Why is sensory development important?

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We are surrounded by baby classes that promise to provide sensory stimulation for your baby but what is sensory play all about and why is it important?

Sensory play is, quite simply, any activity that stimulates the senses. This includes the five main senses of touch, smell, sight, taste, and sound, as well as the two not-as-frequently-mentioned senses: vestibular (sense of balance) and proprioceptive (sense of where each body part is in relation to the rest). Obviously, just about any activity a child engages in will stimulate at least one or more senses. But some types of play will be more stimulating to the senses than others.

We all know from experience that not all children enjoy the same activities, some will find too many sensory activities over-stimulating and it is also important not to force your child to do things that they don’t enjoy. Some children for example will LOVE messy play whereas others will simply not be able to cope with the level of sensory stimulation to which they are being exposed. Consider the number of senses that are being stimulated during some messy play, for example, playing with wet, sticky mud: taste, smell, sight, touch and often sound as well, this could result in some children feeling totally overloaded whilst other children will be revelling in the experience.

At birth, a child’s senses are not fully developed. Instead, they develop over time as children engage with the world around them. This means that babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers learn about the world by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, hearing, and moving their bodies, Maria Montessori who developed so many of the Early Years teaching tools that are still used in schools today was famed for saying “Children are sensorial explorers”. They literally explore the world around them using all of their senses.

Because young children’s senses are still developing, each new sensory experience builds neural pathways that grow the architecture of the brain. The brain growth that occurs through sensory play enhances children’s senses, and their enhanced senses in turn make them better able to use those senses for learning. For example, as children engage with various textures, they learn which ones are rough vs. smooth, which ones are hard vs. soft, and which ones are wet vs. dry. This awareness is a first step in learning to classify and sort objects

The benefits of sensory play are numerous

  • Language skills – children develop their language skills, including new vocabulary, as they talk about their experiences
  • Social skills – children who engage in sensory experiences alongside others learn to share, negotiate, and plan
  • Fine motor skills – as children manipulate small objects, they develop their fine motor skills
  • Gross motor skills – children develop gross motor skills by squatting, jumping, or otherwise moving their bodies
  • Dramatic play skills – children frequently use sensory materials to engage in dramatic play such as by “baking cakes” or “building roads”
  • Scientific reasoning skills – children learn about cause and effect when manipulating sensory materials
  • Self-control skills – children develop self-control as they learn to respect the rules and boundaries for sensory play

How can we encourage sensory development?

The greatest thing about sensory play is that it does not have to be expensive or something that has to be done in a special class – any play that your baby or child does is stimulating their senses in a variety of ways. As you can see from the bullet-point list above, everything on the list can happen naturally and at the baby’s own pace.

Babies will naturally gravitate towards play that excites them and uses their senses – for example shaking a rattle or feeling different textures. It’s not something that needs to be done in a formal way, and for younger babies especially, daily life itself is more than stimulating enough. If you think about what a baby experiences when you take them outside in the garden, how all their senses are stimulated by the sights, sounds, sensation of the breeze on their skin, the different smells. All this information is going in and being processed by the brain, developing new neural pathways and learning from those experiences.

Babies are also highly stimulated by watching other people. They love to watch older children play and they will also be learning a lot just from being around people of any age, hearing talking, watching facial expressions, and enjoying the sensations of being lifted up, cuddled or carried around. Don’t underestimate how important the sense of touch is to a baby – they need physical contact much more than they need to play with a toy or be shown a bubble maker or pretty lights.

Overstimulation is something we talk about a lot, especially in Munchkins classes, and it’s easy to see why babies find it all a bit much, when you imagine that almost every experience is brand new to them. Think about how tiring travelling can be, especially if you go to a very different place or culture. You feel bombarded with new sights, sounds, and smells, and even if you enjoy it, it can still feel a bit overwhelming and after a while you might be yearning for something familiar to help you feel secure. Your brain is working really hard to process all this new information, and as adults we have a huge bank of data already there, so we can understand that even if a situation is a bit different to what we are used to, we can still liken it to experiences we have already had.

Sensory overload for an adult

For a baby, every new experience, however innocuous it might seem to us as an adult, is like being dropped onto an alien planet. It’s no wonder they need the comfort of mum and perhaps a bit of time in a darkened room with the white noise on, to help them reconnect with the life they are familiar with from the 9 months they have spent in the womb.

So as with so many things to do with babies, don’t be taken in by companies trying to sell you stuff to stimulate your baby’s senses. It can absolutely be a bit of fun and something nice to do – especially if you enjoy it too, but it’s really not vital to your baby’s development. Babies have been developing for thousands of years just fine without fancy “sensory toys”. Just include your baby in daily life as and when they show an interest.
It’s really important when choosing a baby class to go to one that is tailored to your baby’s stage of development, and don’t be tempted to rush them on with too much too soon, to try and get your baby walking, talking or whatever, faster. They all develop at their own pace and by the time they are at school you wouldn’t have a clue which child was walking at 10 months and which one was 18 months before they took their first steps. What is much more important is to be in tune with your baby and to be responsive to their needs. That’s what will set you up for the best possible relationship and the sensory development will take care of itself.

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