Anna Goldenberg

Pediatric Occupational Therapist

What is Sensory Play?

What is Sensory Play?

Sensory play in its original form is observed in children who grew up playing outdoors. They tossed pebbles, pulled roots, jumped in puddles, caught bugs. They walked through snowy hills and dug their toes in sand. That was life. That was sensory play.

Today, sensory play can mean many more things. It means exploring properties of items in relation to our bodies that provide a variety of information about texture, weight, consistency, structure, sound, smell, taste, resilience, and fragility. It can mean using our body in ways that are new and exploratory such as climbing a fallen tree branch, swinging on a platform swing, or checking if you can still fit under the bed.
What defines sensory play? It has to be novel and exploratory. Once its learned and predictable, over-practiced and repetitive, once it is no longer challenging and exciting, when there are no more new ways to try it- it no longer counts as sensory play. To every child, that moment will come differently.

Why is sensory play so important?

As children explore the properties of different objects by interacting with them using their own bodies, they create feedback and feedforward pathways to and from their brains. This process is actually the foundation to building body awareness and the key to all future motor control and mastery.

How do I encourage effective sensory play?

Encouraging sensory play is easy! There are so many options. There is child directed exploratory play, there is structured play with sensory materials, there are indoor/outdoor options. There is sensory play that focuses mosltly on textures and hand exploration, and sensory play that uses the entire body and different directions in space, speeds, or levels of force. Sensory play can be with foods, smells, water play, art supplies, and more. Any type of exploration can provide sensory information.

What else do I need to know?

An occupational therapist encourages sensory learning by introducing new and interesting sensory activities for the child to explore in a positive ways, and focus on inspiring curiosity or even tolerance. Often a therapist will provide verbal feedback to the child to increase sensory awareness and mindfulness.

Sensory gyms target proprioceptive and vestibular systems. Sensory gyms present interesting and challenging surfaces, such as foam floors, wedges, crash pads, ball pits, wall climbs. They also offer a variety of swings for rotary, vertical, and horizontal movements.

Overall, sensory play is a way to learn about our bodies. Before we can sit still, focus on tabletop activities, and master concentration- we need to each become sensory experts of our bodies.

Fun Tools For Sensory Play with Hands

Kinetic Sand: Purchase on Amazon here.

Mad Matter: Purchase on Amazon here.

Air Dry Clay: Purchase on Amazon here.

Play Foam: Purchase on Amazon here.

Finger Paint: Purchase on Amazon here.

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