Sensory Play in The Early Years | Early Years Resources (2023)

Sensory Play in The Early Years | Early Years Resources (1)

This article has been written by early years consultant, Anne Rodgers, from ATR Consultancy.

What is sensory play?

Sensory play includes activities that stimulate children’s senses such as sight, sound, smell, taste or touch. By providing this type of activity children will learn more about the world around them in a natural way, through their senses. Such activities contribute to brain development by stimulating the neurons in the brain to make connections and help with development in all areas of learning.

For example, as children explore sensory materials they develop their sense of touch. This lays the foundation for learning other skills, such as identifying objects by touch and using fine and gross motor skills. These motor skills can be refined through moulding, scooping, splashing and shaping objects.

As children become more verbal, they will learn to describe similarities and differences in objects that they see, hear, taste, smell or touch. Social skills can develop through the sharing of materials and seeing how others interpret objects and share ideas and discoveries, therefore building relationships.

Sensory experiences can be calming and therapeutic for young children and help them work through their emotions, anxieties and frustrations. They can release pent-up energy and allow children to master new skill sets.

All children will benefit from sensory experiences and allowances should be made for accessibility. For instance, young babies will enjoy treasure baskets and messy play in trays or baskets on the floor, whereas older children may like to sit or stand at a table to explore activities.

Why is sensory play important?

Sensory play is important in helping children make sense of the world around them through experiencing texture and materials. It encourages discovery and independent thinking, whilst inspiring imagination and creativity.

Sensory play also has a host of benefits for children’s development including:

  • Brain Development
  • Language Development
  • Fine and Gross Motor skills
  • Problem-Solving Skills
  • Cognitive Growth
  • Social Interaction
  • Awareness
  • Comforting
  • Adaptability

To learn more in-depth about the importance of sensory play and exactly how sensory play improves each of these areas of development, read our blog which covers the benefits and importance of sensory play.

Why do we need to plan for sensory play experiences?

Planning for sensory experiences is important it ensures that all areas of the curriculum can be met through purposeful play experiences. Planning ahead will ensure that all of the necessary risk assessments are in place and materials sourced, to allow the activity to be presented well. Planning will also allow practitioners to provide for children’s next steps in learning and development depending on the child’s likes and dislikes and what the child learns from the activity. The child may find different ways of exploring the activity that the adult has not thought of.

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The most commonly stimulated sense for young children is sight. From birth, babies are given brightly coloured and patterned toys to look at and play with.

Exposing young children to new and interesting experiences will keep them curious about the world around them. Visually stimulating activities will enable children to use the sense of sight to discover colours, shapes, brightness, form and structure. They will discover how things move and develop visual memory as to how things work.


Many toys for young children feature music and other various sounds. Music is extremely important for children and many learn best when a concept is set to music. Music can encourage motor skills development as children learn to dance and to keep a beat. Singing songs, listening to stories and talking about what they are doing all help children with sound and listening skills. Wind chimes, music boxes, shakers, objects to bang and music to listen and move to will all enhance this area of learning and development.


The sense of smell helps children to identify scents they like or don’t like and can be incorporated into planning in many ways. Try adding an array of fragrances into your treasure box, such as coffee, mint, lemon and lavender. Providing these different smells allows the children to differentiate between new scents and build on their learning through their sense of smell.


Through the sense of taste children will get to explore new foods, fruits and vegetables and decide which ones they like and do not like. Finger foods are a good way to encourage independence for toddlers so that they can feed themselves. Cooking activities will encourage children to join in the process of making meals and treats. They are more likely to try new things if they are involved in making and preparing them.

(Video) Sensory Play in the Early Childhood Classroom


The sense of touch can be best explored through textures and messy play. Young babies like to snuggle in with soft blankets and investigate treasure baskets, older babies and toddlers will enjoy messy play activities to explore new textures. Going on a ‘touch’ walk will encourage children to touch new items for texture such as rough and smooth, wet puddles, tree bark and some plants.

