Sensory Play: What Is It, and Why Is It Important?

Pinterest boards and bloggers have been abuzz about “sensory play” for the past several years.  The pictures are inspiring and most of the ideas inexpensive and intriguing.  The children look like they love playing with colored rice, homemade scented playdough, water beads, and a variety of other unique inventions.

Erupting ice chalk by Learn-Play-Imagine

But what is sensory play, and why is it important?  Most of us adults didn’t do “sensory play” when we were little.  Is this just a fad, or is it essential that our children play with dried beans and pour water over colored ice cubes?

Sensory Play Stimulates the Senses

Any activity that stimulates the child’s senses is sensory play.

Of course, we use our senses of touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight on a regular basis.  Sensory play simply provides a concerted opportunity for kids to explore these senses and learn more about the world around them.

Stimulating the Senses Helps Children Learn

Research shows that stimulating the senses helps children develop cognitively, linguistically, socially, and emotionally.  It also provides opportunities for physical development — particularly in fine motor skills — and bolsters creativity.

The best way to learn about most things is to experience them firsthand.  Simply reading about or watching a video about something is not the same as touching it and smelling it.

Sensory plays helps children understand how the world works in an efficient and engaging way.  It’s a hands-on science experiment.

The most obvious cognitive skills sharpened by sensory play are problem solving and decision making; simply present a child with a problem and various materials with which to find a solution, and you can almost see the connections their brains are making.  -PBS Parents

Sensory play can also boost children’s confidence by providing an opportunity to manipulate their own environment in a safe and age-appropriate way.  It can also inspire children to think and explore in new ways, and it can help kids learn about cooperating and collaboration with others.

Children are wired to receive and utilize sensory input from day one.   -Amanda Morgan

Language is still a somewhat unfamiliar and unreliable for young children.  While children may have only been speaking for a short period of their young lives, they have been experiencing life through their five senses since birth.  Sensory input is a natural way for children to learn about the world!

No, You Don’t Have to Plan Sensory Play

If your kid has many opportunities to play outdoors and get “messy,” you may not need to plan formal sensory play.  The outdoors naturally provides many of the sensory inputs that children crave, as long as you allow them to play in it.  Sandboxes, swing sets, the feel of hot and cold weather, the scents of flowers and herbs… nature is a treasury of sensory play!

Edible Water Beads from Growing a Jeweled Rose

But kids are spending less time outdoors and doing less self-direct free play than they did in the past.  Electronic games and videos have grown in popularity, and many children growing up in urban environments may not have a nearby place to explore nature on a regular basis.  The goal of sensory play is simply to help with this decreasing access to sensory experiences.  In a world where antibacterial hand gel is pervasive and parents try to keep their children and homes spotless, sensory play can provide an outlet for kids’ natural desire to get dirty.

Adults Can Enjoy Sensory Play, Too

Sensory play is usually inexpensive (even free!), easily available, and fun for everyone.  You may even find that it’s more fun for you than your kids!  As adults, we spend even less time experiencing the world in 3D than our children do.  Stepping away from a screen and “sensing” the world firsthand can be very good for all of us.

Sensory play can also provide creative outlets for adults.  You may enjoy trying new “recipes” for sensory resources such as scented playdough or “magic sand.”  And while kids may be able to play the same game again and again, we adults can get a little bored.  Having a sensory input to play with can help us stay attentive to our children and participate in their play in a fulfilling way for ourselves and our children.

Use Pinterest to Get Inspired

A simple Google search will turn up a huge array of sensory play ideas.  PBS Parents has some wonderful suggestions and information.  Parent bloggers regularly post new recipes and ideas, and Pinterest is an unparalleled tool for finding sensory play inspiration.  Check out The Play Museum’s Sensory Board, as well as the boards of the many parent and teacher bloggers we follow.

Here are some simple ideas to get you started:

“Old MacDonald Had a Farm” sensory bin from Learning4Kids

This is easy, cheap, and will appeal to almost any youngster!

  • Plastic bin
  • Uncooked rice
  • Uncooked split peas or lentils
  • Plastic farm animals



Bubble Bin sensory play from No Time for Flashcards

Glitter and food coloring make good old fashioned bubbles even more fun.

  • Dish soap or baby shampoo
  • Food coloring
  • Glitter (optional)
  • Whisks and small cups/bowls



Frozen Legos from eLeMeNO-P Kids

With a little planning the night before, you can make this sensory experience in seconds.

  • Legos (or other toy building blocks)
  • Water
  • Freezer and a freezer-safe dish




Fish Play Dough from Fantastic Fun and Learning

You can make your own or use store-bought play dough for this fun art and sensory project.

  • Play dough
  • Cookie cutters in the shape of fish or other water animals
  • Buttons
  • Sequins
  • Plastic googly eyes
  • Other play dough tools or decorations as desired




Colored Ice in the Play Pool from Learn-Play-Imagine

This is the perfect activity for a hot summer day!

  • Water
  • Food coloring
  • Ice cube trays and a freezer
  • Baby pool or large plastic bin you can fill with water





Egg Carton Color Sort by The Imagination Tree

If you dread the idea of your child smearing or splashing everywhere, get started with this relatively mess-free activity.

  • Old egg cartons
  • Paint or markers for coloring the egg cartons (you can do this yourself or involve the kids)
  • Pom poms (can be found at most craft stores or made by hand)
  • Spoons, scoopers, pincers, or other tool for picking up pom poms






Ready to do more sensory play?  Check out these Pinterest boards for more inspiration and instructions:

Learn-Play-Imagine has an amazing set of boards, as well as a truly mind-boggling number of blog posts with sensory play ideas

Laughing Kids Learn has a sensory board that will inspire you

Anna – In the Playroom has a series of different boards with sensory ideas