This article was updated 26 March 2023

Its name gives you some indication of what it may involve. Sensory play is an activity that stimulates at least one of a child’s five senses: touch, sight, taste, smell or hearing. And, according to Maria La Cava, who owns and operates several Sydney-based early learning centres, including sensory activities during play is essential for kids.

“Sensory play is a great way to learn new skills and enhance knowledge,” she explains. “The most common benefit we see is that children learn new words. Benefits also move into science and much more.”

This is a view backed by researchers like Debbie LeeKeenan, early childhood consultant and former director of the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts University. “We know that young children learn through everyday play and exploration in safe and stimulating environments,” she told The Brain Architects podcast. “Young children learn when they’re using their whole body and senses.”

Touch-based Sensory Activities

Before little ones can walk or talk, they use their sense of touch to make sense of the world. Babies will grab onto someone’s finger or their hair; at mealtimes, they’re all about squashing and exploring their food. Through using their fingers and hands to play and experiment, kids are also developing important fine motor skills they’ll need later on for drawing and writing. You can enhance this development by encouraging tactile sensory play. 

“Try things like playdough or modelling clay, coloured and kinetic sand, block play, and goop and slime,” suggests Maria. “These are some of our favourite sensory activities at our preschools.” 

The Kadink Sensory Dough Set is wonderful. It comes with eight logs of dough, a textured rolling pin and various sensory textures. Another great find is the clever Kadink Sensory Drawing Set, which features various textured plates and lets kids explore their artistic and creative sides. 

It’s easy to set up sensory activities at home using everyday items. Fill a large tub with water, add various scoops, cups and funnels, and you’ve got hours of water play fun. 

Hot Tip: Freeze mini figurines like counting bears in an ice cube tray, and let the kids use pipettes and warm water to set them free.

What To Try

Sensory Games for Sight

Painting and making art is important to develop creativity, but it’s also part of sensory development.

While a newborn begins life with relatively poor vision, babies soon begin developing sight skills and looking around for greater stimulation. It’s essential to continue this process of through sensory games like I-spy and reading books with colourful pictures. 

Encourage children to look around and make detailed observations whenever you’re outside. Nature walks armed with a magnifying glass are an awesome idea. “Engaging in sensory experiences can enhance a child’s cognitive skills and help them learn about the world around them,” agrees Maria. 

Looking at and making art is also a valuable part of sensory development, because it uses a range of senses and skills while allowing kids to express themselves. The Kadink Sensory Collage Set lets kids go wild with glue and a bunch of coloured craft materials. Meanwhile, the Kadink Sensory Fingerpaint Set is tons of fun, with tubs of bright finger paint, as well as textured sheets and sensory textures for promoting creativity and imagination. 

Most kids love painting but it’s not just filling up a canvas or sheet of paper that’s engaging – the paint itself is fun to play with, as young artists mix and make colours. “Messy play is also great,” Maria says. “The mess can be cleaned up. The learning is [what’s] valuable during sensory play.” 

The same goes for playing with mud, slime, coloured rice and sand. 

Hot Tip: Kadink paints are a great choice, as they are all Australian made, non-toxic and washable for parents' peace of mind.

What To Try

Turn Listening Into Sensory Play

Making musical instruments is fun and sound is also part of sensory play.

Babies begin to hear sounds when they’re still in the uterus, with research suggesting tiny brains are identifying speech patterns and preparing us for acquiring language even then. Small children use sounds to explore and to express themselves, while hearing music, familiar voices and even white noise has the ability to delight or calm us. 

Making musical instruments is a fun sensory activity for preschool-aged children. Use cardboard rolls, scraps of paper and rubber bands to create sound tubes then fill them with noisy substances like lentils, rice, coffee beans or jelly beans. A cardboard box and some rubber bands can be transformed into a basic mini guitar. Or really go to town and add a hole for better acoustics, decorate with a geometric design using paint markers, and even add some wooden sticks for a bridge.

Listening to music and singing songs are crucial sensory activities for preschoolers. Others, like dancing to music or playing games like musical statues, also help develop motor skills, allowing kids to work on coordination, control and flexibility. 

What To Try

SEE ALSO: Fun STEM Learning and Sensory Play Ideas for Kids

Include Taste in Sensory Games

Playing with your food can be fun and also encourages sensory games.

We all know kids can be picky eaters, so exploring their sense of taste is a really good idea. Making food fun, interesting and accessible might just be the key to broadening their horizons and getting them to try new things. 

There are many ways to incorporate taste into sensory activities. A food taste test, for example, can elicit discussion and introduce new words like “spicy” or “sweet”. 

Cooking with kids is beneficial for introducing early mathematical concepts like fractions, measurement and time, as well as enhancing their fine motor skills while chopping and stirring. Plus, kids are way more likely to eat food they’ve had a hand in making themselves. 

Playing with food is not only messy, but fun – and a fact of life for little ones who inevitably try to stick things in their mouths. Try sensory activities for toddlers such as stacking their cooked veggies, or you can teach scissor skills with soft cooked spaghetti and threading with Cheerios and string. 

What To Try

Sensory Play Gets Smelly

Plants, flowers and scented slime all play a part in sensory activities that encourage smell.

Looking for activities that encourage their sense of smell? “There are so many things you can do at home and they don’t have to cost lots of money,” explains Maria. “For one thing, you could make playdough and add natural oils like eucalyptus or lavender.” 

Going for nature walks and smelling flowers and plants you find along the way is very simple, plus can lead to exciting discoveries and plenty of discussion. 

Otherwise, apply scents to cotton wool balls and conduct an old-fashioned olfactory experiment. Or try a splash in the tub with scented bath bombs or bubble bath. Another plaything irresistible to kids is scented slime

Again, a huge component of all sensory play is discussion, and getting kids to describe what they can see, hear or, in this case, smell. For example, you could enjoy a chat while having fun with scented stickers. This cultivates language and creativity, and allows them to make deeper connections.

What To Try

SEE ALSO: Fun Learning Games for Kids to Play Around the Dinner Table