Sensory Play Activities
A big part of growing up is learning about the world around you, and a lot of that happens through the senses. As kids feel, hear, see, smell and taste in their environments, they build up important skills. Sensory play is a type of play that focuses on giving kids more of these experiences. It can happen at home, at school or on the playground and is a fantastic way to bond while supporting healthy developme
What Is Sensory Play?
Sensory play is a way of playing that engages the senses. When kids use sensory play, they learn to interact with the world around them in new and exciting ways that help with brain development. They might enjoy some novel visual input by watching glitter in a snow globe, feel the way their body moves on a balance beam or experience unique textures by kneading a ball of clay.
Whatever it looks like, sensory play can help with everything from cognition and language development to fine motor skills and mood regulation. Sensory exploration is crucial for healthy development, and incorporating it in playtime is a great way to expand your child’s horizons. Best of all, it makes using these senses fun!
You could help your child learns different musical instruments by listening to music or taking piano lessons — or you can let them loose with a set of bongos on the playground, which makes their exposure to music exciting and unstructured.
5 Sensory Play Activities
Sensory play can come in many forms. Of course, we use our senses every day as we interact with the world around us, but these activities allow kids to engage more senses and use them in new contexts.
1. Glitter Jars
Glitter jars are basically DIY snow globes that engage kids’ motor skills and vision. They’re relaxing, pretty and super customizable. You’ll need a glass jar with a lid and non-toxic glitter, glitter glue and hot glue or super glue. You can either make the jars yourself or enlist the help of the little ones, but they’ll need grown-up assistance.
When you’re ready, follow these steps:
- Fill up your jar with hot — not boiling — water, leaving some space at the top. Boiling water can shatter glass or melt plastic, so make sure it’s just on the warmer side. It only needs to be warm so it can blend well with your glitter glue.
- Add a bottle of glitter glue and glitter into your jar, then stir everything together. The amount will depend on the size of your jar, but you can be as generous as you like.
- Close your jar and glue it shut. Then, kids can flip it around and watch it move!
Playing with a glitter jar offers visual stimulation and can even help kids calm down.
2. Balance Games
One important sense is proprioception, or how we perceive our bodies in space. Balance games are a great way to help kids improve their coordination and better understand how they move.
Start by finding or making a balance beam. Many playgrounds have balance beams low to the ground. If the weather’s bad, you can also make your own with a line of painter’s tape on the floor. Then, try some of these challenges and games:
- Musical balance beam: In this riff off of musical chairs, you’ll play a song while a kid walks across the beam. Then, pause the song at a random time and see if they can maintain their balance. See how many pauses you can do before they lose their balance.
- Collectors: Place objects along the side of your balance beam, such as stuffed animals or plastic balls. The kid has to bend down and pick up the item without falling over. Have them carry as many as they can until their arms are full of random items.
- Funny walks: You can change things up by asking children to walk backward, heel-to-toe, on tip-toe or to the side. You could also give them animals to imitate or yoga poses to do.
3. Sensory Slime and Dough
Slime and dough are all the rage nowadays, and they can be great sensory toys. Kids can smush and knead and stretch for hours of tactile fun while using their imaginations.
Making slime or dough with the kids can even be a fun science lesson for kids of all ages, but take extra caution that your slime is non-toxic and age-appropriate. You can find tons of recipes online, but they usually use basic household ingredients like glue and glitter. Don’t use anything that would be dangerous for your child to ingest. If you’re not sure, you can find commercially-made, non-toxic slime and dough.
4. Sand Play
Here’s another great tactile experience with tons of options. Simply find yourself a sandbox and many kids will happily start building castles or moving their fingers through the sand. The sand itself is interesting, with smooth grains that trickle through their fingers or clump together when wet. You could hide toys in the sand, create “roads” and “rivers” or play chef by making sand foods.
5. Jam Sessions
Instruments can help kids set their inner musicians free! They also learn about how to use the instrument, like figuring out how hard they should hit the drums to make a pleasant sound. You could make homemade instruments, buy musical toys or find musical instruments on a playground. Homemade instruments make a good arts and crafts project, and playground instruments offer a larger-than-life experience. They tend to be big, so kids can play chimes taller than they are or rattle a cabasa with their whole upper body.
What Is a Sensory Playground?
A sensory playground is one that incorporates sensory elements. It might have textured panels they can touch and feel or visual panels that make the light dance and flicker. Sensory playgrounds offer a unique way to explore the senses. They’re usually bigger than other types of sensory play. Kids can get the blood pumping when they play with these big elements, all within sight of their caregivers.
