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The Importance of Sensory Play

Our early years children are at a critical stage in their development – they’re constantly discovering new things about themselves and the world around them, and building the foundational skills necessary to support them throughout their lives. We often hear about the importance of sensory/messy play, but what happens when children don’t have enough of that experience, and what are the ramifications in later life?

According to Angela Hanscom (founder of TimberNook – a nature-based development program for children in the US, UK and Canada), children with less sensory play are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, poor problem-solving methods and difficulties with social interactions.

Sensory play helps children develop their seven senses – touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing, vestibular and proprioception. Encouraging children to take part in sensory play exposes children to various stimuli on these senses and helps their brain learn how to process and utilise it. If a child has not had adequate experience with these sensory stimuli, as they get older the senses can overwhelm them and cause issues with concentration and learning.

Photo by Itiel Adams on Unsplash

If a child is distracted or focused on stimuli within their environment, such as bright lights or unusual noises, they may have sensory issues or have even developed Sensory Processing Disorder, meaning their senses are under developed. This means that the sensory signals aren’t being detected or may not be processed or organised into appropriate responses in the child’s brain.

As children get older, this difficulty with processing sensory stimuli can get in the way of academic success or cause poor social skills or behaviour, as their brains struggle to process or block out stimuli that other children have learned to naturally ignore. For example, learning to sit quietly and concentrate can be much harder for children with sensory issues, as small noises we would usually drown out, such as a ticking clock or a tree branch tapping on a window, are much less easy to ignore and potentially very distracting. Additionally, working with other children will be more difficult for children whose social skills are hampered by distractions or clumsiness, making them feel out of place or self-conscious.

This is why making those strong foundations in early years by encouraging children to partake in sensory play as much as possible is so incredibly important. What may just seem like idly playing with bubbles at age three can actually influence successful GCSE grades at age 16.

Photo by Fabian Centeno on Unsplash

It’s important to look out for signs of any difficulties with sensory development in our early years, so we can support the child in catching up with those developmental milestones as soon as they are presented. These can include infants not rolling over, sitting or standing “on schedule” or, for older children, being clumsy or struggling to tie shoelaces.

For more information about sensory play, take a look at That Nursery Life’s articles on Visual Stimulation, Vestibular Sensory Play and Visual Contrast, and don’t forget we have a load of activity plans for sensory play, including gardens, ocean foam, mini Tuff Spots, noisy play and fruit tasting!