7 Elements of Play: Sensory

November 21, 2016

The last in our 7 elements of play series focuses on sensory play.

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What is sensory play?

Quite simply, it is play that encourages children to use one or more of the senses, stimulating sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, balance and movement.

  • Children rely on sensory input to learn about their environment.
  • Sensory play helps build neural connections that support thought, learning and creativity. It supports language development, cognitive growth, fine/gross motor skills, problem solving/reasoning and social interaction.
  • Sensory play can serve as an outlet to children with sensory processing disorder.

Why are tactile activities important?

Tactile refers to the sense of touch. Our skin is the tactile systems’ sensory receptor.

sensory-play-tactile_berlinerseilfabrikThe tactile system, the largest sensory system in the body, helps children determine whether something is cold, wet, hot, sharp, etc. It helps the brain organize information for developing the visual and auditory systems.

Many “touch” activities children engage in require the use of muscles such as jumping on a trampoline, crab walking, running a 3-legged race or obstacle course, playing leapfrog or hopscotch, tossing and catching games and tug-of-war.

Other activities may involve something like a sand area. The feel of the sand sifting through the fingers can be very relaxing to some children.

Why are auditory activities important?

sensory-play_babel-drum_percussion-playChildren love sounds and noises. Some kids like more melodic, soothing sounds while others like harsh grating sounds. Some like it loud, while others like it soft.

Noise and other sounds such as musical instruments help develop a child’s auditory system. Children with sensory processing disorder often like deep tones, rather than high.

Why are visual perception activities important?

sensory-play_visual_berlinerseilfabrikVisual processing helps children move their eyes in specific directions, allowing motion tracking play activities. This helps strengthen the eye muscles, giving children the ability to see differences between objects that are similar.

Visual processing refers to a group of skills used for interpreting and understanding visual information.

Some visual activities may include things such as playing flashlight tag, making shadow puppets, and playing catch.

Sensory Processing Disorder

I had a child in my class who was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder. On the one hand, if you asked her a lot of questions or if all eyes were on her, she pulled into herself and wouldn’t speak. On the flip side, she would come barreling in to the classroom and almost tackle me. One of the things we had her do was unstack chairs when she came in so she could get the input she needed by hitting the chairs hard on the floor. Or, at circle time, I allowed her to sit on me to give her the sensory stimulation she needed to be calm.

— Jami M.
Everyone has his or her own sensory issues; however, some are more heightened. When this is the case, a child may not be able to function appropriately in the classroom until the issue is addressed.

Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Some children with sensory processing disorder are oversensitive to things in the environment, for instance, common sounds may be painful or overwhelming or the material a shirt is made of may chafe the skin.

Children with sensory processing disorder may:

  • Lack coordination
  • Have poor kinesthetic awareness
  • Lack spatial and whole body awareness
  • Have a hard time engaging in conversation and play

Think about your child’s classroom. In a typical classroom, there is literally tons of stimulation … the low hum of kids talking, the teacher giving instructions, the walls filled with pictures, colors and letters, possibly a class pet and always so many things to touch or smell … this can be a tough environment for a child with sensory processing disorder.

My son was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, which affected the proprioceptive system and impacted his auditory function. Kindergarten was an eye-opening experience. The classroom had two doors that opened into the hallway and three openings to the classroom next to it. The teacher sat him in the back near two of the doors. He would crawl under desks and tables to be in a dark, quiet spot. … On Field Day, the gym was so noisy with bouncing balls and yelling kids that he could not understand the teacher’s instructions until they were face-to-face and had direct eye contact. … It was hard for him to switch from structured activities to unstructured activities (recess) and back again. He didn’t get personal space and would often poke other children while standing in line. … He was considered a behavior problem. We set up a plan with his teachers so that he could bring “squishies” to class – something he could squeeze and get proprioceptive input from. The vice principal would take him on walks around the school. Sometimes he would go to another room and use the steamroller or be wrapped up like a burrito. It took some work figuring out what sensory stimulation was good or bad for him, but today he is a well-adjusted young man.

— Julie M.

Benefits of Sensory Play

sensory-play_turtle-topSensory play enhances learning through hands-on activities that stimulate a child’s senses. It also:

  • Builds nerve connections in the brains’ pathways which lead to the child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks.
  • Supports language development, cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, problem-solving skills and social interaction.
  • Aids in developing and enhancing memory
  • Helps calm an anxious or frustrated child.
  • Helps children learn sensory attributes such as hot, cold, sticky, and dry.

Children need to learn through experience and not just a lecture.

Play Matters. Play Moves.

Learn more about how the seven elements of play on the playground affects a child’s growth and ability to function in the classroom.

Play Learn Grow TogetherWant to learn more? I give an educational presentation about the importance of playground activities, how these different elements of play contribute to a child’s success in the classroom.

Play, Learn and Grow with Us!
Jami Murdock Jami Murdock

Jami has been an early childhood educator for 25 years. She operated an “in home” daycare center for 13 years and has been teaching preschool for the past 12 years. She has experience working with children on the autism spectrum and sensory processing dysfunction. Jami presents on “How Important are Playground Activities to a Child’s Success in the Classroom.” Her passion is her family and her work with children.

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