There is sense in the sandpit: how sensory play develops the nervous system

Play - in particular, sensory or exploratory play - is the vital ingredient in developing confident, competent learners. However, there is another crucial factor working behind the scenes of play - the nervous system.

As children play in the sandpit they are developing their sense of touch - is the sand warm or cool, wet or dry, rough or smooth, hard or soft, textured or slimy? This sensory information is communicated from the body to the brain via the central nervous system and initiates a series of physical reactions in response. In this way, play is the mechanism through which children learn how to integrate sensory information - such as sight, sound, smell, touch and taste - to make sense of it.

Integrative exploratory play of this type primes the brain and central nervous system for learning readiness by stimulating the senses and sending signals to the brain. This strengthens the neural pathways that are important for all types of future learning. However, sensory play need not be complicated or messy. Here is a list of fun, free (or very cheap) opportunities which are likely to factor in your day already:

  • Play Dough
  • Sandpit
  • Water table
  • Playing on playground equipment
  • Musical statues
  • Balancing games
  • Hopscotch

All these activities encourage communication between a child’s body and brain, which is crucial for healthy development of the nervous system. Playing on playground equipment, hopscotch, musical statues and balancing games all teach children how to respond or attend to sensory information, whilst play-doh, the sandpit and water play helps children develop their sensitivity of touch. And - better than that - they will bring a smile to any child’s face.

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