Sensory Play for ALL Children

First, I want to tell you a story…

I’d like to start this post with a story, one of the most moving stories I’ve heard about how nature can reach a child through their sensory experience, connecting with the deepest part of them. This story is a recap of a conversation I had with a former Director of a small, rural nature center in the Midwest.

The nature center was a frequent destination for elementary school field trips. That day a school bus loaded with 5th graders came to the center for a ½ day visit. Not that long after they arrived, the Director, looking for the teacher, walked through the group of children who were immersed in their natural learning activities with staff. She spotted the teacher standing away from the group, crying. Immediately she went over and asked the teacher if she was ok and if everything was alright. The teacher responded by saying, “Everything’s amazing.” She went on to tell the Director that she had just been approached by one of her students, a boy with autism. This boy had been nonverbal since birth. Within 20 minutes of being at the nature center, he came to her a said, “This place is SO beautiful and the air smells so GOOD.”

Dang it. I get overcome with emotion every time I think about this story. We don’t fully understand the depth of what nature gives us. We may never truly understand how nature opened a door for this child that allowed him to speak for the first time in his life, a full sentence no less. The words were always there inside him. Nature helped him let it out. More specifically, his sensory experience of nature helped him let it out.

We all perceive the world through our senses. Our sensory system receives information <Whoa, that’s hot. I’m standing too close to the campfire!” Or, “Something smells good…Woo hoo, mom made cinnamon rolls!> Our senses work together seamlessly communicating information to our brain and helping us make sense of our world.

Oh, mud, beautiful mud.

Sensory Play

All children need experiential, sensory play. The first seven years of childhood is critical time for development, particularly brain and nervous system development. Being immersed in a sensory-rich environment is good for all of us, but, developmentally, children MUST be.

Here are a few reasons why children need sensory play:

  • Allows children to seek sensory balance and self-regulation
  • Enhances cognitive abilities
  • Improves memory
  • Promotes creative thinking and experimentation
  • Encourages language development and social skills
  • Offers inclusive play and learning activities
  • Therapeutic activities become more play-filled

Now, we don’t all experience the world, therefore understand the world, in the same way. Children and people with autism experience the world very differently because their sensory system processes information very differently. Kids with autism and sensory processing disorder may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive in one or more of their senses. A child who’s hypersensitive is getting too much information from the world around them. A child who’s hyposensitive is not getting enough information. Either way, this sensory imbalance forces children to seek activities and spaces that help bring them into sensory balance. Often their sensory experiences and sensitivities cause them discomfort, confusion, frustration, and sometimes even pain.

What I realized, in 20 years of designing outdoor spaces for children, is that

Good design for children with autism is good design for ALL children.

And, that is the foundation from which I write and design.

So, how can we make our home landscapes sensory-rich?

Exploring a sensory path at our local outdoor learning center.

First, we have to understand the 7 senses.

(Well, we actually have 8 senses. The 8th sense is called interoception, which has to do with our internal sensations that communicate things like pain and hunger…interesting, but not necessarily directly related to this sensory garden discussion.)

We all know the 5 senses: touch, sight, taste, small, and sound.

But, there are 2 senses that are underrepresented, yet critical to understanding child development and growth. These two sensory systems are called the vestibular system and the proprioceptive system, or proprioception.

The vestibular system is located in our inner ear. If you’ve ever experienced vertigo, that’s your vestibular system gone haywire. This system responds to the position of the head in relation to gravity and accelerated or decelerated movement <Am I upside down? Am I right side up? Am I sideways?> Swinging and spinning are vestibular activities.

Proprioception relates to body awareness, without the use of other senses such as sight or touch. <I can walk past this table without bumping into it.> It’s also knowing where your limbs are relative to each other. <Can you close your eyes and touch your nose?> It’s how your body communicates with your joints, tendons, and muscles. <My brain knows how much force my hand and fingers need to pick up a paper cup of water without splooshing it all over the place.> Difficulties in proprioception revolve around motor coordination, body awareness, and balance.

Engaging the 7 Senses

In this post, I want to introduce you to some of the features, spaces, and activities that engage a child through their 7 senses. The goal is to provide as many types of sensory experiences as possible and to varying intensities. If your child has sensory sensitivities and challenges, follow their lead and incorporate sensory experiences that bring them joy and comfort.

All kids benefit from having a cozy space…a nook, den, fort, or a space carved out of the greenery. Cozy spaces are one of my top three essential features. Here are some of the benefits cozy spaces offer kids:

  • A place of seclusion and being in one’s own space
  • Feeling of control, choice, and independence
  • A place for self-regulation and sensory re-balance

In following posts, I’ll go in greater depth on each of the senses and talk about features, spaces and activities that benefit kiddos with hyper- and hyposensitivities…which, say it with me now, are good for ALL kids.

Channel your inner Willy Wonka to give kids a landscape full of edible delights.

To whet your whistle, here are a few ideas to get you thinking about sensory play at home:

  • Touch – Sensory path, tactile panels, sensory plantings like lamb’s ears, loose parts play, water, mud, sand, and soil.
  • Sight – Wind spinners, mirrors, colorful plantings, garden statuary that kids can “discover”, signage and messaging.
  • Taste – Edible garden areas (at-grade, raised planters, or pots), strawberries for groundcovers, hard kiwi vines for climbers, sunflower house enjoyed both by birds and kids in the fall. And, remember to picnic outside often!
  • Smell – Aromatic plants like lavender, creeping thyme, ferns, and fragrant perennial flowers. Kids love the smell of earth, so dedicate an area just for digging in the soil (and have lots of tools available for them).
  • Sound – Musical instruments (lots of DIY and for-purchase options), hanging chimes, plants with seed pods (money plant and chinese lantern plant are good ones), water splashing, and ornamental grasses that make sound with the breeze.
  • Vestibular – Swings (nest swing, crow’s nest hammock), lawns with berms and slopes for rolling, Waldorf rockers, and check out Etsy for outdoor vestibular toys. My kids still love their Rody horses!
  • Proprioception – Loose parts play, ask them to help you water plants with a small watering can, push a child-sized wheelbarrow or pull a wagon (with or without treasures inside), and nature play features for balance like log segment climber or balance features.
Loose parts play is a multi-sensory and multi-seasonal activity! This is one of many gnome homes within our little sensory garden.

Check out my other posts going in-depth on each of our 7 senses and how you can bring more sensory play into your home landscape.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *