A Handful of Fun: Why Sensory Play is Important for Preschoolers

(Please, please, feel free to print and share this article with parents and teachers! Simply cite the source as Amanda Morgan, www.notjustcute.com.)

 Think of your average preschooler.  How long has this child been proficient with language?  Depending on the age, the child may not really be too proficient yet!  Others seem to have been talking non-stop since 2 1/2, but that means they’ve been talking now for all of…..about a year!  Now think of how long these children have been seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling, and tasting.  Their whole lives!  Children are wired to receive and utilize sensory input from day one.  This is why children will dive in hands first, exploring a new substance.  The senses are their most familiar, most basic way to explore, process, and come to understand new information.

This is why we must allow young children to learn through experience, not just lecture.  These children need to use their senses and be engaged in meaningful experiences.  As we talk with them about what they are observing and sensing, we give them new language tools to connect with these more familiar sensory tools, building language as well as supporting cognitive concepts specific to the experience. 

Now, the flip side to this equation is important to remember as well.  Just as children learn through their senses, they also are developing the ability to use those senses and are building the neurological pathways associated with each one.  With added sensory experiences, combined with the scaffolding of adults and peers, children become more perceptive.  Their sensory intake and processing becomes more acute.  As they are better able to use their senses, they are then better able to learn through their senses.

Sensory play is really part of the scientific process.  Whether out loud or within the internal dialogue of the mind, children have developed a question, leading them to investigate– by grabbing, smelling, listening, rubbing, staring, licking , what have you!  They are using their senses to collect data and from that, attempt to answer their own questions.  Whether or not young children are always able to verbally communicate this process, it is still a valid exercise in scientific inquiry.

The sensory table is the usually the first place people think of for sensory play.  That’s logical, as the term “sensory” is shared by both.  The sensory table certainly stands as an open invitation for hands-on exploration, but it is not the only place where the senses come into play.  Throughout the preschool room and throughout the preschooler’s day, there are appeals being made to the five senses.  The sound of toppling towers in the block area, the feel of finger-paint sliding under their fingertips, the glow of the Light Brite at the small manip table, the smell of cinnamon playdough.  As teachers, the more we can attend to the sensory involvement of our planned activities, the more our children will be engaged and the more they will learn. 

For example, when discussing the need for warm clothes in the winter time, we can simply tell children about it, or we can have them hold ice cubes, one in a bare hand, and one in a gloved hand, let them really feel the difference and then meaningfully attach a verbal discussion to the sensory experience.

Back at the sensory table, we can find many more benefits to sensory play.  That bin of sand, or foam, or colorful rice is more than just another way to keep kids busy, it is a bustling factory of developmental growth.  In addition to honing sensory and science skills, sensory play builds language, social, and dramatic play skills as the children negotiate with one another to share tools, create stories, and build dialogues.  Both small and large motor skills get a boost as well, as the children manipulate the medium and tools of the day.  Creative, divergent thinking is displayed as the children are essentially invited to explore and come up with new ways to use the materials.  Cognitive skills are fostered as well as the children learn about specific concepts pertinent to the bin’s contents.  Things like gravity, parts of plants, states of matter, and color mixing are easily explored and understood through sensory play.  As you teach appropriate boundaries with sensory play, children develop more self-control and body awareness.

As one of the truest open-ended activities, sensory play provides an opportunity for every child to succeed.  No matter whether you are gifted or delayed, learning a new language or mastering your first, you can’t really fail with a bin full of beans or a ball of playdough.  Children who struggle to succeed or who are apprehensive about failure often find solace in sensory play.  The simple act of pouring water or running fingers through rice is often cathartic and calming to many children who may be struggling emotionally.  It can soothe the nervous child, distract the homesick child, and serve as an outlet for the angry child.  For children with special needs and sensory integration disorders, sensory play may be particularly therapeutic.  (Please note that we must also avoid over-stimulation in many sensitive children.  Special attention must also be paid to children with sensory integration disorder and properly recognizing their thresholds.)

We often think of the sensory table as being a tactile activity, which it largely is, but the other senses come into play as well!  The tapping sounds of popcorn kernels hitting the bin, the pungent smell of baking soda and vinegar at work, the sight of separating colors as tinted water, oil, and syrup are mixed together are all sensory experiences that can be tapped at the sensory table.  Taste sometimes finds less desirable ways to sneak in at the table as well, though taste-tests can also be properly planned as fantastic sensory experiences!

Find ways to optimize sensory play for your children.  Whether that’s providing a bin of sand to explore, giving your child a dish wand and plastic dishes to “wash” at the sink, or finding ways to integrate the senses into your other activities, provide space and time for sensory play!  It’s a natural and satisfying way to explore and learn!

Links you might love:

Creating a Sensory Table on a Budget

Setting Boundaries with Sensory Play

How to Find Sensory Materials on the Cheap

Messy Play: Bubbles, Sand, Dough, and Water  (Great Sensory Play Ideas from lekotek)

Find more ideas for sensory activities by clicking on the sensory tags and categories at the right, or by entering “sensory” into the blog search engine!


Top photo by osmar01.

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Filed under Article, sensory activity

19 responses to “A Handful of Fun: Why Sensory Play is Important for Preschoolers

  1. Excellent! Thank you for sharing!

  2. I enjoyed reading your post – a really comprehensive look at sensory play. Its so important to get the message out that children are doing so much more than just messing about when they are playing and you have done just that 🙂

  3. Great post. It’s important to realize that sensory play (and other types of play) are important ways for children to learn…and not just “time fillers.” Thanks.

  4. This is good stuff!!! I just found your blog and I’m so glad for it. I have a 15 month old I am always looking for new activities and your blog is a well spring of them. Thank you so much for this.

  5. Amy

    Really loved this post. Thanks Mandy!

  6. This is a wonderful post! As a Waldorf early childhood educator, I have been working for years educating parents about the importance of a young sensory experiences. I now own Bella Luna Toys, an online shop selling toys and playthings of natural materials designed to nurture and nourish children’s senses and to inspire imagination. With your permission, I would love to share this article on Bella Luna’s blog, with credit and linking back to your blog, of course! http://www.bellalunatoys.com

    • notjustcute

      Thank you so much, Sarah! I am flattered to have you use my post! Thank you for linking back to me! By the way, your toys are amazing! I love the natural materials!

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  13. Lynne M.

    What a wonderful article! I am an educator who has worked with Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers. My passion is Sensory Play! I have put together a PowerPoint presentation for teachers to give them non-traditional ideas for sensory play (Infants through Toddlers). I have been online looking for a good article to support “Why Sensory Play is Important”. There is NOTHING out there. I stumbled upon your log through a search engine. What a great article! You encourage readers to share this information with others as long as you are cited! I would like to do this…put your article in my packet that I give when I present. Once again…WELL WRITTEN!

    • notjustcute

      Thank you! Absolutely you may share what I’ve written. My purpose is to educate and support parents and teachers of young children. As long as what I write is not being distributed for profit, and includes citations with my name and blog address (Amanda Morgan, MS http://www.notjustcute.com), I would love nothing more than to have it used in teacher trainings! I would love to see your power point!

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