Photo: Sharon McCutcheon via Pexels

Children go to school to learn, but there’s a lot of learning that happens outside the classroom too. The key to setting up the right play space is to prepare it so your child experiences sensory play instead of regular play. The difference is that they’ll learn how to use and enjoy their five senses instead of just “playing with toys.”

Sensory play works as the foundation for all the skills a child needs to solve math problems, read and write during regular school hours. And setting up a sensory play space at home is easy if you follow these simple tips that won’t cost a lot of time or money. 

Kids with autism or other developmental challenges will also experience many benefits from sensory fun. Many children on the autism spectrum are unable to regulate sensory stimuli, and sensory rooms are an extension of occupational therapy in your home, even if they may take additional time getting used to sensory activities.

1. Play with Instruments: Being able to handle the sense of hearing in different situations will help any child succeed in life. They won’t be nervous or afraid to enter new scenarios where there may be loud or surprising sounds once they’ve gotten used to how sounds work.

Investing in instruments makes noises less frightening for kids. It gives them control over what they hear in a fun way. A simple beginner’s keyboard could be all your child needs to develop their ability to handle sounds at different volumes.

Or make homemade bongos with items you probably already have at home.

1. Clean out an empty soup can and cover it with a stretched-out balloon.
2. Use rubber bands to secure the balloon in place.

Play around with different-sized cans so various sounds can be produced. 

2. Host a Bubble Wrap Competition: Bubble wrap is something that comes in nearly every package your child will receive in the future, but it can be scary for those who aren’t used to the sound of the bubble wrap popping. Instead, use it in their play space and host a bubble wrap competition by seeing who can create the coolest dance moves to music, while dancing on bubble wrap. It will make the experience of popping bubble wrap much more fun, so the next time your child sees bubble wrap, they won’t be afraid to interact with it or hear it pop.

3. Try Out Finger Painting: Cover a table with newspaper and have your child try out finger painting with all their favorite colors. Finger painting is one of the best sensory activities to do. Your child will use their touch and feel senses, as well as their senses of smell and sight.

4. Hide Toys in a Sandbox: Engage your child’s sense of touch by giving them an activity with sand. Use a sandbox in your backyard or an empty shoebox filled with sand. Hide small dinosaurs or other animal toys in the sand and have your child excavate them. Feeling around in the sand is a great sensory experience. They’ll also love the sense of accomplishment that comes with discovering the toy that’s been hidden in the sand.

Just make sure you don’t hide a toy they love or are used to playing with. It may scare them that the toy is missing and buried under the sand. Instead, get tiny figurines down at your local dollar store that they can even pick out for themselves. They’ll associate the new toy with the new sandbox game and not be afraid of playing along.

5. Create Edible Playdough: Many times, teachers will use playdough with younger kids to provide a sensory activity that gives them the power to make whatever they want. Sometimes, though, playdough isn’t always the best option.

Kids can easily take a bite of playdough when you’re not watching, and it’s not meant to be eaten. Instead, make it completely safe to play with by creating edible playdough at home. All you need is whipped cream, cornstarch, and olive oil. It’s not a healthy snack by any means, but it won’t hurt your child if they accidentally eat some while they exercise their sense of touch.

6. Taste-Test Together: When your child isn’t looking, put some of their favorite foods on a few dishes. Then, have your child close their eyes or wear a blindfold. Put all the bowls in front of them and present them one by one. Your child can have fun tasting the food and guessing what it is. Play along by taste-testing them, too. Have a prize ready for them at the end when they’ve guessed all the foods correctly.

You can combine the taste and touch senses by having them identify foods by feel instead of smell. Green beans, popcorn, and even crackers could be an easy way to do this.

7. Develop Their Interests: When your child plays with friends or on their own, what do they prefer to do? Developing their interests is a great way to work with kids who are afraid or unsure of other sensory experiences. A child who enjoys manipulating toys could try out finger painting. After they realize how much fun it was to play with what you suggested, they may feel more comfortable trying something new, like dancing on bubble wrap. With time, they’ll have so much fun that they’ll forget they’re learning.