The Importance of Sensory Play and Playgrounds
From day one, a child’s brain is wired to use their senses to explore the world around them. Even before they can talk, babies make noise, put things in their mouths and grab anything they can get their hands on. As kids grow older, this natural inclination to explore continues — they bang on pots and pans, taste new foods and listen to music.
Sensory experiences are essential for brain development in all children. For children with an autism spectrum disorder, ADHD or another sensory disorder, sensory experiences can be more challenging. Some kids with sensory challenges may be sensitive to intense noise, overwhelming tastes or certain textures. Other children may be under-sensitive to certain sensory experiences, meaning they are unaware of how much pressure they’re using when they hug a friend or quickly lose their balance because they don’t know where their body is positioned in space.
The playground is a wonderful place where kids can have sensory experiences, regardless of their age or developmental ability.
Playgrounds were invented in the late 1800s in response to the need to create urban spaces where kids could jump and play. Teachers, medical professionals and community leaders quickly realized these play spaces were essential to good physical health, brain development and socialization among kids of all ages and classes.
The importance of playgrounds in child development has only been solidified in recent years as autism rates continue to rise. But what is it about playgrounds that make them so important? And how can parents encourage their kids to make the most of their local play space?
Read the full article or jump to a specific section:
- What Is Sensory Play and Why is it Important?
- Benefits of Sensory Play for Kid’s Development
- How Does Sensory Play Impact the Body?
- Sensory Exploration at the Playground
What Is Sensory Play and Why Is It Important?
Sensory development describes how the brain makes sense of the world using the classic five senses. These senses — sight, smell, sound, touch and taste — help kids understand how the world works on their terms. A sensory experience can be the smell of vinegar in a science experiment, the sound of the piano during a music lesson or a trip to the local airport to watch and hear planes take off.
Sensory activities expand beyond the classic five senses to include a kid’s sense of balance and ability to judge positioning in space. As kids grow, their brains and sensory development expand. In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on the importance of sensory skills in a child’s development. Sensory learning has been incorporated into the classroom. It has also been found to be incredibly effective when sensory learning is incorporated into play. This is where the term “sensory play” comes in.
Sensory play is important because sensory experiences are a vital way we explore our world. When children are outside in their yard or at a park, they can use their senses to explore things like the rough bark on trees, the cool dirt under their feet or the slimy earthworm living under a rock.
Benefits of Sensory Play for Development
Sensory play is important to a child’s overall development and growth. Modern playgrounds can also provide a variety of opportunities for sensory play for kids on the autism spectrum or with a sensory processing disorder. It can also have a significant impact on a child’s development:
1. Cognitive Development
Kids begin using their senses to explore the world around them as infants, helping them develop cognitively as they learn. They learn through sensory experiences, especially at a young age. Babies and toddlers are highly motivated to see, hear, touch and taste everything around them. A baby may grab a fistful of their mother’s long, soft hair or gleefully splash around in their pet’s water bowl. They also start moving their limbs and trying to balance from a very early age.
When a child engages in a sensory experience, it sends signals to their brain, recording the experience and filing it away for future use. These signals stimulate a kid’s brain and contribute to the growth and development of their brain over time. Sensory play gives kids many opportunities to engage their senses and develop crucial cognitive skills like memory, reasoning and problem-solving. The more sensory experiences a child has, the more they engage their brain, which may lead to improved spatial and mathematical abilities.
Sensory play and brain development go hand in hand. Kids learn to balance as they walk, respond when a parent calls them and taste new foods. All these contribute to the brain’s growth and prepare it for continued growth and development later.
2. Physical Development
Our senses help us physically engage with the world, making sensory play an excellent way to further physical development and motor skills. Motor skills are divided into two primary groups: gross and fine. Gross motor skills are those related to the use and development of large muscle groups, like crawling and walking. Fine motor skills pinpoint the use and movement of smaller muscle groups, such as those you would use to lace up sneakers or zip a coat.
Because sensory play often involves picking up small items and pinching and pouring motions, it is integral to developing these smaller but equally important muscle groups.
3. Language Development
Language development progresses rapidly in most kids, especially during their first three years of life. An excellent environment to support this development is a sensory-rich one. Sensory experiences are an important way of teaching a child to describe the experiences they have daily.
While speaking skills often develop rapidly during the preschool years, some children with disabilities may use these sensory experiences for language development later than their preschool years. Kids of various age groups and abilities can benefit from sensory experiences for communication skills.
You can use sensory experiences to help kids practice their language skills as they start communicating. As they see, touch or smell something, kids can acquire additional vocabulary to describe their experience.
For example, asking a child to describe what a texture feels like can provide excellent practice for translating thoughts and sensations into words and sentences while learning new vocabulary words. Another example of this is when children try new food. Over time, they’re able to express interest in certain foods that are “sweet,” “spicy” or “tangy” as their preferences evolve. The same is true with their experiences touching leaves, rocks and trees outdoors or seeing the colors and shapes incorporated into their neighborhood play area.
Of course, this also involves interaction with dedicated adults who take the time to help kids learn how to describe these sensory experiences and regular interactions with friends who can encourage each other to communicate and share words. One of the great things about sensory play is that kids can engage in it alone or with their peers.
When kids engage in sensory experiences with their peers, they practice having conversations, taking turns expressing themselves and exchanging information with others. The playground is a great place to encourage peer-to-peer interaction, allowing kids to have social experiences and practice things like cooperation, sharing and taking turns. Through social sensory play, kids have endless opportunities to practice communication skills.
Sensory play is about more than learning. It’s also highly beneficial for a child with sensory issues because of its calming effect. For some kids, manipulating sand through their fingers, playing with water or swinging for 10 minutes is incredibly soothing.
The back-and-forth motion of a swing has been shown to have an extremely calming effect on kids who are over-stimulated or struggle with a sensory processing disorder. Other sensory activities, such as playing with play dough or enjoying a warm bath, are also calming sensory experiences that benefit kids of all ages and abilities. When they engage in these activities, they’ll likely show signs that they’re feeling more relaxed or calm.
In children who tend to be high-energy or hyperactive, sensory play can be an essential tool to help them calm down and focus when they’re particularly agitated or distracted. For kids who don’t have a sensory processing disorder, sensory play still provides an outlet for them to work out tension or frustration after a long day at school or after a frustrating day with a parent or sibling.
Sensory play is child-directed, meaning the child engaging in the activity typically decides when and how to play. When they do this, they learn about their preferences. For example, they may decide they like the feeling of splashing at a water table but not the feeling of manipulating slime.
They discover a love for playing music but dislike swinging too high on the swings. Giving kids room to discover and explore their personal preferences helps them develop their autonomy which provides them with a better understanding of who they are as a person, as well as affirming their uniqueness in the world.
Sensory play on the playground also goes a long way toward helping kids learn to be confident in their abilities and conquer challenges in a well-supervised environment.
6. Social and Emotional Development
Sensory experiences in nature can have a positive impact on our emotional health, even as adults. Kids can feel a true sense of joy as they feel the sunshine and the breeze. They can also increase their confidence as they try new things. The social interactions that can take place during sensory play also do wonders for a child’s development. They can learn how to manage conflict, empathize and enjoy fulfilling relationships with others.
When kids engage in sensory experiences with their peers, they practice having conversations, taking turns expressing themselves and exchanging information with others. The playground is a great place to encourage this peer-to-peer interaction.
7. Creative Development
While structured educational activities can help aid kids’ development in many ways, when it comes to creativity, there’s simply no substitute for unstructured sensory play. Kids may see that the treehouse playset is a similar shape to a rocket and create an imaginary scenario where they’re blasting off into space. Or, they may play with musical playground equipment, imagining they’re all grown up, playing in an orchestra. Kids’ creativity can be free during sensory play, laying the groundwork for future ingenuity and creative skills.
Development looks different for every kid. For kids with specific disabilities or unique challenges, certain areas of development may be less straightforward. For example, some kids may experience delays in their language abilities compared to their peers. While specific interventions like therapy can play an influential role for these kids, a sensory playground can also be an excellent place for getting the extra stimulation and practice needed to develop crucial skills. For kids with sensory processing disorders (SPD), sensory play can help them learn to process sensory input and regulate their response.
How Does Sensory Play Impact the Body?
Sensory play and a child’s brain development go hand in hand. Sensory play can engage the body in various ways, improving physical health and well-being and helping kids advance their physical abilities. But what exactly is developing in the brain when a child engages their senses? And how do those senses impact children — and adults — daily? Let’s look at how sensory play on the playground can engage kids physically across all their sensory systems:
A child’s tactile sense includes the feeling of touch. Kids need to be able to manipulate objects with their hands, experience different materials and textures and push and pull things around them. When we touch different items, our bodies send signals through neural pathways to our brain and other body parts so we can understand what we’re feeling. This is where playground features like climbing rocks and sandboxes come in. It’s also why play areas typically incorporate various shapes, materials and textures in their equipment.
Tactile play is essential to children learning about the world and developing a sense of security and well-being. A variety of textures can engage a child’s sense of touch. The repetitive nature of touching or manipulating objects is essential to long-term learning since repetition helps children master skills and retain information over time. Playing in sand or water or gripping a rope, for example, can feel interesting to a child and help them learn about their environment.
2. Vestibular System
The vestibular sense is responsible for a person’s sense of balance and movement. A child’s balance starts in the inner ear — the motion of fluid in the ear canals sends signals to the brain regarding body positioning and movement as a person attempts to walk, stand, sit or perform just about any daily activity. It takes some time to develop this sense, which is partly why young kids tend to fall frequently as they learn to balance themselves properly. Many types of physical play engage the vestibular system.
These are all motions that many people take for granted. Kids who have issues with their vestibular sense may frequently stumble, rip book pages, hug too hard or otherwise struggle to apply the right amount of motion or movement.
Many types of physical play engage the vestibular system. Playground play provides a comfortable environment for these children to exercise this system and overcome specific challenges associated with it. As kids walk along a balance beam or rope bridge, they must use their bodies to keep steady. Kids also use their sense of balance and movement when they climb, swing, rock, spin and do just about any physical activity.
3. Proprioception System
The proprioceptive system senses movement in the muscles and joints to judge your position in space. It’s the brain’s ability to evaluate whether the body is correctly positioned to perform a desired activity. You likely don’t need to think much about moving your body and knowing where each part of your body is at any given time — it feels automatic. But this is a sense we all must develop as kids. Physical play nearly always involves a child’s proprioceptive system. Children become more familiar with how their bodies move as they jump, crawl or slide.
Picture it like this: a child decides they’re thirsty, so they walk to the refrigerator and open the door. The shelf with juice boxes is just above their head, so they reach their arm up, wrap their fingers around a juice box and pull it down. Now picture what would happen if that same child opened the refrigerator and thought they were reaching for the juice box, but their hand was stretched out in front of them, not over their head. The second scenario is a picture of what it looks like when a child’s proprioception senses aren’t functioning correctly.
This sensation can be activated and improved through activities that require pulling, pushing or stretching, which are everyday playground activities. When a child struggles with their sense of movement and position, they may avoid certain situations and the sensations or clumsy movements that may result. By encouraging kids to engage in sensory activities on a playground designed to improve proprioception, they can develop a better sense of where they are in space, including the muscle control and confidence they need to be more active.
4. Auditory System
Hearing is primarily what allows us to communicate through speech and appreciate music. We engage our ears and brains when we listen to music, people talking or other sounds. Sorting through multiple sounds and interpreting what you hear is an important skill. When children play, they can listen to and process the noises of other children playing, the musical toys and the play equipment. Sensory playgrounds are more likely to include equipment that makes noise to engage the auditory system.
5. Visual System
Most people receive visual information through their eyes, which the brain interprets. Recognizing different colors and shapes is some of the earliest examples of kids exercising their sense of sight. All sorts of play can be visually engaging. When a child makes it onto the playground, they’re likely first to notice how the equipment and the area look. Colorful, imaginative equipment designs and activity panels can all appeal to kids’ sense of sight.
Sensory play takes on a more meaningful role because it allows children to gradually become more comfortable with harsh sights that could otherwise push them toward a meltdown or tantrum. Over time, developing these senses may ease their reaction to certain triggers. It can also teach them how to respond and cope when triggers appear unexpectedly.
6. Olfactory System
Your sense of smell is another meaningful way you receive input about the world around you. Kids automatically learn the differences between scents they like and ones that make them want to pinch their noses. The olfactory system can be engaged during sensory play. Whether a child is playing with scented stickers inside or smelling trees and flowers outside, the sense of smell can enhance their playtime experience.
7. Gustatory System
Parents are used to keeping babies and toddlers from putting every object they encounter into their mouths, but kids learn to do this themselves through taste. We associate taste most with meal and snack time, but sensory play can occasionally include the sense of taste. Parents can help kids engage their sense of taste during sensory play, by bringing snacks and drinks to the playground.
Sensory Exploration at the Playground
Miracle® Recreation is one of the oldest and most trusted leaders in the playground industry. We earned this reputation because of our commitment to creating kid-friendly, inclusive equipment to thrill children of all abilities and ages. We proudly work with schools, community leaders and various kid-friendly organizations to design the right playground for any space or budget. We’re incredibly proud of the inclusive play equipment we’ve designed and have seen firsthand the impact of our playground equipment on kids with sensory processing disorders.
Ready to start designing your sensory playground? Contact us to set up a complimentary design consultation today!