Learning through Sensory Exploration

written by: Meg Bethune

Sensory exploration plays an important role in your child’s brain development. Whether at bathtime, in the backyard, or at the sand and water table - your child is actively learning how their body can have an effect on the objects around them.

Some of the benefits of sensory play include:

  1. Building and strengthening neural (brain) connections.
  2. Increasing retention and developing memory skills.
  3. Developing motor and language skills.
  4. Encouraging self expression.
  5. Building self-esteem.

Learning through sensory exploration comes inherently to babies and young children, and includes any activity that stimulates a young child’s sense of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing, as well as anything which engages movement and balance. Sensory activities naturally encourage children to observe, form a hypothesis, experiment and draw conclusions; providing the opportunity for scientific concepts such as cause and effect, gravity, and solid to liquid to be explored.

Children develop their fine motor skills as they pour, measure, stir, whisk and manipulate the materials; and learn about volume as they fill and empty containers. What I have found most rewarding is that sensory play is completely open-ended and focuses on the process and not a final result or product. Simply adding containers, scoops, or funnels to your bath time routine can not only make the experience more joyful but also pack it with learning opportunities. (An engaged child is a happy child.) 😉


I have a few simple tips for introducing or engaging in sensory play with young children, especially babies and toddlers.

1. Start simple

Add novel materials to a routine activity such as bathtime or backyard play. Incorporating real tools such as kitchen utensils, scoops, bowls, or funnels can encourage new play and higher engagement.

2. be safe and supervise

Try to avoid choking hazards or materials that you do not want a baby to eat! Let’s be honest, babies and young toddlers are very oral and explore materials with their mouths (naturally). You don’t want to shame them or keep them from freely exploring the materials without too much redirection.

3. don't clean up during play

You want your child to know it’s okay to be messy. Sensory play is about exploring materials using multiple senses at once. Smocks (or being naked) are also great because you can allow them to freely explore the materials without worrying about damaging clothes. Plus it makes for an easier clean up afterwards!

4. setting expectations

If the expectation is to keep the materials in the table, it is okay to set that expectation. “Rice in table. Yay! You did it!” If you want to explore a messier material such as shaving cream, oobleck or foam paint I suggest setting the activity up in a space that is easier to clean (bathtub, kitchen, backyard, etc.). Expectations should be age appropriate as well as support a free exploration of materials. If expectations are too rigid, it may not allow for meaningful exploration and play. Try to set up the activity in a space and within the conditions that you can be most “hands off.” The best activities are the ones that they can do as independently as possible! Additionally, try to allow ample time for exploration and provide a prompt or warning when it is time to transition to the next activity (I.e. lunch, etc.). The longer they play, the more they engage at a deeper level.

5. don't force

Try to start with simple materials. Ice, shaving cream or finger paint may be too sensory rich for beginners. If your child pulls back or shows discomfort, allow them to clean their hands or explore the material inside a ziplock bag.

6. provide options

Provide materials that are open-ended as well as tools to explore the materials. Scoops, cups, containers, tubes or tongs are a great addition to materials such as dry beans, rice, pasta or peas.

7. follow the child's lead

Don’t tell them or show them what to do. Let them freely explore the materials first. See what THEY do with the materials. From there, you can build on their play (scaffold). Scaffolding is how adults support children’s development and learning by offering just the right help at just the right time in just the right way. You can encourage their development by describing how they are playing with the materials. Use descriptive adjectives and prepositions as you literally script their actions. You can label the materials as they interact with each item. You can ask “I wonder” questions to help them if they get stuck. Again, you want to work within their zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner (you). So basically, pushing them just beyond what they are capable of doing on their own to help them grow without adding too much challenge which can cause frustration. Trust me, you probably do this naturally throughout the day with your child’s everyday tasks and play. Observe your child. How are they responding to your cues?

As always, don’t forget to just HAVE FUN! Kids learn from our facial expressions, language (both body and verbal), responses and overall demeanor as we engage in play with them. Our excitement will get them excited and our playfulness will make it a joyful and meaningful experience for them.



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