What Are Sensory Activities and Why Are They So Valuable to Preschoolers?

During the past 20 years, sensory activities have become a big thing in early childhood education. Many preschools advertise their sensory curriculum, but few people -- even those in the profession -- can properly articulate what it means and why it's valuable. To truly get a handle on sensory activities, one must understand the history of it and its connection to the increase in autism.

When I attended preschool as a kid, sensory activities were the meat and potatoes of the program, but they didn't have that label attached to them. If they were called anything at all, it was messy play. Messy play got incorporated into our daily routine with finger-painting, building castles in the sandbox, playing with hoses and squirt bottles, driving Hot Wheels through shaving cream, tasting fruits and vegetables, and writing numbers and letters in pudding. It was what preschool was all about and it was awesome.

But, in the following decades, preschools grew in popularity and became more competitive with one another for clients. They became to tout readiness skills and academic rigor. This is when we saw the rise of Circle Time, calendar activities, workbooks, and computers. Messy play started to get phased out -- seen as a waste of time by parents who wanted their children to have "real learning." Some teachers were more than happy to comply. After all, doing a worksheet sheet with kids or reading them a story  was far easier and less expensive than time-consuming messy play, which required a good deal of set-up and clean-up. 

However, the return to messy play (now called sensory activities) began about 20 ago years when kids such as my own son were getting diagnosed with autism. Many kids with autism have what's called Sensory Processing Disorder, meaning they have problems organizing the sensations coming from their bodies and their environment. A child who is overly sensitive to touch may get annoyed by itchy tags in his clothes. A kid who is under sensitive to touch may play too rough, bumping into others and knocking them to the ground. A youngster who is overly sensitive to sounds may run away and hide when she hears a vacuum or blender. A child who is overly sensitive to light may hate to go outdoors.

Occupational therapists working with these kids found that sensory activities helped them immensely. But they also discovered how hugely beneficial they were for ALL kids. Sensory activities help children in the following ways:
  • They let kids discover the world in an age-appropriate way: through their senses. This is how children learn and make sense of their environment.
  • They build language. When children examine the world -- its textures, tastes, and sounds -- they're picking up new words in a meaningful way: rough and smooth, shrill and low, salty and sweet. 
  • They enhance fine motor skills. With preschoolers engaging in more screen time, it's essential they have experiences that develop the all-important muscles in their hands and fingers. These activities include rolling and pounding play-dough, stringing beads, and playing with stickers. These will help children when they begin kindergarten and need to hold a pencil correctly and comfortably.
  • They're soothing. Too much screen time and too many structured activities result in kids who are stressed-out, agitated, and tense. Sensory activities such as playing in a warm bath, putting together a puzzle, and painting at an easel are relaxing and peaceful.
  • They're hands-on. Studies show children are more likely to learn and remember when they do, not simply watch.

Find out why sensory activities and hands-on learning

are best at preschool

A water table is a fantastic investment for your kids. Water provides a wonderful sensory experience as it moves slowly and quickly, roughly and smoothly. Great conversations get going around a water table as kids use their imaginations, experiment with materials, and make discoveries. Playing in water is a soothing activity for kids before nap time and bed time.

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