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Sensory play – a vital part of child development

Do you ever think about how you navigate your environment and interact with people? Many of us take sensory processing for granted.

For children, sensory play is vital for health development. Some children have issues with one or more sensory processing systems, causing difficulties in everyday life.

Fortunately, help is available for sensory processing issues

What is sensory processing?

Sensory processing is a term describing how we interpret (or ‘process’) information we receive from our environment. This includes our taste, smell, touch and hearing senses, and our senses of balance, body position, and movement.

Everyone interprets sensory input differently.

Sensory play and its importance for healthy child development

From the moment they’re born, babies begin exploring the world through their senses. You’ve no doubt seen infants follow objects with their eyes, turn towards sounds and put things in their mouths.

Growing children continue learning about the world through the senses of touch, taste, smell, vision, hearing and body movement.

This sensory activity is vital for healthy development, as it establishes nerve pathways in the body and brain.

Giving children lots of opportunities to explore using sensory play builds their ability to complete more complex learning tasks and supports growth in crucial areas, including:

  • cognitive and language development
  • problem solving, curiosity and scientific thinking skills
  • gross and fine motor skills
  • social interaction
  • memory.

Children have a natural desire for sensory play, which should be encouraged both at home and in their learning environments.

Ways to encourage sensory play

Here’s a couple of sensory play ideas for babies to pre-schoolers.


  • Play or sing songs and nursery rhymes
  • Introduce baby to new textures using food, toys, clothes, and tummy time on different surfaces
  • Spray shaving cream on a table and let baby explore with their hands, brushes, etc.


  • Water play – fill a bucket with soapy water for your child to wash toys in or let them pour water from one container to another
  • Sandpit play – great for exploring with different toys and tools
  • Make shaker toys by filling empty plastic bottles with rice, marbles or rocks


  • Have your child smell various spices and describe their response
  • Life drawing – have them draw a self-portrait or something they see around home

Sensory play activities to try at home 

  1. Squishy bag exploring

You’ll need:

  • 1 cup of flour (makes 4 zip-lock backs)
  • 6 tablespoons of water
  • food colouring
  • zip-lock lunch bags (22cm x 22cm)
  • sticky tape
  • small mixing bowl.

*Adjust flour and water amounts if you’re using a smaller or larger zip-lock bag

What to do

  • Place flour into a small bowl
  • Add food colouring and water
  • Mix until well blended
  • Scoop mixture into the plastic zip-lock bag
  • Place the squishy bag onto a flat surface
  • Gently push out any excess air to avoid air bubbles
  • Press the bag closed (make sure there aren’t any holes)
  • Secure the bag’s opening with sticky tape

Play ideas

  • Draw shapes and patterns or write names through the plastic
  • Squish, squeeze and press the bag

  1. Goop

You’ll need:

  • 1 cup bi-carbonate soda (baking soda)
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup of cornflour (corn starch)
  • Food colouring (optional)

What to do

  • Combine ingredients in a saucepan
  • Whisk them together to remove lumps
  • On the stove, bring the mixture to the boil, continuously stirring with a wooden spoon
  • Small lumps will begin to appear – continue stirring until a thick mixture has formed
  • Turn out onto the bench (be careful – the rubbery goop will be extremely hot!)
  • Knead cooled goop mix together to form a smooth ball
  • Store in a plastic zip-lock bag or airtight container

  1. Coloured sensory rice

You’ll need:

  • 1 cup dried rice
  • 1 teaspoon food colouring
  • Paper towels
  • Tray or plate
  • A container with screw on lid

What to do

  • Add food colouring to the container and pour in one cup of rice
  • Screw on lid and shake until rice is completely covered
  • Add a little more food colouring if needed to achieve desired colour
  • Place the coloured rice onto a paper towel and plate
  • Spread the wet rice out evenly with a spoon to dry out
  • Rinse the container and repeat with another colour
  • Once rice is dry, gently rub it between your fingers to break up any clumps
  • Coloured rice will last for several years if stored correctly in an air-tight container (just don’t eat it!)

What is Sensory Processing Disorder and what signs should I look out for?

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition affecting the way the brain processes sensory information. It is usually associated with children, but affects adults too. SPD shows up in two ways:

  1. Some people are sensitive to sensory input. For example, your child may seem unusually sensitive to clothing textures, sounds, foods or light. They might dislike being touched or going on moving playground equipment.
  2. Others seek sensory input. For example, your child might sniff foods, enjoy making loud sounds or need to keep moving in order to function.

Concerned your child may have a sensory processing issue?

At Growing Early Minds, our experienced occupational therapists are qualified to assess sensory function in children and treat sensory processing disorder.

They can provide early intervention and strategies to help your child function and manage their sensory processing issues.

Find out more about our occupational therapy services here, or contact us on 1800 436 436 .

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