As adults we know that strong memories can be associated with places, smells, songs and even movements. This is because whatever we memories we create for our body are also recorded by the mind and the more interactive an experience, the more likely we will learn from it, and remember how it made us feel. This is why children learn best and retain information more when they are given the opportunity to learn through their senses – their senses are the most familiar and instinctive way for them to learn and explore, right from the moment they’re born.
Why do we focus on sensory experiences for our children?
Sensory experiences encourage the stimulation of the seven sensory systems – sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, vestibular and proprioceptive. We are all familiar with the main five senses of taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing, but there are also two other senses with are critical in helping your children experience and learn: the balance system (vestibular system) and the sense of intuition (proprioception).
The vestibular system is our sense of balance and movement. This sense is what helps children to understand gravity, safety, survival, levels of arousal, and the ability to pay attention. The vestibular system allows children the ability to adapt, orientate and adjust their bodies depending on the sensory input they receive. Without good balance and stability children may struggle with later formal learning such as reading and writing, because they are still trying to keep their body in balance. If their vestibular system is under developed they may be investing all their energy on sitting still, and therefore have no energy left to focus on writing and reading.
The intuition sense (proprioception) helps children to position themselves within their wider environment. It consists of their awareness of their own body, their awareness of their body in space, their subconscious sense of themselves, and their awareness of how much force (strength) is needed to complete a variety of tasks. This is being developed with everyday tasks such as opening doors and moving through them, mixing the baking bowl, washing themselves in the bath and hugging those around them.
Sensory experiences can be exciting and exhilarating, but also calming and soothing. Children love to swing and hang upside down on monkey bars, but equally their senses can be stimulated by cuddling up for a story, brushing a doll’s hair, having a warm bath or petting a small animal. Sensory play is not only a way to help children learn and explore the world around them, but it is also an opportunity to help them manage and process strong emotions such as intense excitement, fear and frustration. Ultimately, sensory play can support children to build trust, feel safe and feel more positive in themselves, in their behaviours and the world around them.
Keeping play messy
The great news is that sensory play is best when messy, and there’s simply no right or wrong. Every experience teaches children something, good or bad. If they fall while climbing, their minds and their bodies will remember the experience and help them to improve their foothold next time. If they get splashed in the eye with water, their minds and bodies will remember to react faster next time. Life it all about trial and error, experimentation and discovery – feeling brave enough to try something new and push your own boundaries is a wonderful skill to learn at a young age, promoting positive life-long attitudes towards being active and healthy.
The bottom line is: the more we can keep our children active and using all their senses in play, the better!
There’s a great article about this in the latest Swings Roundabouts if you’d like to keep reading: http://publications.waterfordpress.co.nz/swings-roundabouts-winter-19/