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When babies are born, their first directive is to explore the world with their senses. A baby’s brain undergoes most of its development during the first five years of their lives, making early sensory stimulation a crucial part of their growth. The best (and most fun) way for babies to engage their senses is through sensory play. A 2012 study by Minnesota Children’s Museum (MCM) describes sensory play as a way to instill children with a deep-rooted inclination for learning. Sensory play encapsulates all areas of development, including language, problem solving, creativity, and socio-emotional growth.
From music and movement to splashing around in a bubble bath, sensory play refers to any play which stimulates the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. It also aids the development of two other lesser mentioned senses: body awareness and sense of balance. Also known as proprioception, body awareness is the ability to sense the relative position of self and movement. It’s what enables us to move our limbs without looking at them. Balance, on the other hand, is essential for humans to function effectively. Whether it’s sitting still or riding a bike, we need the ability to control our balance for both static and dynamic activities. Engaging in sensory activities helps the brain create stronger connections to process and respond to sensory information. When a baby is actively stimulating her senses, it lays down the foundation for her to develop other learning skills naturally.
Playing to Learn
As adults, we know that toys are meant for playing, not eating. For us it’s common sense, but we didn’t develop this understanding through logic alone. Biologist and psychologist Jean Piaget believed that the manipulation and exploration of objects were vital to a baby’s development. Babies form awareness and understanding using all their senses. We see it in how they place toys in their mouths, smelling and tasting them before realising that toys do not taste and smell appealing. Naturally, babies come to the conclusion that toys are not meant for their mouths. Instead, they will learn that toys are for entertainment right after they’ve spent enough time using the rest of their senses to fathom the toy’s shape, texture, and sound.
All babies go through this process of learning what’s what. It may seem simple, but it’s how all humans begin their cognitive development. Cognitive skills are what we use to create ideas and solve problems. These vital skills all begin with observation and taking notes of object attributes, which is what babies do by exploring objects over and over again. As they discover and learn new things about different objects, they are filed away in their sensory memory. By experimenting with various materials, sights, and sounds, babies also learn to differentiate and classify different objects, a vital part at the advent of a child’s math and science learning journey.
The benefits of sensory play are more than just cerebral. It also plays a huge role in developing physical skills. Sensory activities that stimulate touch is more important than ever in a world where flat screens rule. By moulding, shaping and splashing around, sensory activities reinforce fine motor skills, dexterity and hand-eye coordination. These tactile actions support the growth development of both large and small muscles, which are necessary for eating, writing and other physical aspects of life.
As a child experiences more and more varied things and sensations, they begin making sense of the world around them and by extension, themselves. In a study published in Child Development Research, play is significant in helping children develop an understanding of themselves. Playing helps them discover their likes and dislikes, one of the basic components of personality. Just by spending a day at the beach, babies learn that they enjoy the feeling of sand between their toes and have an aversion to the salty taste of sea water. It all sounds insignificant, but it’s these personal preferences and validated feelings that help babies develop a sense of self.