Toddlers and Sensory Learning: How You Can Help
Using taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell to mayke playful encounters educational
Rolling cookie dough into little balls. Making a sandcastle. Dancing to a silly song. Gluing macaroni noodles onto construction paper. Sound like fun? Of course it does! But in addition to being entertaining pastimes, all of these activities involve sensory play and offer incredible learning opportunities for your toddler.
Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Toddler Books, describes sensory play as any kind of play that stimulates a child’s senses. “Toddlers learn by doing,” Douglas says. “They are drinking in information using every tool at their disposal, including their sense of taste, touch, and smell.”
Sensory play is educational fun and it doesn’t require a lot of planning from adults. “The great thing about sensory play is that it allows a child to learn in a natural fashion,” says Douglas. “It feels like fun to children, but they are learning.” Both children and adults are encouraged to “have fun in the moment.”
Douglas says that toddlers usually learn best through tactual and kinesthetic activities, or those that are based on touch and movement. As children get older, their learning styles often shift to auditory and visual activities. To take advantage of your toddler’s learning style, let your child try exploration through some of the following sensory play activities:
One of the easiest (and cleanest!) ways to incorporate sensory play into your toddler’s daily routine is through water play while your child is taking a bath or splashing in a baby pool. Water toys can be store bought, or you can use extra items from your kitchen. Things like measuring cups, funnels, empty squirt bottles, sponges, and eye droppers all double as great tub toys. When toddlers are pouring water from one container to another, they are learning more about the world around them. Be sure to supervise your toddler closely during all water play activities.
Sand and Snow
Digging in the sand and frolicking in the snow provide toddlers with a wonderful tactual experience. Douglas reminds us that the skin is our body’s largest organ, so “anything where kids can use their hands or feet for touching and feeling is great.” Talk with your toddler about how sand and snow feel—Gritty? Warm? Cold? Wet? As with water play, many kitchen accessories make great toys for use in the sand or snow.
Arts and Crafts
Toddlers enjoy the process of creating without worrying about what their project will look like when it is finished. Ideally, art activities will include a variety of materials, many of which you may already have in your home. The basics include crayons, paper, glue, and blunt-ended scissors. For added creativity, kids will have a good time incorporating fabric scraps, cotton balls, coffee filters, egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, and paper bags in their creations. Many children also enjoy using “treasures” found outside, such as pinecones, rocks, leaves, and sticks.
Douglas reminds us that arts and crafts do not have to be fancy to be a fun and valuable learning experience for young children. “People think of elaborate things that come in a kit, but often the happiest memories are the simple things,” she says.
Finger painting is extremely sensory—and can be extremely messy, too! Children love the feel of the cold, wet paint between their fingers, but many moms don’t love the clean up. Have your toddler wear a smock (or even go shirtless if it’s not too cold) and cover the table with newspapers before letting your child begin painting.
One less messy option is the Crayola Color Wonder finger paints. These sets include the paints and a book of paper, and the paint will only mark on that paper. On any other surface, the paint appears clear. Crayola also makes Color Wonder markers, which only mark on the special paper. The sets are a bit pricey, but moms with messy toddlers and preschoolers may feel they are worth the money.
Whether homemade or store bought, play dough is a wonderful medium that can be used to encourage your toddler’s creative spirit. Once again, you can raid your kitchen for objects your child can use with his play dough. Plastic knives, rolling pins, cookie cutters, and plastic dishes are all great tools. Many children enjoy making real-life items out of their play dough, including birthday cakes, cookies, and pizzas.
“Cooking is the ultimate sensory play experience because it can appeal to all of your child’s senses,” says Douglas. She advises sticking with a quick recipe that your child will enjoy cooking as well as eating.
Since young children are kinesthetic learners, music and dancing are perfect ways for them to be inventive and learn new skills, such as rhythm and coordination. Whether you and your toddler share a silly dance, form a marching band, or make your own musical instruments, music can be a wonderful sensory activity.
“Toddlers are all about experimenting through their senses,” says Douglas. “They are so enthusiastic at this age and they have a sheer joy of learning.” We, as parents, get to observe their learning, right before our eyes. Just think of it as your reward for some of the more challenging aspects of toddlerhood!
YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN