How does sensory play build language?

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It’s white and furry, lives where it is very cold and is a type of bear. Can you guess what I am describing? Of course, a polar bear! The descriptive use of words is how we make sense of our world and add definition and meaning to things around us.

For a child, the ability to be able to touch, smell, taste, hear and see different objects is how they learn to develop thoughts, feelings, comparisons and language related to those objects. Research within the educational psychology field tells us that children learn best when they are using several senses at the same time – this is known as “whole body learning”.

How can a child’s understanding of language be developed?

In order for a child to develop their  language and understanding relating to polar bears, for example, you could read stories about them and show pictures or television footage. But, how much more exciting would it be for the child if you did the following:

Put together a sensory play tray  to include such items as toy polar bear, ice, white plastic cups, shredded paper, fishing boats, shaving foam, ping pong balls, water, white/clear stones and other polar animals; allowing the child to create their own Arctic world.

Children will build on the knowledge of what they already know and extend their understanding as they play. Perhaps the cups will become icebergs; the ice cubes an igloo and so on. While this is going on, the children will work together and discuss the different textures in the tray. They will  develop new ways of talking about the world they are imagining. Knowledge can be offered by the adult as they play and in return questions can be asked by the children.

Encouraging discussion

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Children learn best when they are using several senses at the same time

Listening to stories being read aloud will stimulate the imagination of a child and quite often leads to those stories being acted out in play. Story sacks are an excellent way for children to retell their favourite story in their own words. A story sack is normally a large cloth bag which contains a book with some supporting items to stimulate play – like seashells or sequins for “The Rainbow Fish”

You can use many different sensory activities to encourage children to ask questions or think about the words they associate with objects. For example:

  • Touch and feel tubs filled with items like pasta, lentils and rice for children to explore different textures
  • Sound jars filled with items like beads, gravel and sand that children can shake and listen to the noise
  • I-Spy games to encourage children to build up their vocabulary of everyday objects

Social language development

Research also suggests there is a strong link between language and make- believe play. This is also referred to as “symbolic play” in which a child can easily substitute one object for another.

As children play, each of them brings to the table their own knowledge and experience of a subject. Child A may know that polar bears live in the Arctic. Child B may then ask questions about this and decide the shredded paper is lots of snow in the Arctic and the polar bear is buried under the snow. Child C may then suggest getting a digger from the vehicle box to help dig the polar bear out. Together, through sensory interactive play, these children have developed a make -believe scenario, arrived at a conclusion on what should be done next and used a great deal more language than if they just saw a picture of a polar bear!

You can use a mixture of different sensory play activities to help the children in your own setting develop their vocabulary relating to sound, smell and texture. The language they develop as a result of experiencing these activities will help them initiate discussions and learn more about the world around them.

Happy playing!


Lisa Lane

About the author

Lisa Lane launched Sensory Scenes in 2014 with the aim to provide themed bags of fun for play, exploring and learning. With three boys of her own, she is passionate about children being able to manipulate, explore and use their imagination. Sensory Scenes’ themed bags are perfect for individual play, sensory tray play and themed subject planning.

Follow Sensory Scenes on Facebook, on Twitter @sensoryscenes, visit the website  or email lisa@sensoryscenes.co.uk


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