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Making Sense of Sensory Play

Some of us remember learning about the 5 senses during our own childhoods: Sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. Did you know there are two others that have been studied more thoroughly in the last twenty years? Proprioception and vestibular! Those don't rhyme as easily in the children's songs though.

In our playroom, we provide opportunities for exploring most of these senses regularly. In 2024, we plan to incorporate MORE sensory play ideas while also creating a de-stimulation space, because even as grown ups, things can get overwhelming and we just want quiet time.

This is why we are here: as a parent myself, I recognize that I may not be able to provide all these sensory experiences in my own home or daily errands for my kids. What may seem like silly behavior from littles is showing itself in the latest research that it is really important for them to play in water, swing from the ceiling, and break up all the legos across the room. I know, that immediately makes most grown ups cringe. Sometimes, you need a break and our playroom can be just that: not simply a break from managing a family and raising a child, but also integrating these key stimuli into their play without destroying your furniture or sanity. Let us handle the stress.

Ok so let's make sense of senses!

  • Sight: wondrous colors can impact mood and energy levels, and even motivate certain behaviors. Ever wonder why most fast food restaurants advertise warmer colors like reds, oranges, and yellows? It can stimulate hunger, excitement, and extroversion! Brighter colors in areas can spark creativity, while subdued colors can create soothing, calmer moods. We aim to have bright primary colors in places to stimulate play, while maintaining a color scheme; we don't want to overwhelm their attention span!

    • Have we talked about natural light?? Natural light and soft shadows create a harmonizing and inviting spot for children to play (this is why we fell in LOVE with our windows!)

  • Smell: scents can evoke strong emotional responses in all humans. Certain smells can stimulate relaxation, excitement, and positive memories. In your own play spaces, you can variate what scents work for your children. In our playroom, we keep our space clean without the use of harsh smells, especially while families are here. But we also recognize walking into a clean smelling space can be relaxing and encouraging.

    • Play-based smells with sensory bins! Playing with oatmeal? Warm oat and even cinnamon fragrance can boost play. Hands on play with noodles?

Oregano, thyme, and rosemary can inspire pasta vibes, and even correlate good memories! Speaking of memory, if you have dedicated reading time, a particular scent in the room can help children recognize it's time to grab a book.

  • Touch: We all know kids love to touch EVERYTHING. And yet, there are some textures or temperatures that some of us don't appreciate, or love more than others. Sand, water, rice, beans; hard, soft, squishy, pointy, hot, cold, slimy. There are so many variations and each person likes different things.

    • Did you know it goes beyond just what feels good on your hands, feet, and body? Your brain is forming neural pathways every time you feel something. Eventually, those connections tell you what you may be dealing with, but littles are learning these things every minute of the day!

    • It can also help with fine motor skills (grabbing, picking up, scooping) Sensory bins aren't the only resource either! Think finger painting, sculpting with clay, building with heavy or light blocks, and nature. Nature is one of the best sensory play opportunities out there (literally). Grass, mud, sand, wind, rain, sun, warm, cold, you name it! Keep in mind every person has different preferences and levels of stimulation and to take time to recharge and take breaks from too many tactile experiences.

  • Sound: Another sense that can be not enough, too much, or just right Goldilocks! Auditory stimuli is critical with language development. Soundscapes can create relaxation and reduce stress levels (think nature sounds and lullabies)

    • Think about our music therapy groups with Positive Note Music Therapy, it can improve memory, spatial awareness, emotional regulation, and overall confidence in play.

    • Don't underestimate the power of white noise and silence. Quiet space is also stimulating and for most of us, necessary after being "on" all the time.

  • Taste: Research on this sense is limited because well, sometimes we forget it's a sense. In our day to day lives, we eat meals, snacks, and take drinks subconsciously without recognizing its effect on our brain. Add in safety of allergies, mess, and age appropriate options, and it can be difficult! Babies know this best: want to learn about a new thing? Put it in our mouth!

    • Food based play! Baking and cooking can encourage children to learn a new skill, but also try new textures and flavors. It may not seem great to you, but eating raw onion or lemon? Definitely a learned experience.

  • Edible sensory play! Cooked pasta, rice, mashed fruits, yogurt, whipped cream, cranberries, the list goes on. At Back to Play, we try not to use perishable foods often, but when we do, we make sure the chickens and goats at our friends' farms eat well that next week!

The final two are less talked about, but really up and coming in research in the last 10-15 years.

  • Proprioceptive: Understanding one's body position and movement. Referred to as the sixth sense, it strengthens a person's connection with their muscles, joints, and taking up space in the world. Think fine motor skills and coordination, it's like doing mini athletic classes in ordinary tasks

    • Heavy stuff! Lifting books, moving kid's furniture, resistance bands, and even measuring different weights is great play for this sense! Ever wonder why your child loves pushing a car or lawn mower around again and again?

    • Stress balls, play dough, or jumping on pillows/modular couches! What better way to understand your "weight" in the world than to crush stuff!

    • Swing, swing swing! We love our swings! Any movement putting pressure on joints incorporating movement is important stuff. Climbing jungle gyms and roughhousing are also fun examples!

  • Vestibular: Listen to this, vestibular sensory stimulation begins in your ears! It piggy backs with proprioceptive, focusing on balance and movement coordination. It really refines and enhances those that spatial awareness. Ever been super sick or ear infection and just feel off? That middle ear does much more than bring sound to your brain!

    • Rocking and Swinging! Back and forth movement, and SPINNING really stimulate this system. We've got our rocking arch for so many ways to move!

    • Balance Beams and Obstacle Courses! We have obstacle course pieces in our playroom that are versatile to all types of play, but its core purpose is to work on core muscles and balance!

    • Tumbling! Remember rolling down hills when you were a kid? Despite the headache it may cause now, it can actually be soothing and calming for children. Controlled tumbling and somersaults regulate emotions.

Thanks for reading through some of the necessary fluff of information! We truly hope to help all families access this opportunity for holistic development and exploration with their children. Our playroom is aimed for fun, and also to help children THRIVE. We want to increase those family bonds, push kids to explore, reach outside their comfort zone for both sensory play and social connections. We want to be inclusive so if there are those that really prefer a specific sensory experience, they can count on our space to provide. Caring for children is HARD WORK. We aim to get everyone Back to Play, no matter how much time it takes or the mess it makes!



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