Sensory play is fun and good for your child’s development. But what if I told you sensory play is also good for the development of your relationship with your child?
This post is part of the Happy New Year, Healthy Kids series being hosted by the awesome therapists of The Inspired Treehouse, a series where 20 child development bloggers from several different professions weigh in with their best tips for raising happy, healthy kids!
Maybe you already know that sensory play can be good for the development of your relationship with your child. Or maybe this is a new concept for you. Either way, there are a few things you need to know in order to get the most out of building your relationship and connecting with your child through sensory play.
First, I want to make sure you have a basic yet accurate understanding of what “sensory” really is. Then, and only then, can we talk about what “sensory play” is and how it can be used to connect with your child.
Basically, our senses helps us make sense of what’s going on in our bodies and in the world around us. Our body has many different ways in which it takes in sensory information. Hopefully we’ve all heard of the classic five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing, and vision. But did you know there are two other “hidden” senses that play a HUGE role in our body’s ability to function and make sense of the world?
One “hidden” sense you may not have heard of is proprioception – this gives us our sense of body/limb awareness as sensory messages travel from the muscles and joints all over our body, right up to the brain. Even tiny muscles connected to small body parts like our fingers and eyes can send messages of proprioception to the brain. I like to refer to proprioception as the “stretch and compress” sense because it is activated when we are actively engage in activities that, yep, stretch and compress our muscles and joints. Some basic examples of activities that involve proprioception are crawling, climbing, pulling, pushing, and hanging. As therapists, we know that proprioceptive input tends to be calming, organizing, and grounding. Learn more about proprioception.
The other “hidden” sense I want to bring up that may be new to you is the vestibular sense – this gives us our sense of balance and motion as sensory messages travel from the inner ear right on over to the brain. It is activated by the downward force of gravity, as well as any time we move our head through space. Vestibular processing contributes to our understanding of balance, movement (including telling us when we’re dizzy), and spatial awareness/where we are in space (sitting upright or leaning sideways, forward, backwards, or upside down). The vestibular system is a very complicated yet powerful sensory system, and there are actually different types of vestibular input depending on what direction or angle your body is moving. Vestibular input can produce a variety of responses. It can be calming, organizing, alerting, or disorganizing depending on the type of movement and the sensitivity of the individual. Some basic examples of activities that involve the vestibular system are swinging, rolling, running, jumping, and going upside down. In reality, many activities involve both proprioceptive and vestibular input, such as jumping on a trampoline, swinging across the monkey bars, riding a bike, or rolling down a hill. Learn more about the vestibular system.
Okay, so we’ve talked about how “sensory” involves the seven senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and vision, PLUS the proprioceptive and vestibular senses.
Now let’s talk about “sensory play.”
What is “sensory play”? Well, I think I would define it as play that involves active and engaged use of the senses. I would even go a step further and say that most types of sensory play are actually “multisensory” play — they engage more than one sense at a time. Think of childhood activities like playing in a sandbox, riding a bike, jumping on a trampoline, or splashing in a pool. They are all play activities that involve active and engaged use of more than one sensory system, right? That’s pretty awesome.
So we know that “sensory” refers to the seven sensory systems, and we know “sensory play” refers to play activities that involve active and engaged use of those sensory systems.
I guess it’s time to apply all of this and learn how to connect with your child through sensory play!
There was a post written on a therapy blog called “Twodaloo” almost exactly one year ago today, where a mom named Sarah shared her story of how she has been able to use sensory play as a means of connecting with her son who has been diagnosed with Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, and ADHD.
Sarah reflected on the first time she discovered the calming effects of sensory play on her son when, at 12 months of age, he found his way into a silo filled with corn, and he happily sat in it and played. “All of a sudden,” she shared, “I had found a key to a lock that had remained a mystery. We were given the chance to play together. From there, we added a rice bin, a sand bin, water play, and so on. The important thing was, we were engaging as mother/son for really the first time. Our sensory play gave us the opportunity to exchange words, looks, feelings and more. His language blossomed as well as his hand/eye coordination. He found his own toys to add and new ways to play. I watched, I studied, I observed the changes in him and continued to find new sensory play materials to entice him.”
Does that not tug at your heartstrings? Read Sarah’s full guest post on Twodaloo here.
Play in general has a tendency to connect people, but sensory play adds a whole new element compared to simply playing Barbie or Batman.
In my perspective, you can use sensory play to connect with your child in at least five ways:
- Proximity – Whether you are digging through a bucket of dry beans, crawling through a tunnel, or making mud pies, the fact is you are doing it TOGETHER. Supervising for safety. Getting your hands on the same materials. Being involved in the same activity. That’s kind of the first step to connecting through sensory play, isn’t it? Being in the same place at the same time?
- Opportunities for eye contact – Eye contact is one of the most basic ways to connect with other people. Sensory play gives you the chance to get down at your child’s level and connect with them through eye contact during activities like pushing them on a swing, catching them as they jump in the pool, or sitting at the table or on the floor to explore materials such as play dough or scented slime.
- Opportunities for sensory organization – Certain types of sensory play can be “organizing” for kids who struggle with sensory processing, such as proprioception (climbing, crashing), deep touch (bear hugs, being wrapped like a burrito with a blanket), and rhythmic vestibular input (swinging, teeter totter). For kids who struggle with having too high a level of arousal (like their “engine” is running too fast), too short of an attention span, or too low a level of arousal (like their “engine” is running too slow), these sensory play activities can unlock a child’s ability to be “available” for interaction and engagement. That’s awesome.
- Opportunities for developing language – What do you do when you engage in sensory play with your child? You talk, don’t you? And when you talk (and listen, and wait) during sensory play, it gives you the opportunity to connect. Twodaloo has a great post on how engaging in sensory play with your child can help expand their vocabulary, pretend play, and social language skills.
- Developing trust and making memories – Sensory play provides opportunities for building your relationship with those kiddos who love exploring new things, as well as with the ones who may be fearful of or hesitant about new sensory experiences. As an OT, it is so much fun for me to see how parents are connecting with their sensory seekers as they experiment with all sorts of different play ideas (like finding out how much cream is actually in a can of shaving cream…turns out, it’s A LOT!). And with my own little ones, it has been amazing to see how sensory play has given us the chance to develop trust, as they learn that I will not push them past what they are comfortable. That makes those firsts — those moments where they surprise you by poking the play dough, digging their hands in the rice, squeezing the slime, scooping the sand, or going down the slide at the park — all the more memorable.
So what do I want YOU to do with all this?
This year, let’s set aside time each day to connect with our children by engaging in play experiences with them that actively involve their senses.
Remember that it doesn’t have to be “messy” to be sensory play. You can dance, sing, swim, swing, splash, smash, dig, roll, dump, jump, crawl, or play chase with your child. It doesn’t have to happen all day long (because, seriously, how is that realistic?). But my hope is that we can find a way to make sure it happens on a regular basis.
To see all the awesome professionals who have been contributing to the Happy New Year, Healthy Kids series, CLICK HERE!
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