Linking requirements of the EYFS with your practice


0-11 months

Babies’ early awareness of shape, space and measure grows from their sensory awareness and opportunities to observe objects and their movements, and to play and explore.

Physical Development

8-20 months

Enjoys the sensory experience of making marks in damp sand, paste or paint.

Expressive Art and Design

8-20 months

Explores and experiments with a range of media through sensory exploration, and using whole body.

Characteristics of effective learning

Playing and Exploring – (engagement)

Finding out and exploring:

  • Using their senses to explore the world around them
  • Participating in open ended activities
  • Showing particular interests
  • Engaging in outdoor learning.

Being willing to ‘have a go’:

  • Initiating activities
  • Seeking challenge
  • Showing a ‘can do’ attitude
  • Taking a risk, engaging in new experiences, and learning by trial and error

Learn more about how important it is to take risks during EYFS play by reading our blog which covers the importance of risky play.

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Active Learning (motivation)

Being involved and concentrating:

  • Maintaining focus on their activity for a period of time
  • Showing high levels of energy, fascination

Creating and Thinking Critically (thinking)

Having their own ideas:

  • Thinking of ideas
  • Finding ways to solve problems
  • Finding new ways to do things

Making links:

  • Testing their ideas

Choosing ways to do things:

  • Changing strategy as needed

Sensory Play in The Early Years | Early Years Resources (7)

Sensory Play in The Early Years | Early Years Resources (8)

Sensory activities, in addition to being fun and interesting for young children; encourages them to explore and investigate. These activities support children to use the ‘scientific method’ of observing, forming a hypothesis, experimenting and making conclusions.

Sensory Play Activities And Ideas

There are endless sensory play activities you can incorporate in your early years setting. Some great activities to implement in the classroom include:

  • Painting Homemade Salt Dough
  • Mark Making With Play Dough
  • Playing With Kinetic Sand
  • Creating Shadow Puppets
  • Making Pretend Snow
  • Making Mud Pies

Why not add some edible sensory play into the mix? These activities are great for providing a different angle to sensory play for a first birthday party or for messy play sessions in your early years setting. Children up 18 months will still be putting things in their mouths, so it is important to provide them with a safe way to get messy. These include:

  • Coloured spaghetti
  • Making Jelly
  • Making a chocolate cake
  • Using edible paint
  • Juicing Fruits

Or why not combine maths and sensory play together? Combining the two can encourage children to enjoy maths, find it less intimidating and help them apply mathematics to real life.

  • Make illuminated numbers with a light table.
  • Freeze numbers in water to create numbered ice cubes and ask them to order them before they melt.
  • Get active and get your children to hopscotch on number liquid tiles.
  • Play with tactile numbers and help children develop correct numeral formation.

To learn more about all of these activities read our blog posts which cover general sensory play activities, edible sensory play activities and maths sensory play activities.

Activities For Special Needs Children

Introducing sensory play for children with special needs is great for improving cognitive growth, motor skills and problem-solving skills. Before implementing sensory play for children with special needs it is important to consider what they will learn and how they will experience it to understand what activities make sense for each child. For example, a child with visual impairments will experience sense’s differently from a child who is deaf or hard of hearing, has physical limitations or has sensory processing issues.

Some examples of activities/resources that are great for SEN children are:


  • Mud Pies
  • Kinetic Sand Play
  • Sensory Dens
  • Waterplay
  • Play Dough

Want some inspiration on sensory activities for SEN children? Browse our blog post which covers potential sensory play activities for special needs children.

Activities For Babies

Getting babies to engage in messy play is important as it helps to build fine motor control, and problem-solving skills, develop knowledge of scientific concepts, improve collaboration skills and develop social-emotional skills. Some great sensory activities to do with children include.

  • Porridge sensory bins
  • Finger painting
  • Jelly sensory bins
  • Shaving cream colour mixing bags
  • Dry pasta sensory bins
  • Flour sensory bins
  • Shaving cream sensory bins
  • Glitter sensory bottles
  • Edible chocolate mud

To learn more about the types of resources you need for each of these activities, have a read of our messy play ideas for babies blog!

Creating Sensory Gardens

Creating a sensory garden is an easy way to enhance sensory development in children.Sensory gardens are spaces created using plants, flowers, light and natural sound to stimulate and indulge all five senses.

Sensory gardens encourage children to explore plant life cycles, learn about different seasons and develop a curiosity about wildlife.

They are also super beneficial for children with autism or sensory processing disorders. For pupils hyper-sensitive to sensory stimuli, the garden can be calming and give them a better sense of control. For children under-reactive the garden can help them experience the five senses in a positive way.

When creating a sensory garden consider:

  • Position of the sun through the day,
  • Quiet and away from traffic noises and distractions.
  • Maintenance requirements
  • Growing plants that are safe for children to interact with.

To learn more about how a sensory garden satisfies the five senses and how to make one, read the blog which goes through how to create a sensory garden.

Taken from Sensory Play in the Early Years by Anne Rodgers.ISBN: 978-0-9930782-2-4.

(Video) Tuff Tray Activity Inspiration | Tuff Tray Sensory Play Ideas for Kids

About Anne Rodgers

Anne Rodgers is an Early Years Consultant (ATR Consultancy) and Writer. Anne has 36 years’ experience of working in the childcare and education sector – including training practitioners, managing numerous settings over the years and writing articles for Early Years Educator and the CACHE Alumni website.


What resources would you use for sensory play? ›

Sensory Play Resources
  • Treasure Baskets.
  • Canopies.
  • Den Making and Fabric.
  • Light Up Learning.
  • Touch, Sound & Aromas.
  • Calming & Fidgets.
  • Dens.

What is sensory play in early years? ›

Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates a young child's senses of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing, as well as anything which engages movement and balance.

What are the best practices for sensory play? ›

Support Your Child's Development With Sensory Play
  • Allow your child to get messy. It is natural for children to jump right in and make a mess. ...
  • Use household items. ...
  • Expose your child to movement early. ...
  • Get outside. ...
  • Ditch plastic. ...
  • Create a calming sensory corner.
Feb 27, 2018

What is an example of sensory play activities? ›

Some examples of sensory play includes exploring colour with rainbow rice, exploring texture with fluffy soap foam, or exploring smell with apple scented playdough. Many activities even explore more than one of the 5 sense; taste, hear, smell, touch and see!

What are the three main sources of sensory input? ›

Sensory input

Maintaining balance depends on information received by the brain from three peripheral sources: eyes, muscles and joints, and vestibular organs (Figure 1). All three of these information sources send signals to the brain in the form of nerve impulses from special nerve endings called sensory receptors.

What are the sensory materials? ›

Sensory materials are any material a child plays with that stimulates their five senses, sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. The best sensory materials stimulate more than one sense. They can be played with and manipulated in many different ways for different results and exploration.

What is sensory and example? ›

The adjective sensory describes something relating to sensation — something that you feel with your physical senses. Sticking a knife into a toaster will give you a sensory experience, but so will smelling a rose.

What are the five sensory activities? ›

25 Five Senses Activities to Engage Kids in the World Around Them
  • Head out for a five senses scavenger hunt. ...
  • Read a book about the five senses. ...
  • Hang a five senses anchor chart. ...
  • Break out Mr. ...
  • Make a set of finger puppets. ...
  • Sort objects according to senses. ...
  • Set up Five Senses Stations. ...
  • Use all your senses to explore popcorn.
Aug 30, 2022

Why is sensory play important for infants? ›

Sensory play has been proven by research to strengthen the nerve connections in the pathways of the brain. This occurrence leads to stronger memory skills and also builds a foundation for even more complicated learning tasks in the future, including those related to language skills and problem-solving.

How do you develop sensory skills? ›

You can help your young child develop sensory skills by:
  1. Being intentional… It is important to provide a child the opportunity to explore different textures, tastes, and smells. ...
  2. Talk about it… ...
  3. Engaging… ...
  4. Think outside the house… ...
  5. To make an appointment with a pediatric therapist, call one of these locations:

What are three ways an educator can help a child with sensory issues? ›

Here are three ways you can help your child with SPD achieve in school:
  • Educate the teaching staff about your child. Educate school personnel about SPD. ...
  • Ask the school to evaluate your child for an IEP or 504 Plan. ...
  • Suggest a sensory diet and specific accommodations.
Apr 5, 2016

What is the best example of sensory interaction? ›

Some examples of sensory interactions include (1) using both taste and smell to savor food as it is eaten, (2) not crossing a road because a large vehicle is visually nearing and audibly honking its horn, and (3) using both sight and touch to put together a model of a boat.

What type of play is sensory play? ›

In essence, sensory play includes play that engages any of your child's senses. This includes touch, smell, sight, sound and taste. But it also covers movement, balance, and spatial awareness.

What are examples of sensory systems? ›

Commonly recognized sensory systems are those for vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and balance.

What are the three stages of sensory processing? ›

There are three phases of sensory processing: sensory stimulus (taking in information through the senses), central processing (putting it together with other information), and output (making meaningful motor, language, behavioral or emotional responses).

What are the 4 types of sensory input? ›

There are the four patterns of sensory processing: low registration, sensation seeking, sensory sensitive and sensation avoiding.

Why are Sensorial materials important? ›

The purpose of the Sensorial materials is to aid the child in refining the child's pitch, temperature, and weight and is utilizing language in describing these qualities. These materials are an integral part of developing the whole child — directly building the “mathematical mind” and indirectly preparing for writing.

What are sensory tools used for? ›

Sensory tools are intended to promote regulation, improve focus, and increase participation, therefore enabling your child to be available for learning! The key to a sensory-informed classroom is that it supports the various sensory needs of the students in the classroom in a way that is as natural as possible.

What is the order of Sensorial materials? ›

Montessori categorized her Sensorial materials into eight groupings based on which sense was being used: Visual, Tactile, Baric, Thermic, Auditory, Olfactory, Gustatory, and Stereognostic.

What does sensory mean in childcare? ›

Sensory development enhances the use of your child's senses by incorporating different colours, textures, noises and more into their early education. This holistic learning process encourages children to play safely and engage with their surroundings as well as improve their brain development.

What does sensory mean? ›

: of or relating to sensation or to the senses. sensory stimulation. : carrying nerve impulses from the sense organs toward or to the brain : afferent.

What is sensory behavior? ›

Sensory-seeking behavior in childhood is the tendency to seek out sensory experiences across the five senses: sound, smell, taste, sight, and touch. Many kids who have this issue are thrill-seekers. They like jumping off of high places, such as playground equipment.

What are three benefits of sensory stimulation? ›

The Top Five Benefits of Sensory Stimulation:

Increased levels of concentration and the ability focus. The opportunity to recall past experiences and happy memories. Improved mood, self-esteem, and overall well-being. More participation in social activities and interactions with friends and family.

Why is sensory interaction so important? ›

Well-regulated and appropriately functioning sensory systems contribute to important outcomes in social-emotional, physical and motor, communication, self-care, cognitive, and adaptive skills development and main- tenance.

What is an example of early sensory stimulation? ›

As a baby crawls around a room touching objects, playing with toys, listening to their mother or father sing songs, or putting things in their mouth, they are doing much more than simply playing. They are using their senses to learn about and explore their environment.

How do you teach a sensory child? ›

Discuss changes that might help, like letting your child fidget when they have to sit for a long time. Or allowing them wear noise-blocking headphones when things get loud. Sensory breaks, like walking in circles or jumping on a mini-trampoline, can help under-sensitive kids get the input they need.

How do you stimulate a sensory seeking child? ›

Sensory Seeking Activities
  1. Use an air cushion for movement while your child stays seated during school work.
  2. Have your child perform work activities like pushing a shopping cart, carrying groceries, or pulling a wagon.
  3. Encourage them to play on the playground on climbing equipment or by sliding or swinging.
Jun 22, 2018

How do you support sensory needs? ›

Provide a sensory space where the child can access their sensory needs. Plan a sensory timetable / diet so the child has regular opportunities for the sensory input they require. Provide sensory resources to meet the individual needs and interests of the child. Provide 'choices' of sensory activities for the child.

How can you help a child with sensory issues in the classroom? ›

Provide a weighted lap pad, weighted vest, wiggle cushion, or other OT-approved sensory tools. Provide earplugs or noise-muffling headphones to help with noise sensitivity. Let the student use handheld fidgets; consider using a fidget contract.

How do you support sensory issues? ›

Managing sensory processing disorder at school
  1. Listening to calming music.
  2. Fidget toys (even hair elastics) and inflatable cushions for long periods of sitting to help with focus and concentration.
  3. Chewable jewellery for oral cravings.
  4. Doing wall push-ups and jumping jacks for physical stimulation.
Feb 2, 2016

What are sensory stimulation activities? ›

Sensory stimulation is the activation of one or more of the senses including taste, smell, vision, hearing, and touch. It can range from something as simple as a hand massage with scented lotion or listening to a playlist of favorite music to more complicated activities designed to provide a sensory experience.

What is an example of a sensory sentence? ›

Sensory details are words that stir any of the five senses: touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight. For example, rather than saying “She drank the lemonade,” say: “She felt her tongue tingle as she sipped the frosty glass of tart, sugary lemonade.”

What are the examples of sensory feelings? ›

Let's look at some examples: smelly (negative – disgust), soft (positive – joy), sour (negative – disgust), bright (positive – joy), hitting (negative – anger), dark (negative – sadness), musty (negative- disgust), blurred (negative), clamor (positive – surprise)…

What area of learning is sensory play? ›

Sensory play activities build nerve connections in the brain, which enable children to complete more complex tasks over time. They can also support language development, cognitive growth, gross and fine motor skill development, and improved problem-solving skills.

When should you do sensory play? ›

When Is My Baby Ready For Sensory Play? Truly, your baby is ready for sensory play at home right from the very beginning. As parents, we understand that caring for your new baby's basic needs is time-consuming, but you can easily stimulate their senses with everyday activities.

What equipment or materials are used for sensory experiences in the Montessori method? ›

Montessori activities such as the Brown Stair, Red Rods, Knobbed Cylinders, and Color Tablets can also enhance the visual sense. The auditory sense is also developed in sensory materials like Sound Cylinders and Bells, while the tactical sense is sharpened through the use of Touch Tablets and Fabric Feel.

What types of resources could be used to encourage creative play in childcare Centres? ›

Loose things such as twigs, leaves, shells and sand benefit a child's early years experiences by stimulating their creativity and imagination.
20 natural materials to add to your child's sensory play
  • Twigs.
  • Leaves.
  • Flowers.
  • Grass (long, short, green or dry).
  • Weeds.
  • Water. ...
  • Pebbles.
  • Bark.
Jun 29, 2020

What kinds of materials would be provided for children to use in the dramatic play area? ›

Choosing Materials for the Dramatic Play Center
  • clothing (hats, scarves, shoes, dresses, etc.)
  • fabric (different colors and patterns)
  • masks and capes.
  • boxes, purses, and luggage.
  • writing materials.
  • items for specific prop box themes.
  • miscellaneous items such as a camera, sunglasses, wand, etc.
Aug 15, 2019

Why Sensorial materials are important? ›

The purpose of the Sensorial materials is to aid the child in refining the child's pitch, temperature, and weight and is utilizing language in describing these qualities. These materials are an integral part of developing the whole child — directly building the “mathematical mind” and indirectly preparing for writing.

What strategies or tools are used to assist a child with sensory challenges? ›

Provide a weighted lap pad, weighted vest, wiggle cushion, or other OT-approved sensory tools. Provide earplugs or noise-muffling headphones to help with noise sensitivity. Let the student use handheld fidgets; consider using a fidget contract.

What are the 5 sensory inputs? ›

There are the ones we know – sight (visual), taste (gustatory), touch (tactile), hearing (auditory), and smell (olfactory).


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