Sensory processing refers to the brain’s ability to receive, interpret, and effectively use information provided by all the senses: vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and the detection of movement (vestibular and proprioceptive systems). The ability to process sensations and filter them efficiently is the foundation upon which higher-level skills such as language, vocabulary, social skills, problem-solving, and coordination are built. Therefore, if there is inefficiency in processing sensory information, a child’s abilities in higher-level skills are compromised.
There are many fun and easy activities you can do with young children to help them develop early sensory skills that will aid in their later development. This article suggests some basic games and activities that can help stimulate and develop the senses. Some of them you are probably already doing! These activities are best for very young children and children with developmental delays.
Sensory Skill: Movement (Proprioceptive & Vestibular)
Proprioception is the awareness of one’s body and where it is in space. To help develop this awareness in your child, set up an obstacle course of pillows or soft blocks to climb over and around so she can start to develop her awareness of where her body is in space as she moves in different directions. Vestibular awareness refers to the sensation of movement and balance. Holding your child and spinning around a few times with her can help with this sense. Another great way to stimulate vestibular as well as proprioceptive awareness is to swing your baby or toddler back and forth in a blanket, varying the speed and direction of the swinging so he can feel and see the shifts in movement and his postion in space.
Sensory Skill: Vision
When you sit your child on your lap, face-to-face, smiling, talking, singing, making faces, or gently swaying from side to side with her, you will be helping her increase awareness of the sense of vision and developing skills related to vision such as spatial awareness, eye contact, and communication. Try to keep the child’s eye-contact going when you do this, and encourage any attempts she makes to communicate. You can also vary this activity by playing peek-a-boo.
Sensory Skill: Touch
Playing in the bathtub is a fun way to help your child develop his sense of touch. Try using a cup to pour small amounts of the bathwater over your child’s hands or body. Try varying the temperature a bit (make sure to test on yourself first!) and talk to him while you do this, using descriptive words for body parts and temperatures, so he can begin to learn vocaublary for different sensations. You can vary this activity by providing bath toys with different textures. When you dry him off with a towel he will be experiencing another texture, as well as the difference between wet and dry.
Sensory Skill: Hearing
Play a listening game to help your child develop his awareness of the sense of hearing: sit quietly, inside or outside, and try to name the sounds you hear. Use vocabulary words to describe what he might be hearing.
Sensory Skill: Taste & Smell
Mouthing or tasting are amongst the earliest ways infants explore their environment. Use contrasting tastes and smells to raise a child’s awareness of her sense of taste, develop her interest in food, practice feeding skills, and give her an opportunity to express preferences. Offer a small taste of a sweet food (pudding, honey, jam) to smell, lick, or taste, and note her reaction to it. Offer more if she would like. Offer a small drink of water to clear the taste, then offer a small amount of a savory food (peanut butter, cheese, soup) to smell, lick, or taste. Note her reaction to this new taste, then offer a choice between the two. Try contrasting other flavors, like saltly and sour, or bitter and spicy, two different textures, or two different temperatures.
Early Sensory Skills, Jackie Cooke (1996).
“Developing and Cultivating Skills Through Sensory Play,“ Danielle Steinberg, pbs.org