Having a child with special needs opened my eyes to the importance of sensory play! Integrating multiple senses into play improves learning. And not just for my child with special needs. It’s beneficial for all kids. It helps them learn and grow.
Kids use their senses to discover more about the world around them. This play also helps children develop fine and gross motor skills, enhance their concentration, and practice thinking creatively. Sensory play is important!
But, with all the information out there, trying to figure out sensory play can be overwhelming. A simple Pinterest search reveals tons of messy pictures and scores of complicated sensory bins you can create.
And while sensory play can be complicated and messy, it doesn’t have to be. There are easier ways to incorporate sensory play into everyday life. Here are eight tips for simple sensory play.
1. Bring the Kids in the Kitchen
Cooking is naturally a sensory invoking activity. Let your kids into the kitchen with you so they can help and learn. They’ll be smelling a variety of smells, tasting different foods, and getting their hands dirty in a fun way.
If you’re making brownies, ask your child to measure out the cocoa powder or sugar. Have them smell each ingredient, and if appropriate give it a taste.
These simple activities can lead to great discussions—does vanilla taste as good as it smells? What does sugar feel like?
You can also have your child stir. The stirring motion is a great way to build essential motor skills.
If you make your own bread, give your little one a small chunk of dough to knead. Then, let him shape it before it bakes. The texture is a lot like play dough, except he’ll get to eat it when it’s cooked and cooled.
Doing the Dishes Counts Too
Soapy water, dirty dishes, and a child is the perfect formula for sensory play! Pull up a stool and hand your child a rag to get started. Even if you just throw the dishes in the dishwasher when he’s done, it’s a great activity!
2. Make Bath Time Playtime
Simply by bringing a few items to the bathtub, you can create a great sensory activity for your child. The best part is, the mess will be naturally contained by the sides of the tub!
Mix and match the items below to create a unique bath experience for your little one. Just be sure to supervise!
- A couple drops of food coloring
- Bubble bath
- Spoons or cups
- Glow sticks
- Themed toys—plastic animals, dinosaurs, etc.
- Baby oil
- A drop or two of vanilla extract
- Shaving cream on the side
Through hands on exploration, your child will discover buoyancy. Some items float, some sink. They’ll learn about a variety of textures.
To keep clean up easy, line the edge of your tub along the floor with a couple of towels. That way those catch any water that splashes out!
Watch Your Drain
Remember that the drain in your bathtub can clog. It’s best to use materials in the tub that either dissolve completely (bath salts and shaving cream) or that are too large to fit through the drain holes. I made the mistake of using overcooked spaghetti noodles in a sensory bath one time. It wasn’t pretty!
3. Have a Dance Party
Turn your favorite music on and get moving with your kids. Dancing allows children to explore their senses of hearing and movement.
They’ll listen to loud and soft sounds, high notes and low notes, and fast songs and slow songs. You can encourage your child to match her dance moves with the type of music that’s on. This works best if you mix and match the music on your dance party playlist!
Your kids practice gross motor skill through dancing. They’ll learn about balance, and get a better understanding on where her body is in space. Dancing with others will teach her to pay attention to her surroundings so she doesn’t wipe anyone else out with a fancy twirl.
Make it a Special Party
While music is all you really need for a dance party, here are a few additions to make it a special party. Each of these elements will encourage exploration and creativity. They’re also just fun.
- Long Ribbons–you can even tie them onto dowels
- Favorite toys
- Different shoes
- Dress up clothes
- A mirror
Did you realize how many senses you use while cleaning the house? Let your child help you with your chores, and get in on the sensory action.
Ask him to unload the warm clothes from the dryer into a basket. He can snuggle up with the warmness for a couple of minutes if desired. Once the clothes are in a basket, let him help fold. Teach him how to roll wash cloths or match socks. This sorting encourages paying attention to detail.
Give your child the broom and let her give sweeping a try. This motion is great for busy preschoolers! Of course, your floor might not be spotless when the sweeping is done, but your little one will have used some new muscles.
Scrubbing the walls or floor with a wet rag is fun for kids. Give them a squirt bottle of water as well. They can spray and wipe, cleaning while they play.
You can use shaving cream to clean gunk off of your tables. Spray a glob down and let your child wipe it around and draw in it before wiping it up. Fun times!
Watch Out for Chemicals
Most cleaning supplies aren’t safe for children to use, so keep the chemicals out of their reach. Let them use plain water, or a homemade natural based cleaner. That way cleaning time doesn’t turn into a disaster.
5. Get Outside
Head outside. If you have a yard, go there. Otherwise, find a park nearby. The great outdoors has so many textures, sights, sounds, and smells to explore.
Be sure to talk to your child about the things around her. Can they find something that’d feel rough? Do they see anything that’s yellow? What does that pine cone smell like? These conversations spark inquiry and essential communication skills.
If you’d like a more directed sensory play activity, give your child a plastic cup of water. Ask him what happens if he were to dump water on dirt. Then let him find out.
Give him time to play in the mud. Encourage him to use leaves and twigs he finds nearby to decorate what he’s making. Then, if it’s warm enough, turn to water play to clean up. Otherwise, just head home for bath time.
If you have a bit of space to play outside, give your child a dozen ice cubes and a hammer. They’ll quickly figure out what to do. They’ll experiment with their aim, technique, and force. And the mess isn’t a problem. The ice will melt into water, which will be absorbed. Just remind your child to put the hammer away and to not hit anything but the ice. 😀
6. What Do You Smell?
Head back to the kitchen sometime to play a fun game. There’s a ton of items in there that have their own special scent, and today your child is going to smell them.
If you don’t want your child putting his nose in all of your spices and condiments, break out a bag of cotton balls. While your child is cleaning up his toys, pour a tiny bit of an ingredient onto a cotton ball. Continue until you have a dozen or so balls ready for smelling.
Then, set the cotton balls in a row and call your child into the room. Let him pick up each one and inhale deeply through his nose. Then ask what he smells.
Here are some we’ve tried recently:
- Vanilla or almond extract
- Lemon juice
- Pickle juice
- Soy sauce
- Maple syrup
- Olive oil
The Nose Mouth Connection
The scents of smell and taste are closely related. How something smells actually affects how we perceive taste.
Your family can experiment with this at dinnertime. Have your child take a bite of something. Then, have your child plug his nose and take another bite of the same thing.
Ask if he noticed anything different. You can discuss how food sometimes tastes different when you have a plugged nose.
7. Make Shadow Puppets
Turn off the lights, and use a flashlight to create shadow puppets on the walls. Your child can use his hands, arms, or whole body to create fun shapes. What kinds of animals you can make?
You can also use real objects to cast shadows. Have your child make a shadow puppet from a toy. You can try to guess what it is. Then switch roles.
Make Sock Puppets
Shadow puppets aren’t the only puppet based sensory activity. If you have socks without mates, let your child decorate them with markers. Then have her put on a puppet show for you!
8. Dress Up
You don’t need to spend a ton of money on special dress up clothes in order to give your child a fun sensory play experience. Simply set out a few of your old clothes, shoes, and accessories to let them play.
Try to pick clothes with a variety of textures and closures. That way your child can practice zipping, buttoning, and tying. Don’t worry if your child doesn’t pick clothes that match. That’s part of the fun of playing dress-up!
Here’s a picture of the outfit one of my children put together several years ago. Then she decided to take a nap. Each time I see the picture, I chuckle. 😀
Bring out your camera and take pictures of your child’s outfits. It’s a great way to capture the memories. When your finished cleaning up the clothes, sit down together and check out the pictures. It’s a wonderful way to end the activity.
Do you incorporate sensory play?
It really doesn’t have to be Pinterest perfect or complicated. Your kids will still benefit from any type of sensory play!
Share your favorite easy ways to get your kids exploring with their senses in the comments section below.