So, you’ve probably heard a bit about sensory play for babies, and you might be wondering what it means?
In a nutshell, babies naturally explore the world around them through their senses. This includes touch, taste, smell, sight, sounds, balance and movement. Sensory play involves activities that encourage exploration and engagement through stimulating your baby’s senses.
It’s a fantastic way to help your baby’s development, boost their inquisitiveness and creativity, and have fun together too! Many parents aren’t sure how to get started with sensory play for babies, but it’s less complicated than you might initially think.
Why Your Baby’s Senses Matter: Piaget’s Theory of Development
Jean Piaget was a psychologist in the 1930s. His landmark Theory of Development for children is still referenced today, and it formed the building blocks for many-theories that came after it.
Piaget’s theory categorised children’s development from birth through to adolescence into four stages:
- Sensorimotor – From birth to 2 years old.
- Preoperational – From 2 to 7 years old.
- Concrete Operational – From 7 to 11 years old
- Formal Operational – From 11 years old through to adolescence and adulthood.
Piaget proposed children need environmental stimuli for their cognitive development. Sensory play is focused within the Sensorimotor stage. This stage is all about the development of motor activity. Everything that a baby or toddler learns in this stage is based on experience, or trial and error. The goal is to establish an understanding of ‘Object Permanence’; knowing that an object still exists even if they can’t see it. This concept of ‘object permanence’ is also critical really important for establishing healthy baby sleep and settling habits as well, as your baby learns that even though they can’t see you, you are still nearby and they are safe.
The Value of Sensory Play for Babies
Sensory play aids the development of various motor skills, but there’s so much more going on within this type of play beyond what we can observe – it’s really exciting!
When you engage in sensory play with your baby, you’ll notice it helps them develop their sense of touch, taste and smell. It also helps them to improve hand-eye coordination, balance, and movement.
Beyond this, sensory play for babies helps to develop focus and attention. For example, if your baby gets overwhelmed in busy environments, a sensory game that engages them can help draw their attention to the single activity and decide what to tune out and focus on.
It also encourages their curiosity and creativity. Using a variety of textures, materials that make different sounds, are different colours, shapes and sizes, your baby learns that it’s safe to explore new things. Other benefits of sensory play include:
- The development of nerve connections within the brain.
- Being able to develop problem-solving skills.
- The development of language skills.
- Being able to develop social skills.
What Does Sensory Play Look Like for Babies and Toddlers?
You can start adding simple sensory play activities to your baby’s week within their first few months and build as they grow and develop. Here’s what that can look like:
This involves your baby using their hands to explore different objects and materials. It can be as simple as bubbles at bathtime, play-doh, paints in a fully sealed plastic bag that they squish, to a play mat with different textures and materials. Essentially: anything they can get their hands involved with!
This involves anything that engages your child’s sight. Most sensory play activities will also include this but think along the lines of using brightly coloured or patterned shapes and toys, or fully sealed water bottles with different shapes, glitter or beads inside them that they can shake around.
Taste and Smell Play:
This type of play can be more difficult, especially with babies, as it’s hard to tell when they are using their sense of taste and smell! As your baby grows and moves away from bottle feeding and into eating more solid foods, you can encourage this by giving them different foods to play with that are safe to eat. Spaghetti is a popular one!
This can be anything from playing different music and sounds for your baby and singing to them, to allowing them to make noise with various objects. Toddlers will love smashing some pans with a wooden spoon! This type of play is excellent for developing their hearing and ability to understand and differentiate between different sounds.
Proprioception is your baby’s ability to sense their body and movements; it’s how we tell whether we are standing up or laying down. Sensory play here can involve sitting in a baby swing, rocking, strolling, tummy time; anything that encourages your baby to explore how their body moves and interacts with their environment. Start gently and add more movement as your baby grows.
How to Get Started With Sensory Play for Babies at Home
Sensory play for babies at home doesn’t need to be complicated – you can get started with simple household items!
Find different fabrics and materials that you can tie together, different textured and coloured paper that your baby can scrunch or rip up. Cut different fabrics into squares and frame them so your baby can hold and touch them. Bubbles are also excellent sensory play – whether in the tub or not!
Sensory baby mats are widely available on the market, but you can also create your own out of cardboard, adding different fabrics, papers, shapes and textures anyway you like.
For more ideas, Little Lifelong Learners has some excellent tips on creating some sensory play games for babies at home.
Just make sure you always supervise your baby with any games. If you are making your own, be sure to invest in non-toxic materials, and nothing small or hazardous, your baby could pull apart and put in their mouths.
Sensory Play FAQs
1 – Why is sensory play for babies important?
Research shows sensory play builds nerve connections in the brain’s pathways, which leads to more complex learning skills. Sensory play supports language development, cognitive growth, motor skills, problem-solving skills, and social interaction.
When should babies start sensory play?
You can start within their first few months. Keep sensory play simple, and build as they grow. Pathways is a site that lists excellent sensory ideas you can try from newborn right up to two years of age.
What happens in baby sensory classes?
Classes can vary, but they’ll typically involve a wonderful mix of various sensory activities, designed to help your baby engage with all their senses, develop language skills, social skills, and cognitive skills.
Why do babies mouth toys?
Babies love to put things in their mouths – and this is entirely normal! Taste is an essential sense for them, and oral exploration is just as vital for engaging with their environment as using their hands. This process forms part of the ‘trial and error’ component of the sensorimotor stage from Piaget’s development theory. It’s something most babies grow out of naturally over time.
Some Final Words
Many parents wonder if they’re doing sensory play ‘right’, but the truth is as long as your baby or toddler is engaged, safe and having fun – that’s all that matters! Mix things up, try new experiences and ways of playing together, and enjoy this period of rapid growth and development.
If you’re looking for more ideas and advice on supporting your baby at every step of their early journey, I’d love for you to join me in my online communities, where I regularly share useful tips and guidance on just that!