Think about your favourite memories. How many of these have a particular colour, smell or sound associated with them? The smell of a crackling barbecue in the summer or the roar of the crowd when your favourite football team scores a last-minute winner, are two examples. Our brains trigger flashbacks to those happy times as soon as our nostrils or ears are stimulated with those smells or sounds.
That’s because it’s easier for us to retain memories when we use our senses. Imagine learning to drive without being able to get in a real car, or trying to cook without ever touching actual food. It’d be tricky, wouldn’t it?
That’s why sensory play is so important to small children. It helps them develop taste, touch, sight, sense and smell. It encourages them to explore and create for themselves. Sensory play lets children investigate materials, objects and their environment with no pre-conceived ideas – you’re giving them a clean slate so that they can learn for themselves.
It’s easy to create a sensory room or area at home or in the nursery. Plenty of suppliers, Hope Education for one, offer the materials that will help you develop children’s sensory learning, and in turn boost these five skill sets:
- Cognitive development: Or, put simply, problem-solving. Classic shape-sorting toys are great examples of problem-solving toys – figuring out that the square block won’t fit through the triangular hole gives kids a good start in thinking things through. Other cognitive development tasks might include matching cut out numbers to groups of objects, turning white sugar cubes a different colour or sorting items such as buttons, coins or dice. You could even introduce simple science principles – the behaviour of a ball on a downward slope, or what happens to ice in the sun.
- Emotional development: This is a key facet of a child’s social confidence. When children play together they learn about co-operation. It also teaches them empathy – seeing someone else’s point of view in a given situation. And, as they express themselves, they become more comfortable sharing their ideas with others.
- Linguistic development: Kids often get frustrated when they try to express themselves without quite knowing what the best words to use are. Sensory play goes a long way towards equipping children with the language to describe what they see and how they feel. Playing with something sticky lets them experience first-hand what ‘sticky’ actually feels like. Without that close-up experience, some words just stay meaningless.
- Physical development: Two broad descriptions of the way we attempt physical tasks are fine motor skills and gross motor skills. When we want to tie our shoelaces and sign our name, our fine motor skills help us do so. And when we need to run for the bus or catch a ball, our gross motor skills come into play. Asking kids to make shapes from clay is one way you can introduce the former, while a simple song of Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes encourages the latter.
- Creative development: In many ways, how a child uses materials to make something is more important than the end product. It’s a cardboard tube becoming a gleaming knight’s sword, or a rug becoming a raft on the high seas. It’s another form of problem solving – taking one object and turning it into another so that it fits in with a child’s make believe.
What else can you do? Well, the Guild of Sensory Development recommends swimming for young children, while teaching resource organisation Parenta suggests a sensory play activity tray so that children can develop their own games.