Sensory Playground Equipment
A sensory-rich play space, such as a playground, provides a wide variety of sensory experiences all in one space. And, since most playgrounds are outdoors, children receive the additional sensory benefits associated with outdoor play.
Technically, any playground can provide children with certain sensory experiences, but a truly sensory-friendly playground is designed to create a nurturing and inclusive environment for children of varying abilities. Specifically, a sensory-friendly playground offers a variety of equipment designed to stimulate the senses, including sight, sound, smell, touch, balance and proprioception.
Sensory playgrounds are often referred to as “inclusive playgrounds,” but the two aren’t always the same. An inclusive playground goes beyond the accessibility standards of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). It offers more than basic wheelchair access and provides a space for kids of all ages and ability levels to play, challenge and have fun together.
An inclusive playground will typically include these features:
- Surfaces that are easy to move around on, even when using a wheelchair or other mobility device.
- Inclusive equipment, such as swings with harnesses that accommodate kids of all ability levels
- Play equipment that can be used in a variety of ways, depending on a child’s age, abilities and imagination.
- Wide pathways between pieces of equipment to allow for ease of navigation between spaces, either on foot or with a wheelchair.
A sensory-friendly environment is often an important element of an inclusive play space. A sensory playground may incorporate some or all of the components of an inclusive playground, as well as elements that are designed to stimulate the senses. These can include:
Tactile experiences like sand or water play are important for stimulating a child’s sense of touch. Water can be soothing to a child who easily experiences sensory overload, and elements like sand can help a child who struggles to cope with certain sensations or demonstrates a sensitivity to touch. A sandbox or sand table also provides the opportunity to incorporate other tactile experiences by incorporating a variety of toys and objects for children to use during sand play.
Swinging — independently or with the help of an adult — is a great way for a child to exercise their vestibular system. Swinging is so much fun that most children, and their parents, don’t realize that it works a variety of muscles and joints. The swaying motion offers input for a child’s vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile and visual systems, helping them learn how their bodies move and how to control their bodies better.
These skills can go a long way toward helping a child establish their sense of where their body is in space and recognizing physical boundaries, which is a common problem among children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a processing disorder, or an autism spectrum disorder.
There’s nothing quite like the thrill of swinging alongside a friend and enjoying the sensation of going higher and higher together. Inclusive swing seats can be incorporated among traditional swing seats to allow children of all abilities to swing side-by-side. Plus, swinging is a great way to help a hyperactive or over-stimulated child calm down.
3. Spinners and Climbing Toys
Spinning equipment, such as the Whirl, Cyclo Cone Base Climber and Maypole make a great addition to a sensory-friendly playground because they provide ample opportunities for children to engage their vestibular system, which is responsible for establishing and maintaining balance. Engaging in these activities goes a long way toward helping children improve their balance and coordination. It also helps children who may struggle with these traits to practice and become more confident in their abilities to move around.
Climbing equipment also encourages children to engage the muscles needed to develop and maintain balance while encouraging them to accept new challenges in a structured, secure environment. There are a wide variety of options available, and an inclusive playground can include climbing options that allow children with disabilities to engage in climbing activities, too.
4. Outdoor Exploration
A sensory-friendly playground will make the most of its natural setting, allowing children the opportunity to see, hear and smell the world around them. It might mean planting a small sensory garden or including kid-friendly fragrant plants in the nearby landscaping. It might incorporate a small wheelchair-accessible trail near the playground for family exploration. Or, it might include items that make sounds like conga drums or a xylophone.
5. Play Panels
Sensory play panels offer fun textures and sights in child-friendly elements. Play panels could include interactive elements like a rotating sphere filled with pebbles to watch. They could also take the form of a sensory maze, where kids can weave their way through translucent panels with textured shapes.
6. Gentle Colors
Visual stimulation comes through incorporating colors throughout the playground. Colors can be incorporated in various ways, including flooring options. They can also be used to distinguish between different heights and types of equipment. The tasteful use of colors and patterns can encourage children to engage and explore. Sensory playgrounds often use gentle colors so as not to overwhelm kids.
Engage Their Senses With Miracle® Recreation
Sensory playgrounds are a fantastic way to help kids hone their senses. Here at Miracle Recreation, we’ve been in the business of play for decades, with the equipment and expertise needed to infuse thrill and sensory experiences into any playground. We offer a range of sensory playground elements and resources to help you plan, fund and build your playground.
Whether you work with a school or city or housing development who wants to encourage sensory play, our knowledgeable team can help. Find your local representative today to learn more!