Whenever she’s outside, my 3-year-old daughter can be found elbow-deep in dirt, searching for worms. In the past week, while inside, she’s enjoyed making a huge mess of magnetic sand and (embarrassingly) repeatedly poking the custard part of a beautiful tart at a friend’s party. And her favorite snack? Spices. Just tons of spices. She’s a wonderfully eccentric little lady, but she’s not doing crazy stuff: all her favorite ways to explore are through sensory play.
Young kids learn about the world through their senses. In fact, we all learn best when our senses are engaged. Educators talk a lot about the benefits of hands-on learning, but powerful learning experiences can happen through the hands, ears, noses, mouths, and eyes. This article has great information on the cognitive, linguistic, physical, and social-emotional development that happens through sensory play. By using all their senses, kids are able to explore all sorts of new things and build language skills as they describe what they’re experiencing.
The activities that appeal to my daughter’s senses hold her attention longer and get her reasoning about the world around her. While I don’t necessarily want my kid going around poking custard pies at parties, I’ve chosen to embrace sensory play. Here are some ideas about how to guide your child in sensory exploration, with suggested modifications for older and younger kids.
When I taught kindergarten and first grade, we studied the five senses and made a big “sensorium” in our room. The sensorium ended up looking like a mini-rave, complete with black lights and lots of crazy things to see, feel, touch, eat, and smell. One of my favorite things to put in the sensorium was feely bags. I’d take paper bags and put fuzzy balls, peeled grapes, or other interesting materials inside. Kids would put their hands in and touch the items, trying to describe what they felt like. By using words to describe what they thought they were feeling, children developed descriptive language skills.
My daughter loves touching all sorts of crazy materials. Preschools often have great sensory tables complete with hay, beans, straw, etc. You can use a small bowl or cookie sheet to make your own sensory stations at home. Think about hiding toys inside of the materials for kids to find. Cloud dough, gak, and clay can be other great materials to explore through touch. Or if you’re really feeling adventurous, have your child help you bake (try these yummy no-bake cookies), allowing them to stir and feel the dough.
Flashlights and shadows are amazing ways to get kids wondering about the magic (is that a real word?) of light. Put a cloth over a flashlight and watch it light up or make shadow puppets on the wall. When you’re walking on a sunny day, take notice of your shadows and play around with getting them to move. For older kids this can spur a great discussion about why shadows exist.
Take out the spice jar! From the time my daughter was a baby, she’s enjoyed smelling the spices in our kitchen. Even before she could talk, some spices made her smile, while others made her recoil. As she gets older, she’s building descriptive vocabulary by talking about the smells she notices. She often calls things “hot” or “sweet” and enjoys comparing smells to other things she has experienced (“It tastes like pie!”)
Picky eater? Sometimes taking an inquiry stance with food can help kids broaden their tastes. Instead of insisting kids try different foods, approach the foods with curiosity. What does a lemon taste like? How does a sprinkle of lemon juice change the taste of other foods? Does your child like the lemon taste when mixed with sugar in lemonade? How about when on top of broccoli?
Exploring instruments is a lovely way to experiment with sound. At her grandparents’ house, my daughter has a bin of instruments that she loves to play around with. Figuring out what kinds of noises comes from different instruments is endlessly amusing. Playing different kinds of music also helps kids to learn and appreciate music. As you play different music, have kids draw what the music makes them think of or feel. This can develop active listening skills and encourage kids to connect to what they’re hearing.
I’ve started a Pinterest board for more sensory play ideas. And I’d love to hear your favorite ways to engage your kids in learning through their senses too!