Authored by Learning Matters for Skola Toys

What is sensory exploration?

Any activity or experience in which children use the five senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, constitutes sensory exploration. Young children take every opportunity they get to touch things around them. Infants put every objects they can get their hands on into their mouths, including their own feet. Toddlers mash, pinch, squeeze, smear, and spread their food around more than they eat it. They love to bang stuff together to make sounds. They love to play with sand and water. Most of them will automatically reach out to touch walls, handrails, or the plants that they walk by. The more adventurous are not afraid to stick their fingers into any and all materials and, the messier the material, the more fun they seem to have! 

Why do children do this? Because they are intuitively primed to use their senses to explore and examine their world. Touching, feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting things teaches children about the world around them.

Why is sensory exploration important?

Sensory exploration is the foundation of all learning. We cannot learn without making use of one or more of our senses. Given any toy or material, children will first explore it sensorially using one or more of their senses; typically, with their eyes and hands first. They learn and remember best when their senses are engaged as they associate sights, smells, sounds, and tastes with specific objects and experiences and store this learning in their memory. Appropriate and correct sensory stimulation is thus important to build a strong foundation for learning in later years. 

It stimulates brain development

Research has shown that children make better gains in cognitive development when they engage in activities that stimulate their senses. Stimulating various senses sends signals to the brain that helps to strengthen neural pathways and build stronger brain connections that prepare children for complex learning when they are older. As children explore different materials and use various tools with these materials, they are actually engaging in scientific thinking and exploration. They figure out the properties of different materials, what can and cannot be done with and to them, and how to use tools. They encounter problems and problem-solve to come up with solutions. 

It stimulates language development

As children play with different materials, they automatically express their thoughts, feelings, opinions, and ideas (I like splashing. I don’t like wet sand.) They are motivated to ask questions (Why is paint slippery? Why is the clay sticky?) and to learn and remember new vocabulary related to how things feel (fluffy, slippery, dry, warm, smooth), move (fast, flow, trickle), look (bright, dull, light blue, dark blue), smell (yummy, flowery, lemony, sweet), and taste (sour, sugary, delicious, spicy). When they associate a particular word with a particular texture, smell, sound, or taste, they remember the word and reuse it later in a similar situation.  

It stimulates scientific thinking

The materials children work with have many sensory attributes — warm and cool, dry and wet, rough and smooth, hard and soft, textured and slimy, loud and soft. As children discover and differentiate between these attributes, they learn the similarities and differences between things and learn how to classify, sort, and match — an important part of science learning and discovery. When children sort, compare, and match, they use their analytical skills. Experimenting with sand, water, play dough, and clay, for example, allows them to observe the causes and effects of their actions on these materials. And, as children manipulate different materials they formulate ideas and hypotheses about how things will and will not move and work, they observe, and they come to conclusions about the properties of materials based on their experiences. 

It stimulates physical development

The use of the muscles in the fingers and hands during sensory play develops fine and gross motor skills. Using tweezers to pick up cotton balls, stacking blocks, kneading and shaping play dough, pouring water from one container to another, using funnels with sand, and even tearing paper promote fine-motor development and eye-hand coordination that are critical for children when they begin to draw and write.

It stimulates math skills

Sensory experiences provide organic opportunities for children to compare sizes, colours, and textures (My sandcastle is the smallest; your funnel is red but mine is orange), count (five dots of pink paint; two scoops of sand) and measure (My cup is bigger. It can pour more water than your cup).  

It stimulates creative thinking

Imagination and pretend play are at their best during sensory experiences. Play dough is “cooked” into various foods, sand becomes water, and water becomes…well something else entirely. Even the simplest of sensory materials can promote deeply imaginative thinking and complex pretend play which in turn, promote cognitive development. Sensory activities also provide children the chance to understand the aesthetic properties of colour, shape, and size. 

It stimulates emotional development

Sensory experiences such as sand and water play and kneading dough are known to be calming and therapeutic for children. They give children the opportunity to work independently, make decisions, follow a plan, problem solve, and enjoy some alone time with their thoughts and feelings.