child even longer.
9. You can do sensory play anywhere
Some messier sensory play activities might be better for the outdoors. And setting up outdoor sensory activities also means your child has lots of new surroundings to explore. But most sensory play activities work just as well indoors. So, there's no need to hold off if the weather is bad or the temperature outside is too cold or hot.
10. Sensory play is fun – for both you and your child!
It's very fun to discover new things and explore new sensory experiences. The possibilities are nearly endless with sensory activities – and it's satisfying to watch your little one explore!
But what sensory play experiences can you set up for your little one? Below, we've gathered some ideas, sorted by age.
Sensory play ideas for babies (Under 12 months of age)
Sensory play for babies looks different than the bins or tubs you might expect, but it has the same idea – exploring the world using multiple senses at once. Try these ideas:
- Walk around outside with your baby and describe different sights, sounds, and smells.
- Give your baby an interactive tummy time mat with different things to see, hear, and feel.
- Let your little one touch different safe textures.
- Give your little one rattles and other toys that make noise when interacted with.
- Or, create your own clear rattles with different types of sealed storage tubs and different materials. Place a material like noodles, sand, or cereal in a tub, seal it with tape, and let your little one shake. They'll enjoy the different sounds and sights.
- When baby is old enough for solids, consider baby-led weaning. This self-feeding process lets baby touch, smell, and taste pieces of food at their own pace.
- Older babies may enjoy sensory bags – tightly sealed freezer bags filled with shaving cream, hair gel, play dough, or colored water. Seal a filled bag tightly with duct tape, and then watch your baby as they squish the bag.
Sensory play ideas for toddlers (1-2 years of age)
Toddlers are ready to explore the world of senses in lots of different ways, including through certain sensory bins. But since toddlers may still try to put things in their mouths – and choking hazards must be avoided – you'll need to pick your activities carefully.
- Let your little one smear kid-safe finger paint around. You might choose to do this activity outside to lessen the mess. If you give them different colors of paint, this will let them see what happens when they mix colors.
- Create taste-safe play dough, or taste-safe kinetic sand, for your little one to squish, knead, and explore.
- Have your child smell spices in their containers – or other new foods placed in empty spice containers. Give your little one a taste if they like the smell (for spices, put a little spice on fruit).
- Create a "nature box" – reveal natural objects like feathers, shells, bark, and flowers, then let your child feel the objects under your close eye.
- Play music and give your toddler fun instruments so they can play along. The homemade clear rattles we mentioned in the "baby" section are a great instrument option for toddlers.
- Fill a bin with water, cups, funnels, and some toys (large enough to avoid choking hazards), and let your child play.
- Let your child play with toys in a clean sandbox or sand bin.
- Create a ramp for your toddler to roll toys down.
- Explore outside together, and notice different sounds, smells, and sights. Encourage your toddler to touch safe natural objects while on the walk.
- You can start setting up sensory bins for your toddler, but they must not contain any choking hazards.
- They must also include a taste-safe filler. The idea behind that is not to encourage tasting the filler. What it's meant to do is make sure your little one won't choke or get sick if they do put it in their mouth.
- Oats, taste-safe play dough, taste-safe kinetic sand, cereal, water, tapioca pearls, or taste-safe "slime" are great bin filler options.
- And be sure the toys inside are big enough to avoid choking.
- Watch your toddler at all times when they play with a sensory bin.
For more on taste-safe sensory play ideas for your toddler (including taste-safe sensory bins), check out this video from Pocketful of Parenting:
Ideas for toddler sensory bins include:
- Toy dinosaur or toy animal bin with play dough
- Toy dinosaur or toy animal bin with oats (try "digging for dinosaurs" or "find the animals")
- Oats, an egg carton, and toy eggs in a bin
- Oats and different sizes of measuring cups in a bin
- Oat bin with cars and trucks
- Water bin with rubber duckies, scoops and funnels
- Water bin with some safe toys that float and some safe toys that sink
- Water bin with large toy bugs
- Taste-safe kinetic sand or oat bin with "buried treasures"
- Bin with rainbow-colored cooked spaghetti
- Bin filled with toys and soaked tapioca pearls, as a toddler-safe alternative to squishy round water beads
Sensory play ideas for preschoolers (3-4 years of age)
Preschoolers are old enough for sensory bins with almost any filler, and with smaller toys. This means you can make homemade sensory bins with beans, rice, pom poms and more. And you can safely replicate practically any sensory bin idea that you see on a blog or on social media. But you should still supervise your child as they play.
Need inspiration for sensory bins? Try these sensory bin ideas from Happy Toddler Playtime.
Other preschool sensory play ideas include:
- Play music, give your child toy instruments, and encourage your child to play the instruments along with the music.
- Try different foods together. Let your child pick out the order of foods to try. Then, ask your child to describe how each food looks, feels in the hands, feels in the mouth, smells, and tastes.
- Explore outside and have your child describe what they see, hear, feel, and smell.
- Let your child paint with different colors of kid-safe finger paints.
- Create taste-safe kinetic sand for your little one to squish, knead, and explore. Or, give them different colors of soaked tapioca pearls, as a safer alternative to squishy round water beads.
- Create a "nature box" – reveal natural objects like feathers, shells, bark, and flowers, then let your child feel, describe, and sort the objects.
- Create a ramp for your preschooler to roll toys down. They’ll love to bring over and “race” different toys, to see which one is the fastest down the ramp.
- Play a “guess the smell” game – offer different foods in spice jars, and see if your child can figure out a familiar smell without seeing the food in the jar.
- Give your child homemade play dough and tools for cutting, making patterns in, and holding the dough.
- Create a “Will it fit?” activity with tubes or other containers. Give your child toys that can fit in the tube or container, and toys that are too big to fit.
- Give your child objects to sort by size, color, or shape – and give them a scoop, set of blunt plastic tweezers, or spoon to move the objects around.
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