Sensory Play and Cognitive Development

Playgrounds for children with hearing impairment

For adults, “play” is often considered an activity to pursue after work and learning are complete. But for kids, play is the very thing that guides their learning and development.

For kids, playtime is not a break from the daily grind — it is the essence of their development and education. Scientists believe that 75% of a kid’s brain development happens after they are born. In other words, the early years of a kid’s life are a critical time for their brain to develop observation and critical thinking skills that are essential for reading, writing and excelling later in life.

The human brain relies on the seven senses — sight, touch, taste, smell, sound, vestibular and proprioceptive — to create experiences and develop cognitive abilities. But what is sensory play, and what does that look like on a daily basis? And how can adults encourage this important developmental area in kids?

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What Is Sensory Play?

Most parents have heard the term “sensory play” in relation to things like play dough, kinetic sand, water and other things you can touch. But sensory play is about more than touch. Sensory play is best defined as age-appropriate activities that encourage kids to explore the world around them using one or more of their seven senses, including:

  • Sight: Sight includes visual elements and perceiving things through the eyes. Sensory activities that stimulate sight might incorporate colors, shapes and patterns into play.
  • Touch: Touch allows kids to physically feel things around them. With texture, temperature and vibrations, kids can learn a lot about touch while exploring playgrounds and parks.
  • Taste: Developing the sense of taste is important in differentiating sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavors. As kids experiment with tastes, perhaps with a picnic during play, they will develop likes and dislikes and learn what to avoid eating.
  • Smell: Using their sense of smell, kids can begin to detect thousands of scents. Exploring a park exposes kids to different plants, from freshly cut grass to tree bark and flowers. Taking in the scents around them helps kids develop the sense of smell and learn how to identify and associate scents with various activities.
  • SoundThe hearing sense allows kids to process sounds. Bells, chimes and other noisemakers can help stimulate this sense during play.
  • Vestibular: The vestibular sense relates to movement and balance. As a kid develops this sense, they become aware of where their head and body are in space. Kids develop their vestibular sense when they swing, play on a playground spinner or rock on a spring rider. This gives them the ability to stay upright when walking, standing and sitting.
  • Proprioceptive: This sense relates to body awareness, giving kids the ability to tell where body parts are in relation to each other. As kids develop the proprioceptive sense, they are able to determine how much force to use while navigating playground equipment.

The term sensory play is also used to describe any type of play that aims to develop a kid’s balance and coordination.

Benefits of sensory play

Benefits of Sensory Play

Sensory play has a number of benefits, including the following:

1. Language Development

Through sensory play, kids learn to describe things and engage their imagination to create stories and ideas. As babies, they may not be able to describe their sensory experiences with words, but they can express emotions through laughter, screams and movements. As kids grow, repeated sensory experiences help them develop the ability to talk about what they are doing and the observations they are making.

2. Gross Motor Skill Development

Most sensory activities also include a component of physical activity, which is essential for helping kids develop their gross and fine motor skills. Gross motor skills refer to using muscles for activities like jumping, walking and riding a bike. When you encourage a kid to engage in sensory activities, you are encouraging them to build the muscles their bodies need to complete these and other activities. Sensory play activities that help a kid’s gross motor skills develop include those involving the whole body or large muscle groups.

3. Fine Motor Skill Development

Fine motor skills refer to things like writing, coloring and other focused activities that use the muscles in a kid’s hands and arms. Improving fine motor skills early on is essential for a kid’s ability to hold and use eating utensils, pencils, doorknobs and other everyday items. Many kinds of sensory play activities help with the development of these skills. The small, concentrated and even larger hand and arm movements a kid makes during sensory play help them build strength and balance for activities requiring fine motor skills.

4. Stronger Brain Connections

When kids engage in sensory play experiences, their brains become adept at filtering out excess sensory experiences — such as loud noises — in order to focus on the task at hand. Their brain learns how to identify what sensory experiences are important and which are not relevant to the moment. Kids can also learn to overcome instinctive biases toward certain sensory experiences, such as overcoming an aversion to textures, loud sounds or bright lights.

Through sensory play, kids of all ability levels interact with their environment and each other.

5. Improved Social Development

Kids learn a lot as they play with others. Sensory play encourages kids’ social development by providing them with opportunities to engage with peers and siblings in a new way. Through sensory play, kids of all ability levels interact with their environment and each other. Play that stimulates the senses inspires kids to communicate with one another about things they’re experiencing. Sensory play also helps kids learn how to adapt to how others play. These opportunities for sensory play are beneficial for young kids.

