Sensory integration is the way that our brain receives, stores, organizes and then responds to the information (sensory input) that it receives. There are 5 basic sensory systems.
Babies learn, discover, and develop through each of these sensory systems along with their vestibular (balance/motion) and proprioceptive (movement sense) sensory systems.
As children learn and grow, they develop abilities to process and understand their senses. A baby will learn to follow the sounds they hear, this in turn will lead to following and interpreting these sounds through touch and sight. A child may enjoy jumping in puddles, their sensory system allows them to; watch as the water splashes, to feel the water on their skin, to hear the splashing sound while using their proprioceptive and vestibular systems to jump, balance and explore their environment. Their brain is interpreting all this sensory information in a controlled and organized way, as the emotions felt from this activity are joyful and happy.
Some children struggle with their senses, and this is known as sensory defensiveness or sensory aversion. Their reactions to sensory stimuli are overly sensitive, meaning their brain is unable to effectively respond to the input it is receiving. In turn this will affect a child's behavior within their environment. For example, sometimes my daughter wears noise canceling headphones when we are out as she can get extremely heightened by bright lights and too many sounds.
Other children may be sensory seekers. This is due to having a an under responsive sensory system, meaning they seek out extra sensory input to better understand and cope with their environment. Sometimes sensory seekers may seem to be very clumsy as they tend to bump into people and objects, this can be their way to gain the input they need to help process the environment that they are in.
When my daughter was younger, she had strong sensory aversions to many things. She couldn’t stand to have anything on her hands or face, disliked the texture of sand and grass to the point of getting super distressed if it touched her and was very selective with touching food. I continued to gently incorporate opportunities to engage in sensory play in a no pressure playful environment. Gradually we built upon this over time and now I have a 7-year-old that loves nothing more than going to the beach and rolling around in the sand. Getting messy through sensory play is now a calming experience for her.
What is sensory play?
Sensory play is any activity that amplifies the senses. One of the wonderful things about sensory play is that there is no right or wrong way, its inclusive to all needs and abilities.
Tactile play – involves our sense of touch. A child may seek out different textures and enjoy touching things, where another may have strong aversions. It is quite a complexed sense, as a child may tolerate one form of tactile input without hesitation and then in contrast their response to another could be completely different. My daughter for example used to get extremely distressed by sand touching her. We started to incorporate a lot of sensory play activities using sensory bins she now loves going to the beach and playing in the sand. However, when we are leaving, she cannot handle if she has any sand left on her. Quite the battle especially when the sand is a bit wet, it’s impossible to get it all off! It’s moments like this where we try to distract her with a different sense (firm cuddle, chewy food) and just keep reassuring her that we will get it all off with a bath.
Some examples of tactile play activities are sensory play bins, finger painting, playing with playdough, sensory boards.
Auditory sensory play – involves our sense of hearing. Some children may seek out noise whereas it may cause distress for others, or a mix of both. Sometimes my daughter with autism makes loud sounds and noises as a form of stimming, she is craving sounds. Then there are times where she can’t handle any noise and needs her environment to be completely quite so she can regulate and calm her mind.
Some examples of auditory play activities are, playing with pots and pans to make music, humming, banging on things to make noise.
Visual sensory play – involves our sense of sight. Messages are sent to our brains and sensory systems through what we see with our eyes, our perceptions of objects in our environments largely depends on our sense of sight. Children who have sensory issues may have an aversion to bright lights and busy rooms as it overstimulates their senses.
Some examples of visual sensory play activities are colour mixing activities, shadow exploration, ‘I spy’ game.
Olfactory sensory play – involves using our sense of smell. Children with a functioning olfactory system can identify and distinguish between pleasant smells and not so pleasant smells. For children with an over-responsive olfactory system, smells can be a trigger for negative feelings and anxiety. In contrast to that, children with an under-responsive system may have a strong need to smell objects to receive the input that their body needs and craves.
An example of olfactory sensory play is adding essential oils to playdough
Oral sensory play – involves our mouth, how we move it and how we use it. My daughter is an oral sensory seeker, meaning she likes to taste different things, craves crunchy foods and chews on everything. Taking part in oral sensory movement provides her with a sense of comfort, it helps to lesson anxieties and overwhelming emotions.
Some examples of oral sensory activities are, blowing bubbles or sucking on ice cubes.
Vestibular sensory play – involves movement and balance. This is the very first sensory system that develops and is likened to the brains ‘traffic controller’, for the different sensory information it receives. Vestibular input can assist to alert and calm our minds, movement can impact the way we feel therefore movement can impact behaviour. In my teaching days I used to say “Ok, let’s get our sillies out!” We would have a wiggle, jump on the spot, roll our head around, just enough movement to gain some sensory input through movement to calm busy minds.
Some vestibular sensory play activities are swings, dancing, hanging from monkey bars, yoga, playing on an obstacle course
Proprioceptive activities – involves providing intense input to the muscles and joints. It provides us with a sense of body awareness. The proprioceptive system also has an important regulatory role in sensory processing as proprioceptive input can assist in controlling responses to sensory stimuli.
Some proprioceptive sensory play activities are, jumping on a trampoline, wheelbarrow races, punching or kicking a punching bag.
The benefits of sensory play
Sensory play is crucial to brain development as it assists in making strong connections to the environment. Each new experience that a child has with one of their senses works to build nerve connections that help grow the foundation of the brain. Our senses provide information that we use every day without even thinking. For example, I can walk into a restaurant without really taking much notice of how many people are there, how bright the lights are, the noise from the kitchen and people moving and talking. My senses have developed over time to train my brain to interpret information in my environment.
For children with sensory struggles or a diagnosis like autism, the ability to react and interpret their senses isn’t just something that naturally develops.
Sensory play is crucial for brain development and has many amazing benefits.
- It can help to support language development
- Develop motor skills
- Encourages learning through exploration
- Supports curiosity
- Develops problem solving skills
- Promotes creativity
- Supports aversions to sensory stimuli
- Builds cognitive skills and helps us to learn about our world
Providing opportunities for children to engage their senses through play is beneficial to both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders. Blowing watercolors through a straw to satisfy the oral and visual senses, using pots and pans to make music to tune into the auditory system, engaging in gross motor play to wake up the vestibular and proprioceptive sensory systems. Never underestimate the power of play and purposely tuning into the senses to both elevate and calm down behaviour