53. Sensory play

Welcome to the world of sensory play, where your child’s amazing senses can come alive as they begin to explore the world around them.

What is sensory play?

Sensory play (sometimes also referred to as messy play – although there is a difference and we’ll come to that shortly) is an approach to learning for the under-fives that comes from a different angle. Young children learn through play, through experimentation and exploration. But indoor lifestyles and clean environments mean children’s senses are not always being used to their full capacity. Sensory play gives the under-fives the opportunity to explore their senses and to learn as they do. Make life interesting and the learning comes naturally.

What are the benefits of sensory play?

Learning is not rigid and one-dimensional. Sights, sounds and smells all contribute to a broader picture of the object being explored. And the more labels our brains can attach to something, the more memorable it becomes.

Sensory play can also help children overcome fears and dislikes. A child who is scared of the bath can find treats hidden in a mountain of bubbles, someone who won’t eat foods in sauces can squelch spaghetti in their fists, a child who is afraid of dogs can stroke different pieces of fur. As they develop an understanding of the textures or smells they fear, the sensory activity builds positive pathways in the brain that let them know there is nothing to be afraid of.

And if you’re looking for mindfulness activities for young children, a bit of sensory play will always be a hit. Sensory activities for toddlers are always powerfully absorbing and allow children to switch off from any noise or distractions that might be going on around them.

Sensory play activities

You don’t always need to do sensory play with jelly or shaving foam. Get outside and simply enjoy nature. Take off your wellies and splash barefoot in a puddle, make mud pies, roll in a pile of crunchy, autumnal leaves of close your eyes and play guess the flower. The best sensory play activities for children encourage them to explore and investigate, observe, form a hypothesis, experiment and make conclusions.

Sadly we can’t always be where the sensory stimulation of the natural world is freely available; trips into nature require time and that many of us don’t have. The good news is it’s easy to provide sensory stimulation at home. The key is to provide sensory play materials and activities that offer a range of possibilities, including smell, sound, sight and texture.

An easy way to provide some pop-up sensory play is to create a designated area (we like to use Tuff Spot trays but it could be a box or the bath or anything you like ) and fill it with whatever you can find that will support sensory play. It’s great to merge this sort of play with small world scenarios, so blocks of ice can become a polar bear’s arctic kingdom, or pebbles and sand can become a mermaid’s underwater playground. Jelly, shaving foam, squelchy food like tinned spaghetti, feathers and fragrant flowers are all fun to experiment with.

Messy play activities

There’s a great deal of overlap between messy play and sensory play but they’re not exactly the same thing.

Messy play allows children to play without limits, to splash and throw, to act without worrying about the clear-up afterwards. Sensory play is generally more contained and focussed. The materials might be similar, but the focus is on exploring unusual textures and sensations.

Messy play can take many forms, and is often spontaneous, so planning for it sometimes goes against the grain. Instead, look out for it and when it happens, try to resist the urge to step in and minimise the mess. Often it involves children getting their hands on something they’d not normally be allowed near or only given under strictly controlled circumstances.

  • Get an old roll of wallpaper and unravel it in the garden, hand out squeezy bottles filled with poster paint and take a big step back.
  • Leave the sprinkler on and let them turn the lawn into a swamp.
  • Take a deep breath and smile as they tip out all the lego into one huge pile on the living room floor and explore the sound and feel of grabbing armfuls of noisy plastic blocks.

What do you have right now in your home that could be used for messy play? You don’t need much space or even a garden. Sit the children in an empty bath, give them each a can of shaving foam and retreat to a safe distance. Brilliant fun, and the perfect antidote to a rainy day stuck indoors.

You’ll find they’re delighted by the sensations and the freedom to get messy without reproach.

Best toys for sensory play

Play gyms and activity toys

Try not to overload your infant with sights and sounds that are too bright. In the first few months, even the gentlest tinkle of a bell can be extremely stimulating. Offer interesting but uncomplicated objects. Most well-designed activity toys have simple features like crackle paper, mirrors, bells and soft patches. More than enough sensory fun at this age.


Play peekaboo with your four-month-old by covering her with a silk or other soft piece of fabric or let pull it to her mouth to see how it tastes.

Treasure basket

Fill your basket with objects that are interesting to touch, chew, shake or smell. Think old wallets, rattles and (safely knotted) lavender pouches.

One of the key ideas behind a treasure basket is that a child can return to the same materials day after day, exploring the most interesting objects in greater detail. But changing the contents occasionally is a brilliant way to stimulate new learning. One day try a basket full of objects whose main characteristic is their smell. You are drawing your child’s attention specifically to this sense and helping her to identify differences. Here’s sweet smell, here’s a rubbery one. This one is citrusy.

Play dough

Play dough is one of the classic sensory acitivities. You can find our recipe for home made dough here. Make it more interesting by adding colours, mixing sequins or wooden beads, or perfume into it. Other textural materials include sand and mud, and squidgy foods like tinned tomatoes, icing or marzipan.

Final word

As you progress to more traditional toys you can keep an element of sensory play going, albeit more subtle; go for toys made in untreated woods like natural wooden blocks that feel pleasing to small hands and have a warm aroma that lasts. Play with soft teddies you can squeeze and hug, or wax crayons that leave big bright slicks of colour on the page. There is a sensory angle to almost all of their play, all you need to do is find it.

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