Most of what you find on the internet when you search for “sensory” or “sensory play” is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to true sensory experiences for kids! Read on to learn more…
If you do a quick search on Pinterest using the words “sensory” or “sensory play”, you will find that the results include (almost exclusively) tactile play activities like slime, sensory bins, DIY play doughs, and other messy play ideas.
To us, this is a concerning trend, because we know that there is a whole lot more to sensory processing and sensory play than touching messy things with your hands!
The Truth About “Sensory Play”
Of course, as physical and occupational therapists, we know that tactile play is so beneficial (and fun!) for kids. Exploring the world using the sense of touch contributes to kids’ secure and organized sense of themselves. A child with a healthy and functioning tactile system can tolerate hugs, hair-washing, and other touch experiences without difficulty. Tactile play can help kids learn to tolerate different tactile experiences – different textures on their skin, sticky sensations, warm or cold sensations, and more!
While it’s important to know about and talk about the tactile system, when our discussions about “sensory play” stop at sensory tables, slimes, and doughs, we fall short of capturing the whole picture of sensory processing.
If we only use the word “sensory” when we’re talking about tactile play, it perpetuates a very limited understanding of what sensory processing really is. We risk missing out on creating true, well-rounded sensory play opportunities for kids that allow exposure to all of the sensory systems.
And it’s exactly this kind of whole-body, sensory-rich play that contributes to healthy overall development for kids.
The “Other” Senses
Everyone knows about the 5 senses (sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste), but not everyone is aware of another significant component of sensory processing…movement!
That’s right – movement is a sensory experience! Play activities that stimulate the proprioceptive system and vestibular system are integral components of healthy development for kids and contribute to everything from balance and visual skills to attention and behavior.
Proprioception refers to the way joints and muscles send messages to the brain to help coordinate movement. This sense allows us to grade our movements, using more or less force depending on what the situation requires. The proprioceptive system helps us coordinate our bodies to move efficiently and accurately without even having to look.
The vestibular system is centered in the inner ear. When we move, this system provides us with information about the position of our heads in space. The vestibular system allows us to keep our balance and to move smoothly. It helps us feel confident moving and interacting with our surroundings.
A Challenge to Our Readers…
We want to challenge you to think outside the box of the traditional 5 senses (sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste) to include movement in your conversations and plans surrounding sensory play for kids.
Use sensory bins, doughs, slimes, and putty to appeal to the tactile system and to provide interventions to kids who need some extra work with the tactile system…but don’t let your sensory play end there!
10 Sensory-Rich Play Ideas for Kids
Try some of these sensory play activities to engage the vestibular system, the proprioceptive system, and more! Most importantly – refer to and talk about these activities as what they truly are – “sensory play”!
Sensory play means a whole lot more than just getting your hands messy. The more we broaden our understanding, definition, and discussions about “sensory play”, the better we can provide a wide variety of diverse sensory experiences for kids – play experiences that build engagement and foster healthy development.