In honor of Play in the Sand Day, I thought I would address the topic that is on everyone’s hot list right now: Sensory Play.

What exactly is sensory play? Well, of course it involves touching objects of various textures, but we all know that there are more senses than simply touch.  Sensory play also involves smell, taste, sight, hearing, movement and balance. Anything can really be considered sensory play.  If you decide to take your child outside on the grass to read a book, that in itself can be sensory play.  You’re in a different environment, exposed to different smells, sights, textures, etc.

Sensory play can also involve your typical “sensory bins” – bins filled with rice, beans, or water beads. You can add cars, trucks and/or use sand tools to the bins. Your child can play in these bins with only their hands, or sometimes, if the bin is big enough, they can fit their whole body into the bin.

Go ahead, take your child to the playground and let them play in the sand box. Yes, they will get sand in almost every crevice you can think of, but they will also be exposed to such wonderful sensations and opportunities for exploration of different environments. Why do you think kids love ball pits so much? They are in a new, fun environment, receiving sensory input from all around them (each ball provides its own unique sensory input involving touch, body awareness, color, etc).

I remember working with a client once in my clinic while my 2 young nieces were with me. This particular client did not like to get his hands dirty so I decided to whip out the shaving cream and enlisted my nieces to assist me with this sensory play.  Before we knew it, there was shaving cream EVERYWHERE. And I mean everywhere – on all the pillows, on the floor, on the table where we sat. But guess what? The client participated and did not show any hesitation to playing with this fluffy, unusual substance. He was having such a great time with the activity that he forgot about the fact that his hands were not ‘clean’.

I’ll be honest…sensory play is messy. It’s just something you have to accept. Items being played with will get everywhere, and on everything. So before you present your child with a sensory bin filled with sand in your living room, think about the cleanup and where a more fitting area to play with that toy may be.

In addition to simple exposure to new textures and environments, sensory play can be great for picky eaters. Not everyone allows their children to play with their food at meal time, and that’s ok. But for some children, being presented with a new food or new shape of food (spaghetti instead of bowtie pasta) can be overwhelming.

Sometimes, allowing a child to play with cold cooked spaghetti in an environment other than at the dinner table or in their high chair can better acclimate the child to this new substance.  Suddenly this weird, slimy, wet thing isn’t so scary anymore. The sensory play has allowed your child to understand more about this substance and its texture which in turn may allow them to engage with the food on their plate the next time it is presented to them.

There is a time and place for everything. There is nothing that says you can’t have rules and boundaries when engaging in sensory play. In fact, I highly recommend you set up some boundaries during these fun times – this allows a child to engage in fun but still be in control. Two main rules we have here regarding sensory bins: #1. Sensory bins DO NOT get dumped out; #2. We DO NOT eat items in the sensory bin. I have rules at home regarding sensory play with my daughter. When we play with dirt and mud, we play with it outside and we can play with it for as long as she’d like (given we have the time). But everything gets washed off before we return inside. Rules allow for structured, messy play. I know it sounds like an oxymoron (structured mess) but it does provide opportunities for exposure to new sensations while maintaining control of the activity and situation.

Kids love to get messy. They innately love to explore their environments, squish their hands through the mud, feel the water coming out of the waterfall and walk barefoot on the grass. Allow your child to participate in these experiences. Allow them to investigate and explore. You’ll be amazed at what they will discover and share with you. 🙂