The Value of Sensory Play

   Sensory experiences in early learning settings are one of the most vital means of learning for young children. Children explore their environment in very physical, tactile ways by touching/reaching and grabbing for everything.

   It is important that sensory play be open-ended. Children should feel comfortable asking and answering their own questions. Adults, teachers and parents should take note to interact in a nondirective manner, essentially allowing children to take the lead while we take cues from their interests. Open-ended play can be fostered by using key phrases like:

• How could you change/fix that?

• What else could you do?

• What would happen if you...?

• What do you think/feel about...?

• How did you do that?

At Islington Village caregivers take on the role of inviting children to conversation and exploration, by simply saying, “Why don't you tell me about it/Tell me more”.

   Children of all ages tend to enjoy sand play, in a sand box at the park, or on the beach in between their toes; we use lots of sand at Islington Village as we are able to incorporate most developmental areas. For example, large muscle skills develop as children dig, pour, sift, scoop, and clean up spills with brush and dustpan. Hand-eye coordination and small muscle control improve as children learn to manipulate sand accessories. Sand play also promotes social skills. When children work together at the sand table they encounter real problems that require sharing, compromising, and negotiating. A group may engage in dramatic play as they "cook," construct roadways, dig tunnels, or create a zoo for rubber animals. As children take on roles associated with their dramatic play, they learn important social skills such as empathy and perspective taking.

   Sensory play and experiences are also vital to incorporate into curriculum and program to support children that are busier and more physical. For example, children with an integration disorder have problems processing sensations. Typically, when walking across a room, the body senses where to go from side to side, how to balance, how to avoid obstacles, and how to move body parts, all without conscious effort. Children with Sensory Integration Disorder have difficulty detecting, controlling, discriminating, or integrating sensations correctly. This difficulty causes them to process sensations from the environment or from their bodies in an skewed way. Children with sensory integration disorder may be overly sensitive or overly responsive to sensation, hyperactivity, may not feel touch or pain or may touch others too often or too hard, children tend to engage in unsafe behaviors such as climbing too high, taking more risks. Ideal activities for children with sensory integration disorder, depending on their sensations include play doh, squishy floam, bean bag tossing and even heavy weight activities. Heavy weight activities include having children build and explore with big wooden blocks, helping arrange tables and chairs in the classroom, helping with grocery bags at home. 

   Offering and arranging sensory experiences for children, offers them an invaluable opportunity for meeting and growing various skills, in a means that comes naturally. Children have a natural affinity for sensory play and teacher and families can build on that interest by providing children with inviting props, asking appropriate questions, and scheduling ample time for children to work through their play ideas. As with most planned activities and curriculum, the environment is meant to enhance concept development and skill building, but it is important that the play and exploration remain free and child-centered so that children may generate their own play schemes imaginatively.