Think of your little one squishing their fingers through the mashed potatoes you served for dinner, smashing pots together and giggling at the bangs, or trying to put every leaf and twig found on a walk directly into their mouth.
These things may seem like just the messy antics of your average toddler, but they actually all have something else in common. Drumroll, please… They’re all sensory experiences!
Wait, we know what you’re thinking: What are sensory experiences, and why is knowing about them important?
We’ve got you covered, with research into their significance in child development and examples of sensory experiences to try with your little one.
Sensory experiences are any activities that help your child learn and develop a greater understanding of the world by using their five senses. These are:
While those are the traditional senses you might think of, your child also learns through a sixth sense that has to do with an awareness of their body in space. This is known as proprioception.
Each day your child (and you!) experience life through the use of these senses.
Using their senses allows your little one to learn and gives them a greater understanding of how things work. It can also help develop connections in their brain and reinforce learning material in multiple ways.
How does this actually look in daily life? Let’s take reading a book together as an example. For young children just learning to read, their senses may be stimulated in the following ways:
- The use of pictures engages their sight.
- They respond to hearing the text aloud as they follow along.
- Books with textures or interactive elements incorporate touch as your child reads.
These simple things can help make the experience richer and more meaningful, while offering your little one additional ways to connect with and recall what they’ve learned.
Beyond just academic learning, sensory experiences can also be useful for teaching everyday life skills. Engaging multiple senses while performing everyday tasks can help a child recall the steps involved. It can also make doing certain tasks more fun!
Interested, but not sure how this would actually look? Singing your little one’s favorite song while putting toys away together is one way you could include multiple senses in an everyday life activity.
You could even have them sort their toys by color or shape as they put them away for more visual fun. This is likely to motivate them to keep at it longer and want to try again in the future. As an added bonus, it won’t cost you anything!
You may be wondering if there can be such a thing as too many sensory experiences. While there’s still a lot of research to be done in this area, there is some evidence that excessive visual sensory stimulation can cause cognitive and behavioral deficits.
This is usually measured in the form of sounds and lights, similar to what children experience when watching television or otherwise interacting with screens. Unfortunately, more research is needed to determine where the line between too much and a beneficial level of this type of stimulation lies.
For now, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting screen time for young children. As of 2016, the AAP advised that children under 18 months old should avoid screen time, other than video chatting.
Even after 18 months, the AAP recommends that only high-quality programming be shown in limited amounts, with an adult present to process the show with the child.
Additionally, you may have heard talk about sensory processing issues.
Some children may avoid sensory experiences. For example, they may show a sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights, reacting strongly to noisy or bright environments. Other children may seek out sensory input; they may always seem to be bumping and crashing into things and people.
More research is needed to understand the causes of this behavior. If you have concerns or questions, you can always work with your child’s doctor.
We use our senses all throughout the day, so it can be easy and fun to add in some activities that inspire sensory learning.
Sensory experiences for morning routines
- If your child is fascinated watching you shave, offer them a little shaving cream of their own on the tile floor, table, counter, or a baking sheet, so they can form letters and draw pictures.
- Does your child need assistance remembering everything they have to do in the a.m.? Help them come up with a song they can sing or a visual chart that can lead them through their morning routine. Want to take this to the next level? Try a memory-jogging dance routine!
- Welcome the morning together by going for a short walk in the sunshine, taking time to smell the flowers, and enjoying the noises of the neighborhood.
Sensory experiences for meals
- Nothing teaches hand-eye coordination like using utensils. The enjoyment your child gets from tasting food they’ve speared themselves can be great motivation.
- Have a child who loves splashing in water? Let them help with washing their own dishes! This is a sensory activity that can also prepare them to be an independent adult someday.
- Even if your child isn’t ready for cutting veggies with a knife just yet, chances are that there’s some aspect of creating the family meal they are ready to help with. The sound of the blender after they’ve hit the power button, the whirl of the mixing machine after they’ve started it, or even the taste of the different fruits in the fruit salad they’ve helped mix can all help cement lessons you teach them while in the kitchen.
- Have an older child? Fractions are a lot more fun to learn (and more memorable!) when being taught by dividing up portions of food or measuring out ingredients for a tasty dessert. (If your child is too young for fractions, you can still work on math during mealtime. Cheerios and other food items make for perfect counting practice items.)
- If you want to reinforce foreign language skills, you might consider playing some music with lyrics in another language while you eat together as a family.
Sensory experiences for bedtime
- Have some glow-in-the-dark star stickers? Consider filling your child’s bedroom wall or ceiling with constellations.
- Have your little one give their softest stuffed animal a big hug goodnight while you sing their favorite bedtime lullaby.
- Help your child develop a concept of time with a color-coded clock system. Whether you want to actually buy a clock that changes colors when it’s time to sleep and wake or just use a night light to signal the beginning and end of rest periods, it’ll visually reinforce the passage of time and the specific time to wake and sleep. (Adding in specific music or sounds along with the visual color cues can reinforce the concept of time in an auditory way, too.)
Like these ideas and want more ways to incorporate sensory play into your child’s life? Check out more sensory play activities for toddlers and preschoolers.
Some of the best things about being alive are the taste of delicious food, the sound of a loved one’s voice, and the feeling of wind blowing through your hair.
What do these things have in common? They’re all examples of sensory experiences that bring forth fond memories and joy.
By purposefully engaging your child’s senses throughout the day, you can expand their brain connections, encourage a deeper understanding of concepts, advance their motor skills, and with any luck bring joyful memories into their lives.
The best part? Doing this doesn’t require a lot of time or a big investment, just some attention to the world around you!