What is the first thing every parent would say if they took a child in to a glassware shop?  Do not touch! We know that children love to touch, play and explore and these are the key ingredients that allow their imagination and learning to flourish. Anything is possible - a box can become a rocket ship, a stick a sword and a brush a microphone!

Research has shown that sensory play, using smell, taste, touch, sight and hearing, are all key facilitators to building the nerve connections in the brain. A baby’s first instinct when manipulating objects is to look, touch, mouth and shake; all of these things help them co-ordinate and classify objects.

It is believed that every time a child has sensory rich experiences their thinking and learning capabilities are enhanced. This may seem like a bold statement but how would a child describe snow if their experience of it was just from a picture? Would they get beyond, it is white? If they experience the real stuff – cold, fluffy, wet, melting, glistening, crunchy and of course, white. They would scoop it, build with it, throw it, make patterns in it, look for prints, bury things, shake it off trees and develop a memory, association and feelings about simple white snow.

Sensory play opportunities

Sensory learning activities help bring subjects to life and quite often only need to be simplistic; allowing children open-ended play opportunities. A tray filled with sand, cereal, pasta shapes, cardboard tubes can be an African desert one day, a digger’s paradise the next and a place for shells and sea creatures the day after but the key will be the fascinating way the children use, talk about, engage, manipulate, add objects to and develop their play around it.

Play based learning is a prominent part of Early Years education and is shown to improve the social, problem solving, physical and emotional development of children. Reading a story is one thing but supply some puppets, costumes and props that the children can play, explore and manipulate and their senses will be alive with the endless possibilities of learning and memory making.

Bring nature into your nursery

I know a lot of settings get put off as they see ‘sensory play’ as purely messy play. However, it’s not all about sand and water. Whatever your setting has planned in for the week, take it a step further and build in some sensory play.

Nature is always a good place to start; if you are talking about hedgehogs hibernating – get the children to build a bed where they think the hedgehog will sleep. Collect leaves, twigs and moss. Discuss the different textures, how comfortable it would be and how it is different from where the children sleep. When you have finished, use the twigs for mark making and the leaves for printing. There are always many imaginative uses for the items you collect from nature and quite often it is the children themselves who will find that use!

You can make your nursery the perfect platform for open-ended sensory play if you give children a variety of materials to choose from. A tray of different vehicles, cardboard tubes, rice/pasta, stones, twigs and building bricks will lead to endless play, conversations, teamwork, different scenarios, new words and some fantastic observations!

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.

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