If you’ve visited a Montessori classroom before, you likely saw kids playing with play-doh, rice, or slime. This is called sensory play. It is a form of hands-on fun that's all about stimulating a child's five senses – sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch.
Why? Because immersing their senses is how children experience the world around them and learn things. Sensory play is unstructured, and all you need to do is provide play opportunities and sensory toys.
What Are Sensory Toys?
Sensory toys encourage play that engages one, two, or more senses. They are designed to offer kids a fun and easy route to engaging their senses.
Sensory toys look different at every stage of child development and engage a child’s attention differently. For example, infant sensory toys are more geared toward sound and sight. Baby sensory toys make some kind of interesting noise – think shakers and crinkle paper – and come in very vibrant colors.
As a child grows out of infancy, their sensory toys move towards touch, smell, and taste. Kids between about six months and three years put stuff in their mouths and try to manipulate everything with their hands. They are learning tastes, textures, smells, and movements. The toys at this stage include non-toxic teethers, blocks, bumpy balls, water mats, and rollers.
With time when you deem it safe, you can allow the child to play with sand, playdough, slime, toothpaste, and foam.
How Sensory Toys Benefit Your Baby
Playing with sensory toys helps to lay the foundation for many skills your baby will learn in subsequent years. For example, their ability to listen, read, write, and solve problems of any kind will be determined by how sensory play opportunities in infancy.
Here are some specific benefits of sensory toys.
1. Brain Development
Recent studies now show that brain development, motor skills, and sensory perception should be challenged or stimulated from birth onwards. While a baby will still grow and learn things without sensory play, stimulating and encouraging development using sensory toys makes the process much faster. Sensory play aids neural processes and promotes cognitive and emotional development.
2. Developing Cognitive Skills
As the neural processes grow strong, so do your child's cognitive skills. Cognitive development encompasses core brain skills like memory, concentration, problem-solving, creativity, reading/learning, reason, attention, and more. With exposure to sensory play, infants can start to build these cognitive skills immediately after birth.
A recent study shows that we use our sensory memory to understand and gain knowledge. Through sensory play, babies store their physical, emotional, and mental experiences in their sensory memory. This is why people will often suggest that sensory toys can make kids smarter.
3. Developing Gross and Fine Motor Skills
As your baby tries to play and manipulate their sensory toys, they develop fine and gross motor skills. The former refers to the ability to coordinate the smallest muscle groups responsible for writing, tying your shoelaces, and holding a spoon. On the other hand, gross motor skills deal with bigger muscles responsible for walking, jumping, running, and balance.
4. Encourage Awareness
Active sensory play helps kids develop a sense of awareness for their surroundings. For example, training a child to hear particular sounds helps them to differentiate other sounds. They will know which sounds are useful or worth paying attention to and what to filter out.
5. Sensory Toys are Comforting
Sensory toys help regulate a child’s inner discomfort – brought about by boredom or frustration. They can become a bonding play item between you and your child as well as a calming agent when the child needs to sleep.
How Do Sensory Toys Stimulate Babies?
Sensory toys stimulate a baby’s system in different ways;
Visual toy Light up/flash toys and glow toys stimulate color receptors and allow your child to learn how to focus. Visual play also develops your child’s vision and sight.
Auditory toys. Music, chimes, rattles, and crinkly toys help your child differentiate sounds and develop hearing. The sounds these toys make may not be so pleasing to adults, but they are to kids.
Olfactory and taste sensory play. Olfactory refers to the sense of smell but it’s also related to taste. You may not know exactly when the child is using their sense of smell or taste, but it develops the more they are exposed to games and toys encouraging those two senses. Good examples are when the child is smelling flowers or chewing something.
Vestibular sensory play. Swinging, rolling around, and jumping help with balance. The sense of balance and movement is located in the vestibular system which is inside the inner ear. Moving a child’s head into different positions strengthens the vestibular system.
How Do I Choose Sensory Toys?
There's a lot to consider when choosing sensory toys for your child. First is your child's age.
Newborns: rattles, activity gyms, board books, crinkle paper
6-month-old: plush toys with a variety of textures, musical toys, sensory balls
1-year-old: shape sorting toys, musical instruments, bristle blocks
2 and 3-year-olds: kinetic sand, water play, musical instruments
Remember to think about safety. If you are buying teethers and other chewing toys, go for non-toxic materials that can't chip off due to chewing. For children under three, make sure toys don’t include parts that are small enough to present a choking hazard.
You’ll want to consider cost as well. Buying a lot of toys can put a kink in any family budget. Luckily, used sensory toys purchased from a trustworthy local consignment shop, or online at Toycycle, are safe and affordable.