Contrary to their often innocent facade, children are often more receptive than they may seem. Children often use all of their senses right from birth to their childhood to explore the world and make sense of it. In essence, children use sensory adaptation (touch, smell, sight, noise, etc.) in order to learn and grow.
Adults and children learn the best when they make use of their senses. Many of our most memorable memories can be attributed to one or more senses, such as the smell of summer campfires or the songs we learned the lyrics from with a childhood friend. When you hear a familiar beat or smell something nostalgic, your brain triggers flashback memories to those special times. This is what sensory memory is all about.
So How Does This Relate To A Child’s Growth?
It is vital for proper brain development that children have the opportunity to use their senses actively as they explore the world around them through sensory play. This helps to build nerve connections in their brain’s pathways in order for them to easily retain memories.
As a result, a child’s ability and social skills to solve problems and to learn new skills should theoretically improve.
When we talk about sense and sensory perception, we typically refer to:
the stimulation associated with anything that our taste receptors react to in our mouth.
the stimulation associated with touch receptors in our skin that detects external stimulation like pressure, heat/cold, or vibration.
the stimulation associated with chemicals detected in the upper airways of our nose.
the stimulation via sound received by the receptors in our inner ear.
the stimulation associated with light receptors in our eyes, which is then interpreted by our brains into visual images.
Along with two other commonly left out senses such as:
Body Awareness or Proprioception
the phenomena where our brains get feedback from the stretch receptors in our muscles and pressure receptors within our joints. This allows us to sense where we are in space.
the stimulation of the vestibular systems of the inner ears which determine our body positioning relative to gravity.
So What is Sensory Play Then?
First and foremost, sensory play relates to any activity in which the young child’s senses (touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight, and hearing) is stimulated.
Sensory activities encourage exploration and natural curiosity in children when they play, create, explore, and investigate. These sensory activities also help children improve their ability to perceive and process different sensory information — which aids in retaining information.
For instance, a child may initially find it difficult to play a game with a peer when there are many other things in the environment that are distracting them. However, through sensory play (utilising sounds and similar tasks), a child will be able to learn to adapt and block out excess noise that is not important and focus on playing with their peer.
Likewise, another example involves a fussy eater. Using sensory play, you may expose the child to touching, smelling, and playing with the texture first before allowing them to eat a similarly textured food.
As the child slowly develops trust and understanding of the texture, it will also help to build positive pathways in the brain to assure the child that it is safe to engage with this particular food.
In essence, sensory play helps to shape what children believe to be positive and safe, as well as ultimately shaping the choices that children make while they grow up.