All about our sensory system and the importance of sensory play
Did you know that when it comes to the “sensory” realm, occupational therapists and other professionals refer to 8 senses (not 5!)? As part of the nervous system, the sensory system is responsible for processing information gathered by each of the individual senses we all have. Composed of the brain, spinal cord, and neurons, each person’s sensory system serves as neurological wiring that allows us to continuously recognize and process new things, environments and even what’s going on within our bodies. Especially for kids, sensory play serves as an engaging (and incredibly fun!) way for them to take a deep dive into all of their senses as they discover more about their world.
You may be as surprised as we are to learn that our sensory system extends beyond the standard 5 senses. Embracing the beauty of new knowledge, here is the full list of senses:
1. Sight/Vision: What you see through your eyes
2. Hearing: Your sense of noise and sound captured through your ears
3. Taste: Also known as “gustatory” (talk about a fun word!), this sense gathers information through your tongue and mouth
4. Touch: Sensations felt through your skin
5. Smell: Also known as “olfactory”, these are scents gathered through your nose
6. Movement: Recognized by sensory receptors in your joints, muscles, and your inner ear (who knew?). Also referred to as “proprioception” (another fun word), this sense signals to your brain about where your body, arms and legs physically are.
7. Balance: This is actually sensed through your inner ear. Slightly different than movement, your sense of balance (or vestibular sense) provides signals on how to keep your body upright. This is why vertigo can happen when you have any fluids in your ears!
8. Interoception: This sense is more about how your body is feeling (i.e. hungry, thirsty, etc.) and helps you remain aware of what is going on inside.
Every single one of these sensory systems constantly processes new information for us (adults and kiddos alike) to understand and react to. Moreover, how new inputs are processed is inherently unique to every individual and can change with time or even throughout a single day. There are a TON of ways to introduce your kids to sensory play, many of which require little to no preparation from parents, and there are taste-safe sensory play options as well, meaning that your child can embrace all sorts of new tastes and foods! Talk about a parenting win/win!
Sensory food play is an incredible way to incorporate sensory stimulation into your child’s daily routine. Each time a child is introduced to a new food, a connection is made in their brain and with increased exposure, those connections only become stronger. Ultimately, our kids are able to decide how they want to react to that food item as newer connections build upon prior ones. This is why it can take anywhere between 12 to 30 "introductions" before a kiddo decides if they even like a new food.
At GoBe Kids, we distinctively understand and empathize with how parents are challenged and concerned about providing optimal nutrition for their kids. Our founders diligently researched the importance of sensory stimulation when it came to snack time. Ultimately, it was the quest for a container that could enable parents to offer a variety of snacks and empower kids to choose what they want to eat in a sensory-rich manner led to the creation of GoBe’s Snack Spinner.
To add some sensory fun into both snack and play time, here are a few options for you (and your kiddos) to try!
Introducing your kiddo to a sensory bin is super simple and requires little prep for parents. Start by taking a clear 28 quart storage bin (i.e. the kind that you can slide under a bed) and put some dry, uncooked rice into the bottom. Rice is a perfect option if you are just starting to introduce your kid to sensory play: it’s edible, easy to vacuum and fantastic for pouring into any bowls or measuring cups you want to place in the bin. You can even place a large beach towel underneath the bin (just in case your little one gets really into it!).
For some easy sensory bin fillers, try using any of the following:
- Water (another great option for pouring practice)
- Cooked spaghetti noodles (Pro tip: It’s extra fun if you color them blue and green and play “ocean rescue” to save a toy!)
- Dry cereal (this is a great way to introduce new cereals to your littles)
- Jello (this requires some prep work but once it’s ready, toss in some child-safe cookie cutters and make some fun shapes with your kiddos!)
Give your kid their own personal toppings or condiments bar
When it comes to more complex dishes like burgers, pizza, and even pasta dishes, your child may not like having the meal presented together, all at once. An easy option for you to try is presenting the basics of the dish (i.e. just the bun and burger or just a bowl of pasta) along with a mini toppings bar for your child to decide what to use/put on the basics. Feel free to use the Snack Spinner as a vessel to hold different sauces and vegetables, and if you’re feeling extra creative, use some fun shape cutters like these!
Get creative and make a sensory bag!
A great (and mess-free) way to engage kids of all ages is to make a sensory bag with things you have around the house. Starting out simple, fill a ziploc bag with water and put in pieces of aluminum foil in varying sizes. Seal it up and watch your babe or toddler try to grab a piece of foil or push around the water.
You can also make a color-sorting sensory bag for your littles by following these easy steps:
- Use a Sharpie to draw circles with names of colors (2 colors is great to start with) inside of the circles onto a 1-2 gallon freezer bag.
- Squeeze enough hair gel (soap or lotion also works well as substitutes) to give good coverage as the bag is lying flat.
- Place buttons or pom poms in your targeted colors into the bag.
- Make sure to seal the bag really well. If you are unsure, you can always double up on the bags just to be safe.
- You can either lay the bag on a flat surface or use some masking tape to attach it to a high chair tray.
- Sit back and watch your kid have a blast!
Explore the spice cabinet
Does your toddler enjoy watching you cook? The next time your soon-to-be sous chef is hanging out with you in the kitchen, take out some spices and invite your child to smell each one. If there is one that they really seem excited about, try sprinkling some on plain yogurt or apple slices so your kiddo can explore how it tastes, smells, and feels.
Have some bath time fun!
Offer your kids some shaving cream or bathtub-friendly crayons and finger paints to turn bath time into a whole new, fun experience! If your kid enjoys bubble baths, offer a big spoon and enjoy the delighted giggles as they scoop up countless bubbles. There are also a ton of sensory bath toys out there to take your little one’s next bath to the next level:
Prepare and fill your Snack Spinner together
Sometimes a great solution is a simple one: let your kids pick and fill their Snack Spinner before you head out on your next outing. Not only does this foster your little one’s independence in picking what they would like to eat, but letting them directly handle the food helps increase their exposure to different food textures. You can also engage your kids in a “taste talk” and have a fun conversation about all the colors, textures, sizes, and tastes they are picking out.
Ultimately, sensory play goes beyond colorful bags, noodles, or finger painting. As there are tons of ways to receive sensory stimulation every single day, the spectrum of opportunities to incorporate sensory play for your kids is just as vast. Don’t worry about how many different types of sensory bins you are making for your kids as sensory stimulating activities can vary by age alone. A young infant snuggling with a soft lovey and a toddler making mud pies (and it’s actually beneficial for little ones to get a bit messy during their play time!) are both examples of sensory rich play. Your kids are engaging in sensory play just by being their naturally curious selves — lean into that and watch their cognitive skills blossom in front of your eyes.
Last but not least, please allow yourself to live in the moment and enjoy the special memory you’re helping your child create as they try something new or discover a new skill. You’re doing a beautiful job raising kind, confident, fun loving kiddos, so celebrate with some quality play time with the most adorable playmates around!
- Alissa, from the GoBe Team