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All about sensory play

All about sensory play


SENSORY: through the senses (you can touch it, smell it, see it, hear it or taste it)

PLAY: a fun activity that you want to do because you like it and it’s interesting to you

SENSORY PLAY: a fun activity that you enjoy doing that stimulates one or more of your senses to explore and interact with the materials provided. The sense of TOUCH is the most common one during sensory play activities. This means kids will have fun exploring different textures, shapes and patterns.


The senses are the connection between the child and the world. We perceive everything around us through our five senses. When we are older, we can understand things just by reading or listening to specific information, but a child needs to touch everything so he can figure out how things work. We can tell them something a million times, but it is only through experience (and through the senses) that they will make that information their own.

Learning Pyramid

As parents, teachers, minders or carers, our job is to guide our kids through this journey exploring the world and to provide as many sensory and hands-on experiences as possible so they can gather all the information to develop skills and become more independent as they play.

When a child learns something new, he brings that new information into his play. When he plays, he practices that new knowledge. During play he will also acquire new knowledge as he figures things out through trial and error. For example, a child sees that you pour water from the bottle into a cup. You can tell him how to do it but that’s not going to teach him. He needs to try to do that himself, and he will probably spill most of that water but that’s ok! He will then spill it on purpose to prove his theory. He will then try to pour it into the cup. He will try many times and that’s where you can provide containers and tools of different sizes, coloured water, etc. to extend this practice and make it richer and fun. The child will eventually learn how to coordinate his movements, so he doesn’t spill the water. But, in order to learn this, it is very important that you provide a safe environment (outdoors, or on a tuff tray, or in the sink…) where your child can spill the water many times without feeling guilty or not capable. He will be “just playing”. That is where messy play comes in!

messy play

Messy play is the king of the sensory play activities. It means hands get messy, clothes get messy, and floor probably gets messy too, but the learning is so powerful. Through messy play children will develop many basic life skills, such as problem-solving, fine motor skills (control of their hands), coordination, communication, and also concepts such as cold, hot, soft, hard, long, short, heavy, light, first, second, last, pouring, splashing, grabbing, picking, squeezing, and so much more. You can provide free messy play or prepared messy play, where you carefully select tools and materials that you know will help your child with specific skills and learning.



  • WATER: container with water, water toys and tools or smaller containers to play with the water and transfer items from one place to another (droppers, tongs, fishing net, tweezers…). You can add little fishes in the water and fish them with the tongs or tweezers or the net, sort them into containers by colour or by size, etc.

water play

  • RICE: same as water but with rice. Add small bottles or bowls and fine motor tools (spoons, scoops, tongs…) to play with the rice. You can add little figures that can hide in the rice or kids can “feed” rice to those figures, or draw with their finger through the rice… You can also colour rice with food colouring or with paint. You will find coloured rice available on

rainbow sensory rice

  • PASTA: Same as the rice but bigger shapes so it really promotes a lot of work with their little fingers and a great development of fine motor skills. They can sort out the pasta shapes, use their own hands of fine motor tools. They can create shakers with recycled plastic bottles and this is a great sensory activity as they practice fine motor tools and also rhythm, movement and they can hear it too.

  • BOILED PASTA: Boil spaghetti only half way through so it’s not too soft. Put a handful into a ziplock bag and add food colouring. Mix well and repeat several times with a different colour in each bag. Leave the bags in the fridge overnight and they will be ready for the next day! You could use only one colour for a themed play tray (blue for ocean or green for forest for example). They can play with it with their hands and a few toys in them also with fine motor tools. Or preschoolers could practice their cutting skills with the pasta too.

boiled spaghetti sensory play

  • ICE: put some small toys / pompoms / blocks / anything! Into a lunchbox. Add water (food colouring is optional) and freeze overnight or for a few days depending on the amount of water. When it’s ready you can place it on a tray or container, add some droppers or spoons, a toy hammer, sprinkle some salt, add a bowl with hot water and let them rescue the frozen figures. So much fun!


  • MUD OR SAND: you can use compost, sand, bark, hay, etc. to create a base for your tray. Add farm animals, jungle animals or any themed play items and let them explore! You can add water to make it messier but if it’s dry it makes a great first sensory experience as some kids are not very happy getting too messy.

sand play

  • FOAM: you can use shaving foam or soap foam and add some blocks or items inside for the kids to find and play with. They can cover their hands with foam. Don’t do this if you are not comfortable with a big mess yourself, and have some towels ready! You can also mix water and soap and use a whisk to create the foam. 


  • HOMEMADE PLAYDOUGH: mix in a bowl 1/2 cup of warm water (a few drops of food colouring or water based paint are optional), ¼ cup of vegetable oil and 3 cups (approx.) of flour. Add flour slowly and mix well after each cup of flour. If it’s too dry add more water or a spoon of oil. If it’s too wet add more flour and a spoon of oil too until you find the right texture and it’s not sticky anymore. Playdough is fantastic for their find motor skills and imagination. If you want your playdough to last longer you can also add ½ cup of fine salt and a spoon of cream of tartar.


Next article Water Play - Benefits, Ideas and Toys

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