What’s with all of the “Sensory Bins”?: How sensory play impacts brain development in children

If you are a pinterest junky mom, like me, you’ve likely notices a flood of posts in recent years that use phrases like, “discovery bags”, “busy board/books”, “messy play”, and “sensory bins”. What is all of the hype about? Why is it so important that young children be allowed to explore, get messy, and play using all of their senses?

Data shows that healthy brain development requires stimulation and play that uses all of a child’s senses: touch, sight, taste, smell, sound, balance, and spatial awareness. Did you know that letting a child squish play dough, get muddy in the yard, and run their fingers through sand, all help their brain develop? And doing activities like these regularly can have benefits like improved motor skills, problem solving, and even eating their fruits and veggies!? Here I outline three fascinating studies that talk about these benefits.

Enjoyment of tactile and messy play is linked to the consumption of more fruits and vegetables!

2015 study by Coulthard H. and Thakker D. Study abstract here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212267215002221

This study describes an unexpected benefit from messy play. Playing with new textures can help lower a child’s fear of new food! The researchers found that when a child is allowed to play with different textures, like mud, play dough, slime, gelatin, and objects of nature, their brain builds positive connections with those textures. They start to think of different textures as safe, fun, and something to explore. So, when their mother serves them mashed peas later that day, they are willing to give them a try instead of rejecting them completely.

Excuse me, I need to go frantically google 50 ways to make play dough and slime.

Playing at a sand and water table engages at least 8 different categories of learning.

Article by Highscope Demonstration Preschool. http://www.geneseeisd.org/DocumentCenter/View/4144

This article is written by an educator at Highscope Demonstration Preschool. It’s not strictly a scientific study, but it’s written about the benefits a teacher, Suzanne Gainsley, has observed in children who engage in sensory play at a water and sand table. In it she highlights at least 7 different ways she has observed children learning and growing during sensory play.

1. Problem solving

Working with a variety of different materials gives a child the opportunity to figure out the physical characteristics of, for example, sand vs. water. This allows them to engage in trial and error as they learn how to manipulate different shapes and textures. For example, they learn how to keep cups upright to avoid spilling the water, or how to press down hard on a cookie cutter into play dough, because pressing softly won’t go all the way through.

2. Social skills

If multiple kids are playing at a water and sand table, they will inevitably practice their sharing skills! They can even learn how to work together to fill or carry a large bucket of water, hold a funnel in place, or turn a water wheel together. Free play environments are safe places for children to practice interacting kindly with each other. Plus, they (hopefully) learn how to clean up after themselves.

3. Fine motor skills

Combining loose materials such as sand, bird seed, rice, or beans, with manipulatives such as spoons, sieves, tweezers, cups, and funnels, helps to get those little hands working and building muscles. Fine motor skills focusing on a child’s hands helps with learning to write.

4. Vocabulary

Tactile play introduces a lot of new descriptive words into a child’s vocabulary. Talk to your child and ask them questions about what they see, hear, and feel. Use words that may be new to your child: squishy, lumpy, firm, wet, crinkly, rough, oozy, smooth…etc.

5. Mathematics

There are so many ways children can visualize numbers, spaces, and shapes at a sand and water table! How many cups of water does it take to fill this bucket? Is this ball small enough to fit in that tube? Do I want to build a curvy or straight road? When they are allowed to explore these questions at their own pace, they can build an understanding of numbers and shapes that will help them in math class later on.

6. Imaginative play

Imaginative play happens naturally when children get to explore new materials. They will automatically start imagining a construction site when given sand and a toy dump truck. Building cities with roads, buildings, lakes, and trees is also a favorite when playing in a sand box or table. Playdough is almost sure to become blobby monsters, and rice poured out of a cup is a beautiful waterfall. With so many new textures and characteristics to explore, it’s no wonder children’s imaginations run wild during sensory play.

7. Science

There are many ways to use sensory play to introduce science concepts. In my September science kit for preschoolers we do an apple baking soda volcano to introduce chemical reactions. Touching and feeling the bubbles is always a must for little hands.

Sensory Play Stimulates Brain Development

Articles by Dr. Audrey Van der Meer, featured in science daily: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170102143458.htm

Dr. Audrey Van der Meer of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology has been studying the development of young children’s brains for many years. Here are some facts from her research and other research that she sites:

  1. Young children’s brains develop at an astonishing rate. They can form up to a thousand new neural connections per second as the neurons increase in number and specialization.
  2. Stimulation using  whole body and all of their senses encourages more connections between neurons and more neural pathways in a child’s brain.
  3. If new synapses (connections between neurons) are not used and stimulated enough, they can disappear. But tactile and sensory play can help the brain retain its plasticity.

This is fascinating research, but what should we, as parents, do with it? What we should not do is panic, thinking that if our children do not receive all of the most perfect sensory and tactile stimulation we will ruin them for life. Most children are drawn to sensory play and will explore new materials and textures on their own. But what we can do is to be intentional about how our child spends their time. Are they busy tearing up and crinkling paper, or watching a tv show? Are they allowed to get messy outside or is their mother afraid of stains? Do they get to help you mash the potatoes or are they relegated to the i-pad while you make dinner? Turn off the TV, buy some play clothes, and engage with your kids. Their brains will thank you.

If you need help finding and planning for fun sensory activities to do with your kids, purchase one of my preschool science kits! I have done all of the planning, shopping, and prep work for you. Just open the box and start playing. They are available here.