What is Sensory Play and why does it matter in early years learning?

We see the word sensory appearing all the time with regards to children’s activities and development, but what is it?  And why does it matter? 

‘Sensory play’ is basically activities that stimulate and engage your little one’s senses; sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. From birth babies use all these senses to learn about the word around them. They can hear Mummy’s familiar voice, they can see bright lights, smell and enjoy the taste of milk, feel a soft blanket. It is through these simple ‘every day’ experiences new brain connections are built.
 
90% of a child’s brain is developed within the first five years! These pre-school years of learning are vital in the development of language and social skills. Positive interactions with care givers are essential in the shaping the wiring of the growing brain. Skin to skin contact for babies, singing songs, sharing toys with other children, running hands through poured water are all practical and hands on learning activities that stimulate and engage our young learners but can also reassure and sooth anxiety.
 
Merbabies Baby and Pre-school swimming classes use sensory play as a basis for their learning objectives. Learning to swim can be a daunting task and you may worry that taking a new born baby swimming will be overwhelming. But through the medium of sensory play our babies and toddlers are having a really positive learning experience that is so much more than just a swim lesson.
 
For babies being cradled close to a loved one having their skin stimulated by a warm soft sponge is quite blissful and when their limbs glide through the water while visually tracking a yellow ducky they are experiencing multiple sensory factors, thus heightening their sensory intake in just a few seemingly simple activities.
 
Imaginative play, which is when children are essentially role playing or ‘pretending’ to be… a fish or in a rocket, goes hand in hand with Merbabies sensory play objectives when it comes to teaching our toddlers and pre-schoolers essential swimming skills. Washing their hair with a colourful animal character wash mitt is a simple way to build confidence of water on the face, with a natural distraction of the prop. Being a bear with ‘claw hands’ reaching for food shapes through the water is a first stage swim stroke, but for many lacking confidence initially the ‘hunt for food’ is a positive distraction from how far they’ve moved across the water.  ‘Popping out’ like a pea from a pod is a fun way of learning propulsion in the pool, the focus being on the fun not daunting task of letting go of the safe pool edge!
 
Merbabies aim is to build water confidence, lay the foundations for early swimming and ultimately teach safe swimming practices but our objectives along the way are to promote positive, fun learning environments where we all learners feel happy and engaged while developing water confidence, language development, cognitive growth, problem solving, fine and gross motor skills and social interactions through our inclusion and recognition of sensory play techniques.
 
Emma-Louise is an early years expert and teaches Merbabies baby to pre-school swim classes in Fife as well as playing a leading role in the development of our themed, sensory lesson plans. 

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