Stimulating the senses every day

sensory play picture

Our self-evaluation question this week – how well do we stimulate children’s senses?

Childminders don’t need to have special sensory rooms to provide children with a wide range of sensory experiences… we can use our normal inside and outside environment, outings and continuous provision resources to support children’s learning.

Babies and children like to explore things with their eyes, hands and mouths. You will often spot them holding toys up to look at them before giving them a lick or chew to test them out. This is how they start to develop the ability to confidently explore a variety of different environments and, in later years, describe what they can see and feel. This type of sensory exploration must be encouraged as part of early years play. Of course, we recognise that sensory exploration of this type is a health and safety nightmare and we must consider how we clean and disinfect chewed toys, checking they are safe after each use before putting them back in their box or bag (see risk assessment to follow)…

There are a lot of catalogues and online selling sites that sell ready-made sensory exploration baskets for little ones and heuristic resources for the older children… but many of these can be put together very cheaply using items from your local pound shop or supermarket and your normal resources. Simply think about how to offer a range of different textures, colours, shapes and types which will provide a lot of sensory stimulation for all the children.

You might also find it useful to think about why you want children to experience sensory play – do you want to wake them up, excite them, encourage conversation or calm them down? You can then provide a variety of resources through the day to support different parts of your routine –

  • Morning – sensory scarves and musical instruments during ‘wake up’ dance activities
  • Before snack – exploring and smelling food while preparing snack together
  • Before lunch – sensory fiddly fingers activities to promote calm before everyone sits down to eat
  • After lunch – calming lavender added to playdough to soothe and promote rest or sleep for the little ones.
  • Afternoon play – baskets of natural resources used during planned learning sessions to teach children to explore and describe what they can see and feel.

Children will be drawn to anything that encourages them to explore it so resources need to be chosen carefully and displayed attractively. It is important that baskets (if used) are shallow and filled with lots of different items so children can empty and fill them (to support their transporting schemas) as well as being able to get to all the contents – all sorts of horrors lurk at the bottoms of deep baskets or boxes.


Resources to stimulate the senses

How many sensory toys, games, activities and other experiences do you offer children during a normal day? I came up with quite a long list when I wrote my blog about supporting children’s fine motor skills here.

As we know, there are 5 senses – hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste. When thinking about providing resources, consider how you support children to learn about them all. You might plan to support learning by providing –

  • Playdough – make your own every week with the children and add glitter or something smelly
  • Paint – add sand or do some finger painting
  • Balls or bean bags made from sensory material – some of the bumpy sensory balls can be very hard so be careful if your children like to throw. Look for a variety of balls – elastic band balls, bouncy ones, scrunched paper, pompoms, big ones to roll etc will keep children interested for longer and add something for the balls to be rolled or thrown into such as a clean waste paper basket.
  • Treasure baskets – metal, musical instruments, ribbons and bows
  • Light resources to stimulate vision – torches, flashing balls, bubble tubes etc played with in a den under the table
  • Treasure basket – filled with sensory items from the kitchen or bathroom.
  • Cooking activities – inside and in the garden making potions – to explore taste and smell.
  • Outside basket – filled with fir cones, interesting leaves, twigs, string balls etc.
  • Material – small swatches of sensory material eg ribbons, scarves, wool, nylon, tartan, fleece etc (make sure it doesn’t shed). Add coloured material to encourage children to play matching and sorting games as they get older.
  • Water play – add glue, raw pasta (or cooked if you have any left over from tea), oats so children can watch them as they absorb the water etc. Real sponges are great in water play and add a new dimension to children’s sensory games.
  • Paper and cardboard sensory bag – choose different types of card eg shiny, ridged, coloured etc and cellophane and bubble wrap to stimulate and maintain children’s interest.
  • Sensory panel / board – bubble wrap, ridged cardboard material etc. For lots of inspiration look at sensory walls on Pinterest
  • Bubble play
  • Mirrors – child safe surrounded by photos of emotions so children can explore how they are feeling and expand their emotional vocabulary
  • Cook some extra pasta, rice or other food to explore in a sensory tray
  • Put water or sand play outside every day
  • Mud kitchens are popular at the moment
  • Soap flakes and a whisk
  • Spray silly soap, gloop (flour and water), sensitive shaving foam etc…
  • Musical instruments – as well as stimulating children’s auditory senses, instruments can (if chosen carefully) encourage children to touch and feel because they can be made from wood, shells, plants and other natural materials.
  • Smooth stones in the garden – different sizes and shapes which the children can move around, stack etc and which help them learn about size, shape, weight, balancing etc.
  • Real tea set – so children learn about taking care of things so they do not break as well as the feel, sound and weight of real pottery as opposed to plastic.
  • Metal basket – small metal eating utensils, plates, bowls, cups, milk jugs etc can be bought cheaply from second hand shops and provide children with a different sensory experience as they listen to the items and feel that they are cold to the touch.
  • Shell basket
  • A sensory word display – make a display with the older children featuring sensory words to support learning and to remind you of some different sensory words you can use when playing with the children. Think about opposites – cold and hot, smooth and bumpy, hard and soft etc as well as words to describe the feel of eg playdough when a new smell or some glitter has been added.
  • Wooden blocks or large wooden dice.
  • Sensory mats – these are good for babies but we often see older children lying on them and touching the various sensory panels.
  • Glass sticks – these can be bought from sensory shops and are often on special offer. When children shake them the colours of the liquid inside change.
  • Plastic little people or animals… yes I know I have used the word ‘plastic’ but a lot of practitioners have plastic toys and their value must not be underestimated when they are used alongside other resources.

You can also add small containers that children can put the items into as this helps them to learn about capacity, size and shape and extends their play further. The more variety you can offer the better – so keep an eye out at local charity shops and car boot sales for interesting natural resources which you can use to stimulate interest and exploration.


Links to the prime areas of learning

  • Communication and language – children need to be stimulated and excited in their learning if they are to learn new words and describe their actions. We can provide them with the vocabulary they need to talk about what they are doing and feeling. We often notice that children babble when they are engaged in sensory play – they are talking to themselves even from a young age and telling us that they are relaxed and enjoying their learning. We add illustrated labels to our play areas to support children’s learning and we play alongside them to enhance communication and build their vocabulary.
  • Physical – children use fine and gross motor skills to manipulate the resources. They learn about health and hygiene as they wash their hands. We talk about how resources feel which helps them to develop a vocabulary with which they can describe their physical actions.
  • PSED – when a child is involved in their play, they are learning at their deepest level. When they are engaged in sensory play children become excited by their learning and they are interested and want to explore and find out more. Sensory play links closely to children’s learning characteristics and schemas (repeated patterns of learning).

Learning characteristics blog here.

More information about schemas in children’s play here.


Risk assessment

It is not a requirement of the EYFS 2014 to have written risk assessments – however, they are very good practice and will help you show evidence (should something go wrong) of how you keep children safe and healthy.

  • Check small parts with a choking tube
  • Only provide resources suitable for the ages of children on the day
  • Examine resources carefully before, during and after play for signs of damage
  • Make sure wooden resources are not painted with lead based paints and check for splinters
  • Make sure shells and other natural resources are sturdy so if very young children put them in their mouths they will not shatter
  • Some sensory resources can be inhaled – remind children to keep it away from faces
  • Supervise play – don’t be distracted by the doorbell or phone
  • Glass sticks might shatter if hit on the floor or wall very hard – watch for signs of damage
  • Children can drown in a few inches of standing water
  • Remind children about using resources safely during play eg scarves are for waving, not choking

It is important that we trust children to use resources safely and with increasing control as they get older and we teach them how to be safe. However, if there is a serious accident the first thing Ofsted and our insurance company will ask is – ‘what was in your risk assessment?’ so we make sure we regularly assess risk and can confidently explain how we keep children safe if the activity was spontaneous and our risk assessments were not in writing.

© Illustration Hands on as we grow – a toddler activities blog


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