The Value of Sensory Play for the Young Learner

Have you ever observed the sheer delight of a small child that has just discovered the momentous pleasure of stomping in the latest remnants of rainfall? It’s irresistible! It does not matter that this pool of water is dirty, murky, or full of unknown objects. It is an opportunity to explore, experiment, observe, and manipulate — a way for a child to discover the world around him – SENSORY PLAY.

Sensory play is a valuable part of quality early childhood programs. Children are provided with sensory materials used to enhance their 5 senses of touch, sight, taste, smell, and hearing. The use of sensory materials allows children the opportunity for hands-on and self-directed play to encourage the development of the following:

Fine/Gross motor skills- Children are able to improve their fine/gross motor skills through the manipulation of sensory materials – pouring, molding, lifting, carrying, sifting, sorting, etc.
Creativity- Sensory play allows the child to experiment with a large variety of materials in new and creative ways. Uninterrupted play (by adults) allows creativity to flourish. The children are able to use the materials as they see fit and are able to enjoy the process and have no concern for the end product.
Self-esteem– The children build self-confidence and positive self-esteem as they master what they set out to do. They have the opportunity to choose on their own what they plan to do and how they will accomplish it. When their personal goals are achieved, there is a great sense of fulfillment.
Social development– As children interact with each other, they learn to share and cooperate while building their vocabulary. They also learn effective ways to resolve conflicts among each other.
Cognitive development– Children develop their cognitive skills through sensory play by observing, experimenting, and formulating solutions to problems that arise while manipulating the sensory materials. They learn to count, group, sequence, construct, measure, etc.

What can I provide to encourage sensory play?

Sensory materials are often gooey, goopy, slimy, wet, squishy, squashy, messy materials that children enjoy playing with, but parents are squeamish about! Most children only get the opportunity to play with these materials in a childcare setting. Rice, mud, water, play dough, sawdust, dried beans, cotton balls, shaving cream, cornmeal, oatmeal, sea shells, styrofoam peanuts, bubbles, sand, coffee grounds, Jello, aquarium gravel, fall leaves, salt, ice cubes, wood shavings, goop (cornstarch & water mixture), potting soil, marshmallows, whipped cream, pudding, silly putty, clay, confetti, shredded paper, beads, feathers, buttons, pasta, Easter basket grass filler, and bird seed are examples of sensory materials.

A large variety of toys and miscellaneous items should be easily accessible to utilize with the sensory materials to encourage a broader range of play. Miscellaneous items may include measuring cups, measuring spoons, scoops, funnels, egg beaters, shovels, small plastic animals, margarine tubs, strainers, tongs, spoons, strawberry baskets, whisks, sieves, lids, magnets, slotted spoons, rakes, buckets, sand molds, cookie cutters, muffin tins, hoses, ramps, sponges, eye droppers, straws, toilet paper tubes, aquarium nets, etc.

Keep an eye out in our newsletters and in the classrooms. ELC teachers love to provide sensory materials. These items are always used in our Sand & Water Class (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday) and in the Sensory Center in each of the classrooms.

Core content taken from “Discovering Our World Through Sensory” Play by Rhonda Yeager

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