What is sensory play and why is it important?

Thursday 10 February 2022
Two young girls painting with hands

From the moment they're born, children use their senses to discover the world around them. Find out how to use sensory play to aid their development

What is sensory play?

Sensory play is any activity that stimulates our senses – touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. It helps children interact with and make sense of the world that surrounds them.

Why is sensory play important?

Sensory play plays an important role in a child’s learning and development. Much of our learning comes through our ability to use our senses to retain information.

Sensory play is a lot of fun. It also offers many benefits for child development, including:

  • Helping children understand how their actions affect what’s around them.
  • Supporting brain development, enhancing memory, complex tasks and problem solving.
  • Developing fine motor skills through tactile play (useful when children want to hold a pen or use scissors for example).
  • Supporting language development, communication and social skills.
  • Enhancing memory and observational skills.
  • Encouraging creative and independent thinking.
  • Emotional regulation by providing a calming effect on children’s angry or anxious feelings.

Some children may have a sensory sensitivity or need. Every child who has a sensory sensitivity is different, and their needs may change over time. We have information on how to support a child with sensory needs.

Young boy sat at table playing with a plastic box filled with sand and small colourful toys. More children playing in the background

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When can you start sensory play?

From birth, children are ready for sensory play. Children are natural explorers – they’re constantly learning and taking in what’s around them.

Sensory activities can be adapted for different ages, needs and abilities.

You can easily adapt a simple sensory activity like blowing bubbles for different children at different stages and abilities, for example:

  • Babies might enjoy feeling the bubbles pop on their skin.
  • Toddlers can chase after bubbles and pop them on themselves, the floor, and surfaces around them.
  • For older children, try a project where they creating their own bubble mixture and blow bubbles using a wand or their hands.
Mother looking at young and happy son blowing bubbles

What sensory play activities can parents do at home?

Sensory play activities can be as simple or complex as you’d like. They can often be set up with items you already have at home. There’s something to explore and wonder at in every home.

Here are some activities to try:

Fill any box with sand or water, and add different toys too.

You could use multiple boxes and encourage children to move the contents between boxes.

Encourage play through squishing, smearing, and tasting food.

This allows children to become comfortable with a variety of textures and flavours.

Create a variety of sounds and songs using pots/pans/spoons.

You could fill a bottle with rice or dried pasta/beans to create maracas.

Children can paint with their hands or feet.

Create a mess-free alternative by placing a piece of paper and some paint in a food storage bag.

Fill a bottle with water, oil and food colouring for an exciting visual effect.

Use pillows, cushions, blankets – whatever you can find.

As well as the five senses, we also interact with the world through body awareness, movement and balance.

Children manipulate playdough with their hands to pinch, squeeze and pull it into different shapes.

You can make your own or buy some premade. Add scents or toys to help them build imagination.

In a box, or container, place various objects with a variety of textures for a hands-on experience for children. This could be beads, paper, kinetic sand and water or leaves, rocks and sand.

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