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Benefits Of Sensory Play To Brain Development

Engaging your child in sensory play helps prepare them for life ahead. Let’s review the benefits of sensory play and its role in brain development. Read on for ideas of creating easy sensory activities for your kids.

girl in messy shirt paints with several color - importance of sensory play and brain development

Our brains are made up of trillions of brain cells, called neurons, and connections among them, called synapses.

The first three years are the time when a baby’s brain grows at a rapid rate.

While an infant is born with around 50 trillion synapses, a three year old’s brain has grown to have 1000 trillion of them​1​.

So how can parents ensure healthy brain growth in their children?

sight taste smell touch hearing surround a brain - what are the senses

What Are The Senses

Senses refer to the different ways we perceive the world.

There are many senses our brains use to help us maneuver in our surroundings.

The five most commonly known senses are taste, smell, sight, touch, and sound.

Related: 7 Benefits Of Hugging (Backed By Science)

What Is Sensory Play

Sensory play is the type of play activities that stimulate children’s senses.

Most sensory plays focus on stimulating the touch, sight and hearing senses because they are more accessible.

Activities that can provide sensory experiences to stimulate other senses are also important although less common when people talk about sensory play.

Why Is Sensory Play Important To Brain Development

Sensory play is important to brain development because sensory stimulation for baby is essential for brain development. It can strengthen sensory related synapses and functions.

Synapses in the brain are added or pruned based on life experiences.

This is called experience dependent plasticity/neuroplasticity​2​.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change neural pathways or synapses to rewire the brain.

Exposing children to various sensory experiences is necessary for a young brain to develop the proper sensory processing capabilities.

Many of these senses develop optimally (if not only) during a window of time called critical period.

Most critical periods are found to exist within the early years postnatal, and this is why sensory play is especially important for young children​3​.

Sensory play is not only important for babies and toddlers, who often have the time to play and explore at home, but also for preschoolers and elementary children.

When your child is allowed to use multiple senses to accomplish a task, they will learn more from the experience and retain more information.

(This idea does not change as you get older, even adults retain more information when multiple senses are engaged!)

Related: Critical Period In Brain Development

parent and child make dough on table - why benefits of sensory play

Benefits Of Sensory Play

Besides sensory development, sensory activities are also important to other aspects of brain growth because playing, whether sensory-centered or not, is beneficial to child development.

Children become more creative simply by playing. They also build their linguistic, cognitive, visual spatial, social, and emotional skills​4–8​.

Sensory Activities And Play Ideas

Creating time for your child, of any age, to engage in sensory play is imperative for their long-time learning and health.

So how do you start integrating sensory play into your everyday life?

The good news is it is simple!

Here are some sensory play ideas for busy parents.

1. Turn regular home items into your child’s sensory toys

You have probably seen your child play with the most inexpensive “toys” like a paper towel roll, a pot and a spoon, or straws.

By taking objects that you already have in the house you can create many fun experiences for you and your child.

For example, take a colander and spaghetti noodles (or pipe cleaner) and challenge your child to put the noodles in the holes.

They will be drawn to this experience and will start to develop basic motor skills as well as problem solving skills when they break the spaghetti noodles.

Fresh cooked spaghetti in stainless strainer - sensory stimulation

2. Use play-doh and fondant to nurture your child’s craft skills

For older children play-doh and fondant are great ways to teach sensory play, as well as skills that your child can use in the future such as baking a cake.

Fondant can be used to make beautiful designs, but it takes time and patience to get the results wanted, both are needed skills in everyday decision-making and life.

Don’t be afraid to try something new and have messy play activities.

That’s sensory learning!

This is also a great time to bond with your child and create fun memories that will last a lifetime.

Child playing with colorful clay - sensory experience

3. Help your child relax with Sensory Bottles

Get a few transparent bottles and purchase glitter of different colors.

Mix warm water with office glue and add the mixture to each bottle.

Warm water helps dissolve glue faster, but you could also use cold water.

Add glitter, shake and seal each bottle.

Now give out the bottles to your child and let her marvel at the magic of glitter settling and forming uniformly every time they shake the bottles.

4. Make Sensory Observation

For a preschooler or elementary level child, invoke their curiosity for science with an evergreen science bin.

The idea is simple yet combines the primary senses of sight, touch, and smell.

You draw a tree outline on a piece of paper and then challenge your child to color it with fresh or dried leaves and attach them to the tree outline using glue.

To make it fun, ask your child to color the tree with leaves sourced from a variety of plants.

That will introduce different smells, textures, and hues.

Depending on your child’s age, you can ask her to draw animals around the tree to create a habitat.

5. Create A Sensory Board / Bin Together

You child will enjoy this project a lot.

Gather different types of objects around the house that can stimulate the senses (and make sure they are safe to use).

Attach them to a big cardboard or put them all into a bin.

Let your child feel the texture and play with them.

Ask your kid relevant questions about their sensory exploration.

Create a conversation that encourages your child to use descriptive words.

For example, ask these questions:

  • How does it feel?
  • How does it look like?
  • What’s the smell produced?
  • What sound does it produce?
  • How does it taste?

Smooth, slimy, cold, beautiful – these are a few fun adjectives your child can learn through playing with this sensory board.

Help your child develop their senses and nurture their linguistic skills at the same time.

Final Thoughts On Sensory Play

So, the next time you see your child play with random items like paper towel rolls, pots, straws, and toys; encourage them. A child can use anything and everything to explore the world. And by allowing her to follow her instincts, you help nurture her senses.


References

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    Gauvain M, Cole M. Readings on the Development of Children. 5th ed. Worth Publishers; 2018.
  2. 2.
    Rosenzweig MR, Bennett EL. Psychobiology of plasticity: effects of training and experience on brain and behavior. Behavioural Brain Research. June 1996:57-65. doi:10.1016/0166-4328(95)00216-2
  3. 3.
    Hensch TK. Critical period plasticity in local cortical circuits. Nat Rev Neurosci. November 2005:877-888. doi:10.1038/nrn1787
  4. 4.
    Falkenberg T, Mohammed AK, Henriksson B, Persson H, Winblad B, Lindefors N. Increased expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor mRNA in rat hippocampus is associated with improved spatial memory and enriched environment. Neuroscience Letters. April 1992:153-156. doi:10.1016/0304-3940(92)90494-r
  5. 5.
    Diamond M. Response of the brain to enrichment. An Acad Bras Cienc. 2001;73(2):211-220. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11404783.
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    Howard-Jones P, Taylor J, Sutton L. The Effect of Play on the Creativity of Young Children During Subsequent Activity. Early Child Development and Care. August 2002:323-328. doi:10.1080/03004430212722
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    Elardo R, Bradley R, Caldwell BM. The Relation of Infants’ Home Environments to Mental Test Performance from Six to Thirty-Six Months: A Longitudinal Analysis. Child Development. March 1975:71. doi:10.2307/1128835
  8. 8.
    Pellegrini AD. The relationship between kindergartners’ play and achievement in prereading, language, and writing. Psychol Schs. October 1980:530-535. doi: