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Kids need sensory play

When today’s parents were children, much of the play they engaged in would be considered “sensory play” by today’s definition.

“Play is happening differently than when today’s parents were children,” says Jen Bush, director of education at the Delaware Children’s Museum in Wilmington, DE. “There is not as much outside play for various reasons. But children still need sensory experiences. Parents and educators are thinking outside the box to give opportunities for sensory play.”

Sensory play uses the senses to enrich the cognitive, social, emotional and physical environment, says occupational therapist Jennifer Ford of Fox Pediatric Therapy in Cherry Hill, NJ. An example of sensory play is going barefoot in a creek to search for odd objects and then building a hideout back home where the collected treasures can be enjoyed. Games like whisper-down-the-lane, jacks and hopscotch also engage the senses, as do helping with cooking or baking.

Sensory play and special needs

For children with special needs, sensory play can be as challenging as it is important. Here are things that parents and caregivers can do:

• Understand your child’s sensory preferences or difficulties. Does your child prefer certain textures? Is your child hypersensitive to loud noises?

• Create an environment that will be helpful and adaptive rather than jarring or upsetting. Try to layer in experiences that the child might be tempted to avoid.

• Encourage outdoor play, where sensory play thrives.

• Seek advice from professionals (your child’s doctor, occupational therapist or teachers).

Leslie Rapsey, curriculum specialist for Hildebrandt Learning Center, headquartered in Dallas, PA says sensory play is important because “children begin their lives gathering data through their senses.” Sensory play is a natural extension of a child’s learning process.

Preschool sensory play

“It is now pretty typical in preschools and even at the kindergarten level to make use of exploration time,” says Ford. Rapsey notes that a sensory center, which provides open-ended access to sensory play, is a common, research-proven part of most early education classrooms. Parents will recognize the results of sensory play “from the stuff coming home,” says Ford. Look for artwork like finger painting or that makes use of materials such as sand, cotton balls, leaves or dirt.

An environment with inadequate sensory experiences, Ford explains, could involve structured activities without exploration, activities with limited textures or kids sitting at a table for long periods without changing positions. At home, this might include kids playing with electronic devices  or watching TV for extended periods of time.

Sensory play at home

“A sensory table can be a plastic bin filled with sand, rice, beans or water beads,” says Bush. She provides these additional suggestions for home sensory play activities. 

Treasure hunt. Hide  colored stones, plastic bugs or animals. Ask kids to count, identify shapes and classify objects. Older kids can create graphs, showing which categories include the most objects.

Transfer station. Make sensory play more interesting by having kids use tongs, chop sticks, tweezers or spoons to move objects of various textures. Colorful pom-poms and cotton balls require extra attention and allow for practice of fine motor skills like the pincer grasp, an important pre-writing skill.

Jo Rizzo is a local freelance writer.

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