Sensory Play for Babies and Toddlers
Sensory Play for Babies and Toddlers
December 10, 2019

Sensory Play for Babies and Toddlers

Sensory Play for Babies and Toddlers

If you’ve spent time exploring Pinterest lately or scrolled through Instagram before bed, checking out the latest and greatest from your favorite parent influencers, you’ve likely come across a widespread (and possibly somewhat intimidating) trend: sensory play.

But what is sensory play, exactly? Why is it so important for babies and toddlers? Do you really have time to add it to your already much-too-long list of important parenting to-dos? And how long is it going to take to clean it all up?

Don’t panic, because although it may sound complicated—and a little bit messy—it turns out that sensory play is actually pretty simple—and pretty awesome. We sat down with one of our favorite parents, Lizzie Assa, MsEd and the creator of the popular website and IG account The Workspace for Children, to talk all things sensory play. Combining her passion for play, art, and parenting, Lizzie offers tips and resources to parents, teachers and caregivers through her blog and social channels—and she’s a great inspiration to help you get your creative juices flowing if you want to get started with sensory play.

Sensory Play 101

Sensory bins and water tables and finger paints, oh my. Here are the need-to-knows around sensory play and why it can be such a great developmental tool for your baby and toddler.

What is sensory play?

Sensory play is any kind of play that stimulates the senses, according to Assa.

Play that stimulates a baby or toddler’s sense of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing would all fall under the category of sensory play. Body awareness and balance are two other less commonly talked about senses that would also be included.

What are the benefits of sensory play? Why is sensory play important?

“During sensory play, children learn using all of their sensory receptors,” Lizzie explains. “In plain English? That means they have about a million opportunities to learn!”

Sensory play has a ton of amazing benefits for kids of all ages; here are some of the biggies:

  • Improving fine motor skills. From learning how to write to figuring out how to zip a coat, fine motor skills are integral to your little one’s development. Engaging in sensory play is a great way for your child to practice and develop these important skills, says Assa.
  • Mastering real-life tasks. Want to teach your child how to button their own coat and tie their own shoes? Sensory play can help. Things like pouring rainbow rice over a large tub, for example, is great practice for eventually teaching your kiddo how to pour their own glass of juice in the morning.
  • Boosting math skills. Sensory play + math = a great combination. When young children scoop and dump, Lizzie says, they’re also practicing estimating and experimenting with concepts of weight and volume. And the best part? They’re having too much fun to even notice.
  • Inspiring open-ended, child-led learning. “When children engage in sensory play, they are storytelling and delving deep into imaginary play. They’re engaging in child-led learning—and in my opinion, that’s the best kind!”

What’s the best time to start sensory play-based activities with my child?

Sensory play starts sooner than you may think, according to Assa. “Your baby is already engaged in sensory play from day one. When they are swaddled in your arms and you sing or chat softly, your baby is taking it in and using their senses. When you bathe your little one, they’re engaged in sensory play and learning,” she says.

She points out that it’s helpful to be aware of these rich sensory experiences that take place every single day. As your little one grows into toddlerhood, you can build on those experiences with simple sensory play opportunities that you create yourself.

How to Set Up a Sensory Play Space

There are a few things to keep in mind when delving into sensory play:

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Use what you have.

“My best advice to those just starting out is to keep it simple,” says Lizzie. “In this world of Instagram and Pinterest, sensory play has become way more complicated than it needs to be, often leading parents and caregivers to feel overwhelmed. Here’s the thing…you already have the basic items you need to engage your child in sensory play at home without buying a single thing,” she says.

Five Easy Sensory Play Activities for Babies and Toddlers

There are countless options for sensory play activities that will keep your little one learning and entertained (and maybe even give you an extra 10 minutes to finally finish that coffee you’ve been sipping all morning). Here are a few of Assa’s easy favorites:

  • A bin with a few bowls of water and scoops is fantastic for young babies. As your baby gets older, you can add more water and eventually some baby shampoo and dinos/cars/dolls etc.
  • Dry cereal also makes a great base for a sensory bin with babies and toddlers, as do oats and rice. Just dump some in a bin with scoops and bowls! (And never leave your little one unsupervised while playing, of course.)
  • Playdough—either homemade or store-bought. For older toddlers, add some dowels and beads or feathers and gems.
  • Are you cleaning out your cupboards? Dump an old box of dry pasta in a large mixing bowl. Put the bowl in a shallow bin with a few smaller pots or bowls, and add scoops or tongs.
  • Painting is a great sensory experience for all children. Feeling intimidated by the mess? Stick your child in the shower or tub and hang a large piece of paper on the wall. Offer them a few plastic cups of paint and brushes, and let them go to town. When they’re finished you can hose everyone and everything down.

And although you don’t need to rush out and buy a thing to get started with sensory play, there are a few items you may want to check out if you think sensory play is going to be a regular part of your routine.

A simple plastic under-the-bed bin makes a great catch-all container for sensory play. “It’s shallow enough for little arms to reach, but has deep enough sides to catch the mess,” Lizzie points out.

Lizzie also loves this IKEA table for indoor sensory play. It’s affordable and won’t take up a ton of real estate—just be sure to add the storage bins to your order.

In terms of supplies, clay and paints are two basics that have lots of different uses in sensory play. Washable paint is a great choice as it doesn’t stain and is non-toxic.

And last, but definitely not least, don’t forget a big drop cloth or mat for easier clean up. You can use an old sheet or towel you already own, or purchase a mat—just make sure it’s washable.

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