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Why Sensory Play Is Important For Children With Special Needs}

Submitted by: Macy Kaiser

What is sensory play? The simple answer is that it is play that allows children to focus, explore, engage, activate and possibly be delighted by one of their five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. More and more has been written about the importance of sensory play, so lets explore the reasons and the benefits. Lets start with our senses.

When researching the subject of senses, one often comes across a book authored by Diane Ackerman called, A Natural History of the Senses. Ackerman is a renowned author who approaches her topics with an equal passion for the science and the poetry inherent in the subject. She gives creditability to the importance of sensory play with her assertion, There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses.

That statement alone is justification to involve our children in sensory play for Ackerman strikes at the heart of the importance of sensory play, especially for children, and perhaps even more so for children with disabilities. Sensory input gives children a way to both interpret and relate to the world around them.

One of the first examples of sensory exploration can be witnessed when you watch young babies insert everything into their mouths. They are actually using their mouths to trigger sensory responses. When children are born, their sensory preference is their mouth because it is the most developed and possibly the most needed to survive. They explore, even their own fist, by bringing it to their tiny mouths and allowing items to be investigated by their tongues.

Another important aspect in comprehending the importance of sensory play is to understand that every person has preferences in the sensory input they choose to rely on most when processing information and learning. Most children develop dominant and auxiliary (secondary) sensory preferences. The different types of preferences are: visual (seeing), audio (hearing), kinesthetic (moving), and tactile (touching). For example, you may often hear kids referred to as visual learners. Their primary mode of learning is sight. They learn better when things are presented visually, as opposed to only through verbal discussion or dialogue format.

Children with disabilities may have an aversion to or even over-active sensory preferences. One example of over-active is the hyper-sensitivity some children with autism have to visual, audio or tactile stimulation. Research reveals that some of these kids can feel assaulted by typical sensory experiences like background sounds or flashing lights. Other children with autism need more kinesthetic/tactile input and react by pounding their heads, hands, or feet in order for the sensory input to register and be processed by their bodies.

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Also some children have a condition called SPD (sensory processing disorder), sometimes called sensory integration disorder. This is a condition where a childs nervous system receives messages from their senses and misinterprets them which can affect their motor and behavioral responses. In this case, sensory play might need to be managed to keep it low. On the other hand, some children with this condition need to ratchet up their sensory stimuli because they are hypo-sensitive and need stronger sensory input for it to even register.

Toys and play are a very natural and easy way for parents to involve their child in sensory experiences. Ellen Metrick, Chief Toy Evaluator for AblePlay, a website that researches, rates and reviews toys and play products for children with special needs asserts, One lens through which parents might choose toys for their children is the sensory diet that might be most helpful to their developmental goals.

Sensory stimulation can take on prescriptive aspects, especially for children with special needs. It can help one child focus and for another it might be a total distraction. One child might respond to music amazingly and another one might love the feeling of playing with finger paints. Metrick adds.

Here are some reasons Metrick believes sensory play is so important to kids:

1. Allows kids to explore new things

2. Assists them in understanding objects

3. Helps interpret experiences

4. Stimulates memory

5. Facilitates the collection of data

6. Accelerates learning

7. Develops the sense they are using

8. Creates body awareness

9. Can soothe and provide solace

10. Can also stimulate, wake up and excite

Parents can have fun by creating a play day devoted to sensory experiences for their child and integrating a balance of sensory play ideas into their childs recreational diet. As Ackerman asserts, We live on the leash of our senses. So make sure your child has enough length to explore.

About the Author: This article is brought to you by Macy Kaiser of AblePlay, a website at

that is sponsored by the National Lekotek Center, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting play for children with special needs.


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