Ask An OT: What is Sensory Play?

November 6, 2019
Ask An OT: What is Sensory Play?


What is sensory play and why is it important?


Sensory play is an activity that stimulates the senses. This includes the senses of touch, smell, sight, taste, sound, as well as vestibular (sense of balance) and proprioceptive (sense of where the body is in space). Play is central to a child’s development and provides an opportunity for problem solving and mastering new skills. Exploration through touching, tasting, smelling, and pulling objects apart are the bases for the development of play skills. Since a young child learns most through sensory and physical activity, it is important that they are exposed to a wide variety of learning opportunities.

Outdoor play is the original ‘sensory’ or ‘messy’ play where numerous sounds, smells, sights, and feelings encircle a child. A child can experience sensory stimulation through natural play such as grass, sand, dirt water, plants, and fresh air. This type of environment provides a child with the opportunity to explore, question, and to contrast their own knowledge and theories about how things work. Playing in a natural environment provides sensory experiences and motor development that is not available in the classroom or traditional playgrounds. Additionally, behaviours such as shouting, running, climbing are all allowed!

Sensory activities facilitate exploration and naturally encourage a child to use scientific process to play, create, investigate and explore. The more senses we use when we are learning something, the more likely we are to remember and recall the information later. Not only are the senses stimulated, motor skills, language skills and social skills are simultaneously learnt.

Sensory activities can also allow a child to refine their thresholds for different sensory information. When designing a sensory play activity for a child, it is important to take into consideration not only about the learning, but also the child’s tolerance. For example, for a child who craves more stimulation, try using scented playdough, adding small figurines or beads into the play dough, or use finger paint instead of a paintbrush. For a child who is overly sensitive, wear gloves or put different coloured paints into a sealable plastic bag so colours can still be mixed and moved without the child ever having to get paint on their hands.

By providing opportunities to explore in different ways, we can help a child to identify what they like and dislike and determine how they learn best. A sensory rich environment can also help benefit a child with behaviour challenges. A child may stay focused on an activity for a longer period of time because their sensory needs are met, or it may provide a calming environment to help a child regulate (for example use massage, aromatherapy, music, a mood lamp and/or a tent).

In reality, sensory experiences can present challenges. For example, sensory materials such as sand, water, shaving cream, and chalk are “messy,” musical instruments are “noisy,” and cooking can be “dangerous.” However, avoiding experiences because they take time, are too messy, or require supervision means strong learning opportunities for a young child are not provided. It is important to always supervise messy play, be aware of overstimulation (e.g. flashing lights for some children can be over-arousing), and make sure the play is developmentally appropriate (e.g. be mindful of choking hazards, and toxic substances that can be ingested).


Some more examples of sensory play are found on this website