At first glance, tumbling down a hillside looks like it's about fun, not learning. But like most sensory play activities, your child is actively exploring their world while spinning round and round. What does the grass feel like against their skin? How long does it take to get from the top to the bottom? What happens if they hold hands with a friend and roll? Sensory play helps children develop balance, coordination, communication, social skills, and so much more.
In fact, children best develop their senses by actively participating in the world. Nearly from birth, children learn about the world by tasting, touching, smelling, listening, looking, and moving around. Babies wiggle their fingers. Toddlers repeat sing-song words. Preschoolers play house. Grade school kids pump their legs on a swing. Through each of these activities, children learn to process sensory input and they discover how their bodies move through space.
The world is packed with sensory information. Bright lights, honking horns, shouting people, humid air, wet snow. Playing with their senses, or sensory play, is how children begin the process of sensory integration—processing, organizing and filtering sensory input and responding appropriately. Through sensory play children learn to concentrate and manage their emotional responses to sensory input. When given the opportunity to play freely, children will typically seek out the right amount of sensory input they need.
Choose equipment and toys for your playspace that nurture sensory play. Swings, slides, and climbing structures develop vestibular and proprioceptive senses. Encourage children to explore their sense of sound with a music area and toys that respond with noises. Make your playspace visually inspiring and provide room for art. Let children spend time smelling and touching their food. Plan an apple juice taste test or make green goop out of food coloring and corn starch. Mostly, sensory play is letting children explore—and play with—their surroundings. Even if it gets a little messy!
With thoughtful design, your playspace can engage and develop every child's senses. Read more in this section about how to plan a sensory rich playspace by keeping the following in mind:
- Proprioceptive play
- Sensory integration
- Smell and taste
- Sound and play
- Tactile play
- Vestibular play
- Visual play
Bishop, Kate. (2000). Designing learning environments for all children: Variety and richness. Ebility. http://www.ebility.com/articles/play.php
Gomes, Filomena. (2001). Soil, sand and seeds - helping children grow. NY Metro Parents Magazine. https://www.nymetroparents.com/article/Soilsand-and-seeds-helping-children-grow
Johansson Design Collaborative Landscape Architecture. (2006). The Rusk Children's PlayGarden for Interactive Therapeutic Play. http://www.johanssondesign.com/rusk_playgarden.htm
(Photo courtesy of Free Play Network)