6. Enhanced Problem-Solving Abilities

Sensory play often involves playing with loose parts and materials, like toy shovels, sand and buckets. Interacting with and shaping different objects in the environment helps kids learn to anticipate and solve problems. When a rock always rolls down a slope, kids start to expect gravity and learn to place something in the rock’s path. Having the freedom to experiment with the senses through play encourages kids to think critically, try new solutions and analyze situations that didn’t go as planned.

7. Better Self-Calming Skills

The things a kid experiences in their surroundings can often influence their mood. Some kids with sensory sensitivities might find certain kinds of sensory play calming. Sensory play can help kids learn to regulate their energy levels and self-calm, as kids become absorbed in these activities and find comfort in them. These benefits are helpful for kids experiencing nervousness and can help them relax. Most kids enjoy the soothing experience of sensory play when they can engage their senses in a way they enjoy.

8. Boosted Creativity

Kids are inherently creative, experimenting with the items around them to learn how the world works. Sensory play helps kids make sense of their environment by giving them opportunities to explore it through creativity. Sensory play allows kids to experiment with textures, sights, sounds, tastes and movement. When kids interact with the world through their senses, they learn what they enjoy and how to create a specific outcome.

9. Greater Awareness

Sensory play is often directed by each kid individually. This self-directed play allows kids to decide how they move in and interact with their environment. Kids learn about their preferences and those of others when playing with peers. When sensory play is designed appropriately it can also be inclusive, giving every kid the chance to express their own autonomy and push themselves however they want.

It is important to encourage and stimulate a kid's cognitive abilities from day one to give their brain the tools it needs to develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Cognitive Development and Sensory Play

There is a close connection between sensory play and cognitive development. The term “cognitive development” refers to the human brain’s ability to process and store information, as well as solve problems and complete tasks. A kid’s cognitive development is connected to sensory play from a very young age. In fact, it is important to encourage and stimulate a kid’s cognitive abilities from day one to give their brain the tools it needs to develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

When a baby is playing with blocks, they are tasting, touching and even hearing the sounds the blocks make. The baby is learning how the blocks can rest on top of each other and about the sound they make when they bang together. All those experiences are exercising the child’s brain, helping them practice the process of exploration and discovery they will use throughout their life. Cognitive development activities even train a kid’s brain to utilize the scientific method long before they learn it in school.

The impact that sensory play has on cognitive development cannot be overstated. Sensory play and the experiences preschool-aged kids receive from it are critical to their future abilities to read, write and solve problems in math and science. Allowing a kid to play with sand, explore a bucket of slime or build with blocks is one of the best things a parent, teacher or caregiver can do to aid a kid in their cognitive development and set them up for future success.

Sensory Play Activities

Today, you do not have to look far to find suitable activities for cognitive development for kids of all ages. If you are on the hunt for some new ideas, here are some of our favorites:

1. Finger Painting and Manipulatives

Preschool-aged kids have a lot to gain from finger painting and playing with play dough, modeling clay, slime and kinetic sand. Blocks, counters and items with assorted colors and pieces also make great cognitive activities for preschoolers because they provide an important sensory experience. As kids use these materials, they develop their sense of touch and use that sense to explore colors, sounds and textures. They also learn problem-solving skills as they build block towers, create patterns and manipulate play dough into shapes and designs.

Allowing kids to use simple instruments to create sounds helps with sensory development.

2. Musical Instruments

Allowing kids to use simple instruments — such as a tambourine, triangle and xylophone — to create sounds helps with sensory development. This helps kids learn to focus on certain sounds and filter out others that are not important in the moment. It also allows them to use their ears, eyes and sense of touch to experiment with sounds and the levels at which they can create them.

3. Playground Time

Visit any playground in any town and you will find groups of parents watching as their kids burn off excess energy. The playground has long been a tool for parents who need a break and energetic kids who want to play. The physical benefits of playground equipment are vast, but what many adults do not realize is that a well-designed playground is also full of sensory experiences.

The experience of exploring a playground, creating games and using their imagination is enough to stimulate kids’ sensory skills. Today’s playgrounds are also being designed to maximize the sensory experience kids have while they are playing. Playgrounds can be designed with various colors, textures and shapes. They can incorporate sandboxes or tables, as well as musical elements and games. Kinesthetic awareness — that is, understanding the way a body is positioned in space — is also an important sensory component of any playground. It is typically developed through equipment that poses physical challenges, such as pushing and pulling, swinging or climbing.

Promote sensory play

Promote Sensory Play and Cognitive Development With Miracle Recreation®

At Miracle Recreation, we design and manufacture high-quality, thrilling playground equipment to give kids hours of fun and entertainment. We are also committed to developing play spaces that encourage sensory play and cognitive development for kids of all ages. If you are ready to transform your school or local play space, browse our website and learn more about our sensory playground equipment.