As your child grows, they naturally begin to investigate the world around them with senses that are bursting with vibrant sounds, textures and colors. The exploratory ability of your little one is at its peak, and sensory play for toddlers is the most important developmental experience a parent can provide for them.
In this post, we dive into why sensory play matters and how parents can put it into practice!
What is Sensory Play?
Sensory play is any activity that engages those tingling senses and encourages your toddler to develop gross and fine motor skills and cognitive skills, like speech and socialization. Ideally, these are activities you can share with your child, and because every experience is fresh and new, nearly anything active that engages their senses is a worthwhile and enriching opportunity for sensory development.
Examples of sensory play are usually very simple, but can be easy to overlook. Things like stacking Tupperware on the kitchen floor while you make lunch. Or the two of you taking a minute to play with a piece of cheese together, feel its shape, and taste it. These little interactions create valuable imprints for their senses of taste, touch, sight, and smell.
How things interact with one another, especially with their own body, presents little ones with new possibilities for their growing hands and minds. Even listening to music as they go to sleep is evolving the sensory skills of your little Mozart (especially if they can play with that fuzzy white wig!).
Most importantly, these activities empower your child to explore, experiment, and take the initiative for creativity and inquisitive play in the new environments they are able to engage with their developing bodies. That’s why sensory play, for toddlers in particular, is a vital component of a child’s healthy and happy upbringing.
Examples of Sensory Activities
- Experimenting with blocks
- Playing with food (Yes! Now is the time!)
- Listening to music (Mozart for Babies is a frequent favorite with both parents and kids)
- Swirling sand a sandbox
- Squishing art clay
All of these activities are enhanced when you do them together— enjoy getting a little messy bonding with your toddler!
Two Important Sensory Activity Categories
If you’re into science, you’ll love the official names for two very important categories of sensory play that are often glossed over in early childhood development: proprioceptive and vestibular. It’s a lot of syllables, but these terms are simply big buckets to help parents understand and provide a healthy spectrum of sensory play for toddlers.
Proprioceptive activities are anything that teaches your little one how their body interacts with things. Activities that push, pull, manipulate, throw, and move things around are all proprioceptive activities. Basically, if your child is learning how they can use their body to change the world, that’s proprioceptive.
Vestibular activities are activities that teach children how to maintain balance on those new little legs that are running all over the house now. Vestibular activities are critical to a toddler’s development of risk management and problem solving.
If you’re reaching for a crayon on the table, how far can you lean before you topple over onto the carpet? How do I step up onto a chair if I want to reach something? All of these activities are hugely important sensory play for toddlers developing healthy physical and cognitive parameters.
Best Practices for Sensory Play
Naturally, any time that we’re letting our kiddos get some hands-on experience, it’s good to have some structure in places. Here are some tried-and-true thoughts from real parents and experts about how to provide the best sensory play for toddlers.
The best toys are already in your house! It’s easy for families to end up with a house full of plastic brand name toys, all of which are advertised as being sensory friendly and can cost a pretty penny. However, most parents don’t realize that the best sensory objects are probably sitting in their kitchen cabinets and drawers! Tupperware is excellent, and various spoons and bowls are safe and create experiences in their real environment.
Start early, start slow: “Expose your child to movement early,” says Allie, an occupational therapist specializing in early-childhood sensory integration. A slow, short-duration introduction to sensory play teaches your young one emotional regulation while engaging in sensory activities.
It’s a big world out there: Spending time outside is one of the most rewarding sensory experiences a young child can have. Not only will they be learning about nature, but they will be exposed to a vast and diverse world of colors, sounds, scents, and objects with which to interact!
Little Partners: A Story of Sensory Enrichment
Little Partners has made it our mission to help expand and enrich sensory play for toddlers with a wide assortment of safe, engaging, and environmentally sustainable line of Learning Towers, easels, art centers, step stools, and climbing and balance toys. Our story began when our founder, Carol Gamble, designed what would become the Original Learning Tower to help her toddler-age daughter Hanna engage more fully and independently with her environment.
The Learning Tower is an adjustable platform that allows your child to safely engage with all those spaces in your home where you spend time that they aren’t quite able to reach with you. Kitchen countertops, tables, and beds are all rich environments for meaningful and diverse sensory play for toddlers, and the Learning Tower opens up all these parent-height spaces for the two of you to connect, experience, and grow together. Plus, the sleek design looks modern no matter where it’s placed in the house!