From the day your baby is born, they begin to learn about the world around them through their senses and sensory play provides an essential foundation for children’s overall development.
It is very important that children have the opportunity to explore their environments by using all of their senses as doing so helps to contribute to healthy brain development through the growth of neurological connections (These are the building blocks of the brain).
The development of the senses is key in underpinning all other areas of development as the acquisition of all skills comes from using these sensations to understand the world around us.
Sensory development requires the development and coordination of both gross and fine motor skills and its development contributes to brain development as it stimulates healthy neurological connections. Many people are aware of the five key senses (Vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell). But there are also three other lesser-known senses at play, the vestibular system and the proprioceptive system and Interoception.
The vestibular system is known as our balance centre and it is able to receive information about our bodies movements. The development of this system is a lot to do with the development of our inner ear and therefore can be stimulated by changes in the position of our head. It is responsible for our balance, posture and movement sensations.
Lots of us can usually list five senses. But did you know there are eight? These include:
Our senses work by sending messages through to the cells in our brain called receptors. These then use the bodies nervous system to deliver the message to whatever part of the body needs it. Such as when we drink a brew that is too hot! These lightning-fast messages help us to understand the world around us and keep us safe.
The biggest organ we have in our body, is our skin  and when we are touched, the receptors in our skin send a message to our brain of the connection and it releases endorphins into our body (the happy hormone) and this is often why a hug from someone we love can make us feel much better.
Touch is a very important sense, especially to newborn babies. Skin to skin contact is hugely beneficial for developing a bond with your baby and helps regulate body temperature, calm a baby and lowers both you and your baby’s blood pressure and heart rate.
Ways to support the development of this sense:
Skin to skin contact, baby massage, cuddles, back rubs, holding hands and stroking hair are lovely ways to stimulate this sense. Additionally, playing with objects that have different textures such as scarfs, wooden spoons, brushes and feathers are ways to encourage the tactile sense.
Our sense of smell works by odour molecules in the air, entering our noses and being processed by receptors which then send a message to our brain. Babies can detect the smell of their mothers whilst still in the womb and their sense of smell will continue to develop and get stronger over their first five years. Interestingly, our sense of smell is also closely linked with taste and memory.
Ways to support the development of this sense:
Mixing herbs with water to create smelly paints, baking, making playdough using essences or spices or going a walk to see what smells you can find.
Babies taste buds completely form whilst they are in the womb and by birth, they can taste bitter, sour and sweet flavours. Taste starts with our sense of smell and the brain picks up the smell through the nose and then when saliva and taste buds combine, we get the sensation of taste.
When weaning encourage them to explore a mixture of both bitter and sweet vegetables. Give them safe objects to explore that are different to their day-to-day toys, such as wooden spoons, materials, stainless steel kitchen utensils and brushes.
Babies are born being able to see things such as outlines, light and movement and can see objects about 30cm away from them. As their eyesight develops, they begin to focus and understand depth perception, colours and people. With their eyesight usually fully formed whilst still a baby.
Holding new objects in front of their faces and slowly moving them side to side. Explore light using torches, fairy lights or star projectors and share books and pictures that contain high contrast pictures.
Hearing develops in the womb and the majority of babies are born with fully developed hearing. You will notice this in your baby as they are easily startled by noises or are able to be soothed through soft sounds. As they develop, they will begin to respond to you and recognise words.
Make musical instruments, do a sound walk or hide objects and see if your child can recognise it from the sound it makes.
This sense is first developed whilst in the womb and when a baby is born they begin to create an awareness of their body through touch and movement. The more information they gain by exploring and understanding how their body moves, allows them to create a body map so they can understand their positioning and how to interact with the space around them.
Physical activities such as running in open spaces, playing at the park and navigating furniture at home.
This is one of the earliest senses to develop through the movement of being carried in the womb. This sense is also responsible for sending information about all the other senses to the brain. The magic all happens within tiny organs filled with fluid in our inner ear, which respond to our movements, position and direction. This sense is responsible for our balance, spatial orientation, eye movements and postural control.
Ways to support the development of this senses:
Climbing, swinging, jumping, rolling and moving over and under objects. As well as play that requires us to sit and use visual tracking such as watching cars move on the floor.
Interoception is believed to be the way we perceive the sensations that occur inside our body such as our breathing, heart rate, hunger, the need to go to the toilet and feeling associated with emotions. It is an innate awareness that is there to keep us safe. Many of these sensations remain unconscious but there are some feelings and sensations that we become more aware of whilst stressed or panicked.
Children’s yoga, breathing techniques, mindful activities that are relaxing or doing physical exercise can all contribute to the development of this sense. Talking to your children about these feelings and sensations will help them to acquire the language they need to express them.
Most of our senses are developed in the womb and skills related to our senses are refined through play and experiences. One big thing that happens to the senses whilst we are still young toddlers is something called sensory integration. This is where all the senses learn to process information and operate together.
Sensory experiences are not only brilliant for promoting learning and development, but they also provide children with a calming and therapeutic experience that can help them to work through their feelings and emotions. Sensory play is linked to boosting children’s overall development and is known to be linked to cognitive development, physical development and the development of speech and language.
Sensory play can start from the day your baby is born. Talking to them, singing them songs, cuddling and kissing them, reading to them and giving them time to explore objects is all contributing to the development of their senses.
As they get older, think about how their play utilises their senses and see if you can encourage them to use anymore.
At My First Five Years, we have divided your child’s unique learning journey into 6 streams of development focusing holistically on physical, emotional and cognitive development.