Why is sensory play important? Learn seven benefits of sensory play for children. From math to reasoning to self control, kids learn and develop a whole host of skills from sensory bins. There are major reasons to encourage sensory play for kids.
Why is sensory play important?
I can already sense you shuddering, shaking your head, and wondering why I am the way I am as I pour 4-pounds of cornmeal into a bin on my living room floor.
Sensory play looks terrifying from the outside, and I won’t try to convince you otherwise.
Let’s take an already prone-to-messes tiny human and give them a giant box of mess with an open invitation to make more messes. Sure… what could go wrong?
Consider this: What if sensory bins are more than just messes? What if these hold the key to untold amounts of learning and child development?
Sensory bins definitely look like a huge mess – and I won’t lie: they can be without the proper boundaries for kids.
While sensory bins do take a little bit of coaching for kids to fully master, they unlock a magical world of learning unlike any other activity.
RELATED: Don’t miss my post on how to introduce sensory bins and help kids keep them clean.
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What do kids learn through sensory bins?
My initial response of “they learn just about everything” probably isn’t going to cut it, huh?
Sensory bins are an onion activity: they have layers upon layers of goodness for kids and I’m going to break down exactly why sensory play is important.
Remember, this isn’t mess for the sake of a mess.
This is learning. This is for child development. This is for the peace and quiet and calm that comes from sensory bins.
1. Tactile Learning
Sensory bins are a tactile way to learn. It even says it in the name: sensory. The foundation of sensory play is play with senses aka tactile learning.
When a child is playing with a sensory bin, they are using multiple senses to learn about the world. They’re seeing how the rice moves like with rainbow rice, hearing the way cornmeal sounds when it pours, and feeling pom pom balls floating in water.
If the bin has a scent – they’re learning through smell. If it’s taste safe (like this Jell-O party I threw once), then they are licking and learning too.
2. Life Skills
A big part of sensory bins is the life skills they teach. Life skills is a fancy way of saying “the skills your child will need throughout their life.”
And trust me: there’s a lot of peace and calm in having children learn to pour liquids in a sensory bin than with orange juice on the kitchen floor.
The amount of life skills learned in a sensory bin cannot be overstated.
3. Math Skills
Think about a toddler sitting with a rice bin, scooping and pouring rice into containers. This toddler is learning about measurement (capacity), about estimating, and spatial awareness (the understanding of one object in relationship to another).
Sensory bins might seem like just bits and pieces of a future mess waiting to happen but it’s not.
Math in early childhood is often reduced to solely number sense when math is much more than just numbers. In sensory bins, other skills (like measurement) get their moment in the sun.
4. Independent Play
Sensory bins are my favorites for independent play.
Children concentrate and focus during sensory bin play in a much different way than when they are using toys that tells them what to do (think electronic toys) or how to do it (think light up toys that talk and ask questions).
When a child is working with a sensory bin, they are growing their self-entertainment skills and building their concentration skills.
Sensory bins provide the most amazing opportunity for truly independent, uninterrupted play. It’s also why I stand way back when my kids are playing with a bin – I don’t want to disrupt the learning that’s going on.
RELATED: Looking for more help growing independent play skills? Check out this post.
5. Pretend Play
A sensory bin is child driven and takes a considerable amount of imagination to “come to life.” The child directs the play, imagines the situations, and determines the tasks.
Play with a sensory bin has all be “dreamed up” by the child. This takes so much brain power – much more than we adults can imagine.
In this pretend play, children demonstrate their communication skills, test new vocabulary, and practice social stories. Pretend play is a crucial aspect of early childhood, with many education experts seeing it as some of the highest learning a child can undertake.
6. Motor Skill Development
Think of all the work a child does with their hands during a sensory bin: The moving of fingers, the grip of their hand, the coordination with their eyes to make it all happen.
Children cross their midline in sensory bins, they rotate shoulders and arms, and pass objects between hands.
Sensory bins give children a chance to work with muscles and motor skills that children desperately need to develop.
7. Developing Self Control
When children are playing with a sensory bin, they are following a set of rules/guidelines in place to keep sensory bin play safe and “relatively” mess-free.
Here are the “rules” I use:
Nothing in your mouth.
Keep stuff in the bins.
These aren’t Earth shattering rules but they are still rules. Boundaries. And my kids play within them.
Sensory bins give my children an opportunity to follow the rules. They might have the impulse to throw the rice, but they stop. They know the rules. They might have the urge to stick a bean in their mouth. They stop. They know the rules.
Sensory bins are a safe place to instill self-control. To work with something so exciting, but to remain in control of your body.
Sensory bins give us a low stakes playing field to practice following the rules (as in, if they break these rules, it’s unlikely anyone will get hurt).
Rules are a part of the real world. Despite my impulse to drive fast on the freeway, I have to follow the rules. As much as I want to cut in line at the store, I wait.
Sensory bins provide a really great practice opportunity for rule following.
RELATED: Learn more about the “rules” my kids follow for our sensory bins in this post on setting up a sensory bin.
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Sensory play is an important part of childhood
It is never too late to start sensory bins with your child. My 9 year old is proof of the joy and learning sensory bins still bring even to “big kids.” Sensory bins span the ages, and their importance and skill developing is limitless.
The real bonus here with sensory bins is that while they’re learning all these things – you’re probably getting to sit for a second and just watch.
Not playing, just being there. Loving the view of happy children learning so much from something so basic.
So come on – grab that bin of cornmeal and set it down. Don’t shudder. Smile. Your child is about to learn so much.
Frequently Asked Questions
You do not need to let your child make a mess in order for them to have fun and learn with a sensory bin. Part of sensory bins is learning rules. As they learn these rules, stay close. If they start to dump, remind them of the rules and offer a chance for greater success. If they dump again, take the bin away. Remind them of the rules and let them know they’ll get have another chance another time.
**Give them another chance. 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days… let them try again.
There are lots of options for what goes in a sensory bin and how to set them up. I have a list of “sensory bin basics” that I keep on hand to make all sorts of different activities.
You don’t have to do anything. If you can’t get past the possible mess with a sensory bin, I support your decision to skip. I don’t do all sensory bin activities (you won’t find play dough or slime in my home). I would encourage you to see if you can find one time of sensory bin that does work for you (like a bubble foam bin in the bath or a water station outside).