Engaging your child’s senses early on is an important way to ensure proper brain development.
Introducing novel sensory experiences through play stimulates young brains into building the nerve connections needed to master the five main senses as well as other lesser-known but still important complex senses such as body awareness, sense of balance, and empathy
Having an early start at developing these senses may allow children to develop a variety of complex skills, many of which will be important in helping children experience the world more fully. Here are just some of the important foundational skills your children develop through early sensory play:
Cognition and Problem-Solving
The ability to acquire knowledge and recognise different situations through one’s senses is basic to all other kinds of learning. It is also key to problem-solving and, ultimately, value-creation in adulthood.
Cognition and problem-solving are so important that some public school systems invest heavily in early childhood education as a way to support long-term national development. In Singapore, the government has even established the Early Childhood Development Agency for the mainstream school system. It is a specialised agency that is specifically designed to promote early childhood development through such strategies as sensory play. Parents in Singapore also have a growing number of neighbourhood preschools and infant care services that follow scientifically vetted child development practices. For instance, for infant care, Ang Mo Kio residents have access to at least one school that offers music-infused bilingual programmes that use sensory experiences to support child development.
Fine Motor Skills
No less important than problem-solving are fine-motor skills. Sensory play can help strengthen the neural connections responsible for fine movements, aiding in such activities as writing, tying shoelaces, opening food packaging, and putting on clothes. Through activities that involve tactile play, children develop the neural connections that help them control their fine muscle movements harmoniously.
Gross Motor Skills
Sensory play also helps children develop the ability to control larger muscle groups such as those important for running and jumping. Early development of gross motor skills can help children enjoy physical activity early on, which may predict better health outcomes throughout their lives.
Supervised outside play is an important way to help children develop gross motor skills. In particular, parks and public spaces offer very young children numerous opportunities to practise their gross motor skills in relative safety.
Communicating with others also counts as a form of sensory stimulation, as verbally expressed words and body gestures engage hearing as well as sight. On a deeper level, communicating with playmates and family members also helps children develop ideas of how to navigate various social situations and adapt to them as needed. Even before children go to school, ensuring that they have safe interactions with a wide range of people may help hone their ability to proactively manage different social situations.
Regardless of what activities are involved, engaging the senses creates different, often new, emotional responses in children. Children who can explore a wider range of emotional responses may be better equipped to understand and regulate them, especially if they have proper guidance from their parents.
Sensory play can also be used to help calm down anxious or overstimulated children. The pleasant pressure from hugs or aids such as weighted pads may relieve anxiety and sensory overload in many children, allowing them to focus and helping them learn the effects of external stimuli on their emotions.
Sensory play can also help children develop important language skills in a few ways. A 2020 paper published in the journal Developmental Science titled “Linking language to sensory experience: Onomatopoeia in early language development” draws a direct link between early sensory experiences and language learning, particularly in onomatopoeic words such as “knock”, “meow”, and so on, demonstrating a connection between language and sounds perceived by children.
Apart from that basic connection, guided sensory play is also a great opportunity to teach young children new words. Guided play can be used to help them learn how to effectively describe their experiences as well as understand the meanings of words based on context clues.
Suggested Sensory Play Activities
Sensory play activities need to offer manageable levels of stimulation while being safe, engaging, and varied. Some sensory play activities that may be suited for children around preschool age include the following:
– Playdates with peers
– Helping or observing parents do chores
– Playing outside
– Listening to music
– Early exposure to musical instruments
– Drawing and finger painting
– Playing with modelling clay
– Interactive storytelling
Make Sensory Play a Core Part of Your Child’s Early Education
Early childhood education has significantly progressed since the days of rote learning. Multiple child development studies now show that children, when properly guided, can take the lead in their own learning. But before they can thrive in a typical school setting, young children need to have well-developed senses that help them make better sense of the world around them.
Guided sensory play is an important part of building a child’s foundations for learning. Ensuring a sufficient diversity of learning experiences early in life helps children perceive, understand, and if needed, overcome various challenges. By giving children an early start in developing their senses, parents, caretakers, and educators can ensure a lifetime of success and fulfilment for those in their care.