Do finger painting, glitter art and play dough strike your heart with fear? Do you imagine play dough smushed into the fibers of your rug, paint smeared on your counters and floors, glitter in hair and on clothes? There are lots of ways to circumvent our fear of mess and still engage our children in creative sensory play. But by far the best way is to take it outside! Spring is the perfect time to tackle all of those projects that look like so much fun—and so much work to clean up.
The benefits of sensory play are myriad, and well-researched. Looking for something other than screen time to keep your child occupied for a good chunk of time? Help calm and soothe an agitated child? Boost brain development? Engage as many of his senses as possible.
Sensory play boosts development on every level. Cognitively, it promotes problem-solving skills and helps create an understanding of how the world works. Imagine trying to explain the concept of melting to a child without letting them hold a melting ice cube. Children learn the properties of matter, compare big and small objects, how much water is needed to get sand to stick together—all through their senses.
Physically, children can strengthen fine motor skills through manipulating materials, pouring, scooping and sifting, among other things. They use gross motor skills for water play and other activities that engage their whole bodies—running, jumping and dancing, to name a few.
Sensory play can give children the opportunity to develop and refine the use of their five senses. It’s a chance to play together, provide stress relief, develop hand-eye coordination, and tap into their creativity. It is worth the trouble when we consider how much kids of all ages reap from the opportunity to get messy—especially when we can hose them down at the end!
A playbook for the senses
Sensory play doesn’t require expensive materials or talent on the part of parents (thank goodness). Think of the five senses: touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste. Any activity that involves and engages the senses—the more the better—qualifies. Here are a few ideas for activities to try outdoors:
Touch: Play dough or cloud dough can me made easily and inexpensively. Add food coloring or essential oils for scent. Water play, sand play and shaving cream can be lots of fun, or try something different and freeze small toys in plastic containers full of water. Give children spoons, salt and a little water to work on excavating the toys.
Sight: Finger painting is always a hit. Tape a big piece of paper to a fence, or even on the floor, and allow kids to paint the paper—and maybe themselves, too. Blowing bubbles stimulates sight, and chasing them uses touch and movement. Sidewalk chalk is another great way to use color outside.
Smell: Go on a “smelly walk,” and become aware of the many scents in your yard or neighborhood. Wet grass, jasmine, coffee roasting, a neighborhood bakery … what other scents can you find?
Hearing: Outside is a great place to beat a drum or experiment with singing voices. Listen for the sounds of birds singing and insects buzzing, the wind in the trees, music from a festival or a school band practicing; see how many sounds you can distinguish.
Taste: Colorful snowballs and popsicles provide a wonderful sensory experience involving touch, taste and sight!
Sarah Keith, LPC-S, is a parent educator at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital.