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Sensory Learning

Have you ever wondered why your child loves to get so messy? Why they want and need to play in the mud, jump in any puddle you walk past puddle, slide their little hands through the paint at preschool and then into their mouths? Or wonder why they just can't seem to help themselves when an opportunity comes along for them to explore with their whole body and all the senses?



So much learning is happening in these deliciously messy moments! Here in this blog, we hope you’ll find the answers to these questions and make some “ah ha” connections between what you have seen your child do and begin to gain an understanding of why they do it.


Right from birth children learn using their senses and this is how they make sense of the world. It may look like they are touching everything and that the sense of touch is the dominant sense that is being used. However, if you take sometime to observe your child at play you will see that along with touch, they are using taste, smell and sight too. All of this combines to teach your child about spaces, objects, people, interactions and later on in life adults use these senses to gain vital information, minus the creative mess - interesting, isn’t it? Sensory play builds loads of nerve connections in the brain which leads to a child's ability to complete more complex learning.


Sensory play can also help your child learn to self-regulate and control their emotions. At preschool we do this regularly with the children using Brain Gym. (Keep an eye out on our up and coming blog post on Brain gym!)


Our youngest infants through to the age of three have the fastest and most crucial learning of brain development of any age – aren’t they just amazing! Sensory play is a great and easy way for you to be able to support your child to grow and increase neuron development in the brain creating learning that will last a lifetime.




A fun way to provide for these sensory experiences is in the form of a heuristic play basket. Placing items that hold different textures, like wooden pegs, lengths of chain, wooden spoons, crochet doilies, brushes and scarves. All of these items can be held and explored by touch for weight and textures, tasted for the differences in the materials, moved around for the different sounds they make when drops or banged into other objects, and provide different visuals when looked at and explored in detail. Water play is another fantastic way to incorporate sensory learning into your child's day. To increase this, you can add a few drops of food colouring, and maybe even a few drops of food essence to add some different smells as well. A friendly reminder not to use essential oils though as these can be harmful when ingested and we all know young children love to put everything to their mouths.


Did you know that infants and younger children learn about their food through playing with it? This is because as your young child plays with their food and the different textures of the food they are creating nerve pathways in the brain that explain the different textures and create a positive experience of the food. This means that the more you allow your young child to get messy and explore with their food the more likely they are to try new foods that are offered to them.



Finger painting is a fun way to explore the senses while creating some amazing artwork. While your younger child is enjoying their sensory experiences and play creating neuron connections in the brain, we as adults are able to use this time to talk about the experience, using lots of descriptive words. This helps to build on language development while also confirming the experiences that they are feeling adding to the child learning about the world around them.


As children grow older, they still use all of these sensory seeking moments and play experiences to learn but they also provide a great tool for creating fine motor development that helps them when they go to school. This leads on from the gross motor development that Chantelle had in her blog,

about physical skills supporting emerging handwriting.


Types of activities that can be used here with older children are:


• Playdough and clay - these can be squeezed, rolled, shaped and manipulated by the hands. While this is producing a sensory experience is also getting the fine motor muscles in the hands and fingers developing and working for skills such as handwriting and scissor cutting.


• Water play – this sensory play can help a child to learn skills such as pouring and measuring. By simply adding a few cups and different size bottles to the water a child can have endless hours building up muscles in their hands and arms that allow for unconscious memory of learning to happen. For example I don't have to think about all the actions it takes for me to take a jug of water and pour it, but a child has to learn how to hold the handle/or bottle, move arms to pour it, feel the weight of the jug and think about how fast the water will come out. Many times, they will need to practice this over filling, dropping bottles, getting wet before this becomes a task that is done without conscious thought, mastering the skill.


• Colouring and painting – will allow the cild to express themselves creatively while using a range of different materials that fill the senses. Sight of the different colours, feel of the paint or the different feels of the paintbrushes or pens and pencils. Opening the creative pathways in the brain while feeding the senses and getting the fingers ready for handwriting at school.


We can help teach and support self-regulation development through sensory play and experiences. There are lots of different ways that adults can provide this to children through fun and engaging activities.


Here are a few examples of ideas that can help children self-regulate through sensory play


• Sensory scavenger hunt – This is going outside and using nature. Asking the child to find something that they can see, something they can hear, something they can feel, something they can taste (if appropriate). This scavenger hunt is great for calming children that are experiencing a wide range of emotions as it helps to ground the child.


• Playdough or slime – Adding in some lavender, the calming scent of the lavender and the relaxing sensation of the playdough or slime being pushed or pulled through their fingers help to relax, calm and clear the mind.



• Creating a garden – creating a sensory garden filled with herbs, flowers, vegetables and fruits. This is great for children to be able to see and smell lots of different smells of nature as well as the added bonus of being able to play in dirt and take care of their garden.


• Water play – This is just a fantastic way to calm and settle just about anyone of any age. From a young baby that is unsettled to an older child who is overwhelmed and tired. Being able to emerge in water, feel it around you and to watch it move and trickle down when tipped out of a container or drip from a face cloth is mesmerizing and relaxing. Calming the mind and relaxing the body. As with the playdough you can add a few drops of food essence as well.


• Sensory glitter jar – these can be easily created at home (make sure you glue the lid shut). For younger children they can move the jar around and watch as the glitter moves and floats around in the jar. For older children get them to shake the jar and to take deep breathes until the glitter floats down and settles back down at the bottom of the jar.


These activities provide the perfect opportunity to discuss feelings and emotions so while the child is calming and learning how to self-regulate, they are receiving the verbal language that connects to the different emotions that they are feeling allowing them to learn how to respond to themselves, situations and emotions.


During sensory play with children we are able to guide and support them on their social interactions with other children and adults. Children who are shy, more reserved, or that are still finding it difficult to play with other children with too much going on their environment, are able to be present using the sensory sensations which help them to learn to block out other noises, distractions, and feelings. This also has the benefit of supporting them to regulate their body while working alongside others, sharing the same experience and building on communication skills and language development. Adults can help by offering suggestions and open-ended questions to fuel conversations. This helps children to be able to share equipment and ideas as they play.


Children who are engaging in sensory play are able to make their own rules to the experience. This leaves the children able to make choices for their play as there are no set rules or guidelines to follow. They can explore objects at their own will, choose how to use the activity, build on their imagination and creativity and to make assumptions about expected outcomes. Sensory play allows children to be free from too much adult interactions that make the learning all about how and what they want to take from it.



The pictures above are just a couple of photos that show sensory play in action. The first being a simple painting set up. Providing the materials in trays allows for the water colours to be used as wet or as dry as the individual child decides, and allows for brushes and fingers to be used in the process. On this day instead of cups of water being provided 4 cup sizes of ices were given for the water and placed in a separate trough.



The second picture shows a child enjoying water play, which doesn't need to be limited to the outside. The water being coloured green and the fences and the farm animals provided made for a whole new outlook on farming while still allowing for peaceful play individually and alongside peers.



The last photo is a recent mat time where a song was played and feathers were used to touch the different parts of the body. The children’s delight in the feather, blowing it gently off the hands and watching it float down, the tickly sensations of the feathers on the nose, arms and legs. Learning through the use of senses about the different parts of the body. The children also enjoy watching the other children and learning to mimic movements while the relaxing music plays.


Luckily for us children are naturally driven to engage in sensory play, so as adults all we have to do is provide the experience for them and encourage them to participate. So, the next time your child plays with their food at tea time, jumps in muddy puddles or uses your make up as artist tools take comfort in knowing that all of this is allowing for a whole lot of learning, development of neuron connections and setting them up for a life of more complex learning.


Author Jessica Smith - Ashburton Baptist Preschool teacher

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