[2021 Guide] Sensory Play: What Is It & How To Get Started

Sensory Play: What Is It & How To Get Started

girl painting cardboard house

Sensory play can easily be incorporated into every day play time with your children. Given the plethora of benefits which it provides, it is worth spending some time gaining a deeper understanding of 1) what it is and 2) how to get started with introducing it into your child’s life.

Definition of sensory play

The definition of “sensory play” is not difficult to unpack. Put simply, sensory play is any activity which stimulates one or more of a child’s senses. This includes the primary five sense (sight, smell, sound, touch and taste) as well as the less frequently considered senses such as balance, position and movement.

It follows that all kinds of play have the potential to become a sensory activity.

Your goal is to encourage your child to naturally explore their senses in a fun way through play.

Benefits & ELYF Outcomes of Sensory Play

In addition to simply being a fun thing to do, sensory play brings with it a wide range of benefits.

Here are a few that are commonly mentioned:

  • Sensory Play supports cognitive growth and brain development
  • Sensory Play supports the development of fine and gross motor skills.
  • Sensory Play calms an anxious or frustrated child – the sights and sounds of bubbles, sand and water can help to distract and promote mindfulness.
  • Sensory Play improves sensory processing systems and helps to refine thresholds for different sensory information (eg. help children to learn what is useful and what can be filtered out).
  • Sensory Play promotes a scientific method of thinking and problem solving – children can learn to form hypothesis, experiment and then make conclusions about the natural world.
  • Sensory Play invites inclusive play and creativity because there are no right or wrong answers. It also provides an opportunity for social interaction.
  • Sensory Play develops and enhances a child’s memory.
  • Sensory Play helps children to learn sensory attributes (hot/cold, sticky/dry) thus fostering language development, particularly in relation to the use of descriptive words.

The Early Years Learning Framework (‘ELYF’) was created as part of the Australian Federal Government’s National Quality Framework for early childhood education and care. Put simply, this is documentation, which sets out standards in relation to the educational, social, emotional and physical development of children in early years care, is required to be followed by all Early Learning Centres.

Sensory play incorporates many of the EYLF Outcomes, thus it is essential to incorporate sensory play into a child’s early learning environment whether in a care setting or at home.

What age is sensory play for

From birth through to early childhood, children use their senses to explore and make sense of the world around them. In this way, babies and young children naturally engage in sensory activities from birth (think of when a baby is swaddled in your arms while you sing to them softly, or when they take a bath!).

It is thus difficult to define what age sensory play is for, because sensory play and input is important at all stages of a child’s life. As your little one grows, you can build on natural sensory experiences by introducing simple sensory play activities.

Examples of sensory play activities

Sensory play is limited only by our imagination, with common sense precautions around safety and age appropriateness. Here are a few different examples of sensory play activities to spark some in-home sensory play ideas:

-Water play with bowls of water, scoops, baby shampoo and dinosaurs, cars etc.

-Playdough (can add some dowels, beads, feathers and gems)

-Painting (with paint, with ice, with dyed water!)

-Playing with food

-Calming bottles


-Musical instruments

It is worth keeping in mind that each child responds differently to different sensory activities. It may be worth trying a few different sensory play activities to see what best suits your child’s needs and temperament.

How to encourage sensory play

Encouraging sensory play can be as simple as introducing your child to a new stimuli and seeing how they interact with it. Non-directed play can help to foster play independence.

If your child is older you may wish to ask them questions as they interact with an object. For example, How does it feel? What does it look like? What sound does it make?

Generally, questions which encourages them to engage with several different senses at once will heighten their awareness of the experience.

Sensory play materials & resources

You don’t have to set out to buy special equipment or toys before you can engage in sensory play. However, you may wish to invest in a few key items which have the versatility to support sensory play in various ways if you think sensory play is going to be a regular part of your routine. We’ve rounded up the equipment and supplies that we personally think tops the list:

Sensory Play Resources

1) Carry-Play ™

Carry-Play kids activity table for sensory play

This portable activity table is perfect for both indoor and outdoor sensory play. The storage compartments can hold sand, water, mud or other sensory supplies such as dry rice, pasta, etc. The table tops can be used for duplo and lego blocks, or reversed for painting or craft. Being portable, it won’t take up a lot of real estate. It is easy-wipe and 100% waterproof, so you can just hose it down in the garden or shower after use.

2. A Big Drop Cloth or Messy Mat

messy mat for sensory play activities

When engaging in indoor sensory play, we usually put a big drop cloth or mat under the sensory play table for easy clean up. You can also use an old sheet or towel that you already own.

3. Curved Balance Board by HipKids

wooden balance board

The wobble board / balance board is a firm favourite in many households. It is multi-use because not only does it help to develop a child’s sense of balance and strength but it can also be used as a slide, seesaw, step, bridge, play house, rocker, lounge seat, race track.

4. Silicone Sensory Circle Pods by TickiT

sensory circle pads

These circles are placed on the floor or mounted to the wall for some serious gross motor sensory fun. By using your imagination you can make a variety of fun games with these while offering your child some great tactile input, helping them learn and differentiate colours and textures. Lots of versatility for use and there’s also potential for group games to help with socialisation.

5. Latches Board by Melissa & Doug

Melissa and Doug busy board for toddlers

This latch and key set is perfect for tactile stimulation and problem solving. Trying to open the keys and latch of each home will help improve fine motor skills, and working out how to open each latch is a unique experience in problem solving! The homes are numbered and each home houses different animals inside – another great tool to encourage the development of language skills.

Sensory Play Materials

1) Playdough and Paints

playdough and paint for sensory activities

Play dough and paints are two basic sensory play materials that have lots of different uses in sensory play. There are various play dough recipes which you can search for online if you wish to make it yourself at home. Washable and food-safe paints are great to incorporate into your sensory play toolkit.

2) Kinetic sand

kinetic sand

Kinetic sand is a good supply to add to the mix as it always feels like the perfect, wet, sand castle making sand from the best spot on the beach (and a perfect indoor sensory activity on a rainy day). It’s rich in texture and gives kids the ability to shape and form it into other objects – perfect for pretend play and is instrumental to the development of spatial awareness.

3) Natural materials

Other easy and inexpensive sensory materials include: Natural materials (twigs, leaves, flowers, grass, weeds, water, pebbles, bark, feathers, pine cones, sea shells), or things you can find in your pantry (dried pasta, chickpeas, oats, dyed spaghetti, beans, rice, jello, flour, cornmeal etc).

We hope you are encouraged to start incorporating sensory play into your child’s play time, and understand that the process doe not have to be complicated and that the materials do not have to be expensive.

Have fun being your child’s first teacher!

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