What is sensory play?
Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates one or more of a child’s senses (touch, smell, taste, sight or sound). In recent years, the benefits of sensory play have been well-regarded by professionals. From the day they’re born, babies will naturally want to explore the world around them, and they do this by using their senses; that’s why they tend to touch everything or put things in their mouths.
The benefits of sensory play
Aside from providing entertainment, sensory play is proven to help a child’s emotional, cognitive and physical development. It encourages them to explore and investigate things, adding to their understanding of the world.
As they get older and begin talking, sensory play can help your child to make connections between words and objects, because they use their senses to form a deeper understanding of things. Water, for example, isn’t just wet anymore; it can be smooth, rough, warm or cold – it can be bubbly or salty, liquid or frozen. By making these associations through play, children can comprehend and explain them in more complex ways.
Sensory play also aids fine motor skills in infants; these are the crucial skills we need to coordinate small muscle groups, and are important for tasks like writing, shoe-tying and buttoning things. Sensory play also helps cognitive development in other areas like problem solving, as well as encouraging social interaction with peers.
Water play activities
The best news is that you don’t need any expensive gadgets for your baby to enjoy a sensory play experience; water is an ideal sensory material. Whether your baby is swimming in it or playing with it, it’s one of the easiest tools at your disposal when it comes to sensory development. Swimming games are a great way to bring sensory play into the pool, but there are plenty of other water play activities that you can share with your baby at home.
Water play sensory bin
Sensory bins are an easy way to inspire creative play in little ones; simply put, they are mid- to large- sized containers (a low storage box works perfectly) filled with fun objects to encourage play. Sensory bins are particularly beneficial for toddlers, though the idea can be adapted to suit young babies too - simply swap the storage box for a shallow tray. Start by filling your container with cool to lukewarm water, then add objects such as cups, funnels or a children’s watering can to the bin - they’ll love anything that can be used to scoop up and pour the water, so there are endless options! You could even add a selection of bath toys. Adding food colouring or a mild scent to the water will enhance your baby’s sensory experience even more.
Water sensory mats
These are flat, clear mats that are filled with colourful objects (usually 2D shapes or glitter). When your baby presses on the mat, its contents will move around. Your baby will love the movement and colour that comes with these. Though you can buy water sensory mats, we prefer the DIY version. All you need is a Ziploc freezer bag, Duct tape, water and some small items you can add that won’t poke through the bag (small toys, glitter or confetti work well). Simply add the water and materials to the bag, seal it up and tape the edges.
Adding water to your toddler’s role-playing games is an easy way to continue sensory development as they grow. The possibilities are endless, but here are some ideas of our own to get you started:
- Throw a teddy bear’s tea party for your tot: fill a plastic teapot with water and encourage them to pour ‘tea’ for their guests.
- Would-be decorators can ‘paint’ the garden wall with water - all they need is a big brush or roller!
- Gather some doll’s clothes and help them to do laundry the old-fashioned way. Simply add a little soap or washing up liquid to a pan and watch them go.
- Add some soapy water to a washing up bowl and get your little one to give their doll a bath.
- Little explorers will love the excitement of carrying out their own ice block excavation. Simply freeze a plastic toy, or maybe some craft materials, in a container of water overnight. The next day, help your toddler to uncover the hidden ‘treasure’ as the ice begins to melt.
As with any activity, you must ensure that your child stays safe: don’t leave them unattended around water, even if it’s very shallow, and ensure everyone is extra-careful when playing indoors. The floor is likely to get a little wet, so clean up any spills immediately and make sure your little one doesn’t run around - the activities listed are designed to encourage calm, imaginative play, so you should find even the liveliest of children sitting or standing deep in concentration. To further instil a sense of quiet focus, chat to your child about what they’re doing as they play.