26 Amazing Sensory Play Ideas (& How Sensory Play Benefits Kids)

One afternoon I taught my 9-year-old daughter how to use the apple slicer. It’s not the easiest kitchen tool around, so we worked together to push the apple slicer through the shiny red apple she picked from the fruit bowl. We laughed when a few drops of juice spritzed us in the face, causing us both to take a step back. The scent of the freshly cut apple immediately activated our senses and, by pure instinct, we both inhaled deeply at the exact same time.

“This smells exactly like that cider mill in Connecticut!” Looking up at me wide-eyed with excitement, I could practically see the memory replaying in her mind. “Remember how the big cider machine squashed the apples flat and the cider ran down the tube and it smelled like millions of apples? This is the same exact smell!” 

Children learn a lot when they engage their senses. That cider mill trip is burned in my daughter’s memory because it was full of sensory experiences (for sensory experiences you can create at home, click through the slide show, above). Sure, the overwhelming smell of “millions” of apples is hard to forget, but she also studied the texture of apples by holding them and turning them over in her hands. She tasted different kinds of apples. She watched the cider press at work and sampled fresh pressed cider. We estimated how many apples might fit in a barrel and tried a few apple cider donuts (obviously).

Sensory play creates fun and creative learning experiences for kids. By exploring and engaging with materials on their own (without a long lecture about what the materials are supposed to do), children learn important skills like problem solving and creative thinking. Imagine trying to learn how to use an iPhone without ever touching an iPhone? Or learning to play the guitar without ever holding that guitar in your hands? It’s nearly impossible. As adults, we sometimes take sensory learning for granted. It’s just part of what we do. So why would we stick young children in front of worksheets and books and assume that they will learn best with lectures and words on the page?

If we want our kids to thrive in the academic setting, we have to incorporate sensory play. Beyond the classroom, we can start at home. Sensory play is messy and you’ll find remnants of the play weeks after you clean it up, but consider these benefits before you shy away from the mess:

1. Sensory play promotes linguistic skills. When kids are given various materials to play with, they learn the true meaning of new words. Take a word like “squishy”. You know what that means and you can probably even come up with a squishy object without much thought, but it’s difficult to actually describe what that word means to young children. Soft play-doh is squishy. Give a kid some play-doh and they squish is between their hands (and possibly even the couch cushions) to their heart’s delight. Sensory play gives kids the opportunity to use descriptive and expressive language. This not only builds their vocabulary, but it improves their communication skills.

2. It builds cognitive skills. Have you ever dumped a bunch of unrelated objects (acorns, glue, pompoms, and feathers, for example) on the table and said, “I wonder if you can make anything out of these?” You should. The results can be pretty amazing. Kids are often given specific instructions to make some object. That’s great for learning to follow steps, but when left to their own devices, kids come up with some great problem solving strategies. They learn to make decisions, solve problems and think creatively when they are given the opportunity to do so. It can be hard for parents to step back and let their kids create something out of nothing without offering input, but it helps build these important cognitive skills. Also? Don’t forget about the math skills. Sensory play promotes counting, sorting, and comparing — early math skills that will come in handy later on.

3. Sensory play helps foster social skills. A sensory table is a great way to help kids work on early social skills. Sensory play encourages kids to work side-by-side or together with the same materials. When kids do this, they tend to compare strategies and talk about the materials in front of them. They might come up with a plan together or talk about their individual plans. Either way, they work on building connections, developing communications skills, taking turns, expressing themselves, and collaborating with others.

4. It has physical benefits. All kids develop at their own pace, and fine motor skills (coordination of small muscle movements) can lag for some. That’s okay. Sensory play is a great way to help develop those fine motor skills! When my son was in preschool his teacher suggested making a game out of racing across the room holding cotton balls with kitchen tongs. It was great fun and helped him build that hand muscle strength! Mixing, measuring, squeezing, pounding, and manipulating materials all help build fine motor skills.

5. Sensory play increases creativity and creative problem solving. When you step back and let your child explore the materials independently and decide what to play and how to play it, your child taps into creative thought, the imagination and sometimes even make believe (acorns make great aliens, you know.)  Creative problem solvers tend to have greater self-confidence and self-esteem because they know that they can handle whatever comes their way. They might fail along the way, but they learn to view those setbacks as learning moments. They become more resilient and learning to keep trying new ideas until one works. These are the kids who thrive in school down the line.

Now get out there and get messy!

More Fun with Kids: