How to Support Sensory Development and Engagement In Babies and Young Children
Saturday June 23, 2018
Jocelyn Leworthy, RECE, CIMI explores the role our senses play in daily life and development from our earliest days, and how we can encourage fun sensory stimulation to nourish young lives.
Think about your experience in the world – I expect you can easily appreciate how your senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell play a vital role in your day-to-day life.
Without even thinking about it, we use our senses to process information and make decisions, from deciding when it is safe to cross a busy street by visually scanning the intersection and listening for cars, to being drawn into an impulsive snack by the enticing smell, visual appearance, and anticipated great taste of freshly baked goods while out shopping. We also use our senses to connect with and relate to others, from demonstrating presence using eye contact and active listening, to offering a hug to share love or comfort.
As often as you rely on your senses, so do babies and young children. Even before birth, the senses have already started to develop. Touch is one of the first senses to develop in the womb, and babies are born with an acute ability to distinguish sounds at birth, as they were able to pick up on sound waves through the womb. During gestation, the sense of taste also begins to develop, but does not typically mature until about 2 years of age (Infant Massage WINC, 2017).
For little ones, early sensory experiences play a vital role in brain development. Through exposure to new experiences, objects, and interactions, infants also gain information, learn about, and make sense of the world around them. For example, by talking to your child and verbally naming objects or things that you or your child is doing, you’re teaching them vocabulary and that language has purpose. Providing your child with a toy that lights up or makes noise helps them to learn concepts like cause and effect. When your child touches an activating button, they learn that the object lights up or makes a certain noise.
As a parent, there is a vast array of ways you can support your child’s development and engage them through sensory experiences. An endless range of toys offer sensory stimulations, but there are also many simple things you can do during routine interactions with your child, and fun activities to engage the senses using materials from around your home. Below are some basic tips for each of the five senses.
Touch is one of the first senses developed before birth. There are so many ways you can further engage this sense as your child develops. In addition to holding your child for comfort, you can incorporate infant massage into your daily routine, like after changing your child or after bath time. Massage exposes your child to nurturing touch that has many healing and developmental benefits. It also allows your child to gain body awareness, and experience different sensations depending on the part of the body being touched.
You may also engage your child’s sense of touch by offering them safe materials to manipulate, like textured toys/blocks or items that allow them to push, pull, squeeze etc.
To encourage engagement of your child’s sense of hearing, create opportunities to sing, read, or talk to your baby. Babies typically prefer high pitched voices and by 6 months you will notice that they will start to imitate some sounds you make (Infant Massage WINC, 2017). These opportunities can occur anytime, from labeling your interactions as you play or walk with your infant, to singing as you change or bathe them.
The choice of song is not about what you sing or how well you do it, but more about the interaction and exposing your baby to different rhythms. Alternatively, you may wish to play different types of music for your child. You can also offer your child opportunities to explore with musical instruments.
When reading to your child, you can also experiment using different tones and volumes when representing different characters in the story. You can also expose your child to sounds in new environments.
Infants are able to recognize their mother’s scent within a few days of birth, so it is often comforting for babies to have access to an item or article of clothing that smells like mom when she is not present. When parents are present, cuddling and touching baby are simple ways to pass on their scent.
To further engage the sense of smell, you can introduce your baby to new people and new environments. As you expose your child to new foods, they may also learn to distinguish between different scents. Some families also engage the sense of smell by use of diffusion scents like lavender.
After birth, infants can typically see approximately 8-10 inches in front of them, and it is often noted that they prefer high contrast objects, and faces (Infant Massage WINC, 2017). To engage the sense of sight, offer your baby items to track visually that are within close proximity, such as mobiles. This also means your closeness is important. Develop a great habit of making eye contact when talking to your baby.
In addition, engage their sense of sight by offering books and toys that are black/white or high contrast. As your baby gets older you can play games of peek-a-boo, or hiding a toy under a blanket to encourage them to seek it out.
As you’ve likely already noticed, babies are known to put almost everything in their mouth! This is a very normal way they explore things in their environment. Engage your child’s sense of taste by offering toys or objects that are safe to put in the mouth (no small or sharp pieces).
As your child gets older, you may introduce new flavors and textures at mealtimes. Be patient in this process as it can take time for a young child to adjust to new foods.
Stimulating Multiple Senses Together
Although the above activities are separated as they relate to each of the senses, it’s important to remember that almost everything your baby is exposed to will incorporate many, if not all of the senses. For example, by taking your child to a new place, like a park, you can expose them to new scenery, sounds, smells, and sensations.
Reading to your baby usually involves you holding your baby, which offers them touch and exposure to your scent. You might also engage their sense of touch by encouraging them to feel the book – some books offer different textures specifically for this purpose. Reading of the book exposes them to sound/s you make as you talk, and showing them pictures/making eye contact with your child encourages their visual engagement.
Similarly, infant massage is known to be a very positive multi-sensory engaging experience for babies and young children. When offering massage, in addition to stroking different parts of the body, parents are encouraged to sing/talk to their baby and make eye contact with them. Through use of non-scented oils, babies are also able to pick up on their parent’s scent.
Engaging the Senses Aids Development
As children grow, they also acquire more complex skills through sensory experiences. For example, when playing with sensory materials like water, play dough, blocks; sand etc., they begin to develop fine motor skills – use of the small muscles in the hands. This is achieved through molding, manipulating, stacking, grasping, pouring etc.
Children learn about concepts like cause and effect when their play involves complete actions like pouring, mixing, stacking and moving. They also learn about physical properties (shape/size/colour/texture), and conservation. Through exploring with the materials, they also develop foundation skills for math and science, including measurement, observing physical changes when materials are mixed or altered, and making comparisons. Sensory experiences also promote imaginative play and encourage social development like turn taking, sharing, and perspective taking when other children are involved.
A Final Word
In summary, the senses play a critical role in a child’s holistic development, and their ability to make sense of the world around them. As a parent or caregiver, there are endless opportunities to engage the senses through fun, stimulating interactions and experiences. Take time to try some new approaches today.
WINC Infant Massage. (2017). WINC Certified Infant Massage Instructor Manual.
About the Author
Jocelyn Leworthy is a Registered Early Childhood Educator who has great experience working with children and youth in a variety of settings including early learning environments, recreation programs, and hospitals. Jocelyn is also a Certified Infant Massage instructor, and fervent advocate for the importance of nurturing touch. As a recent Early Childhood Studies graduate from the University of Guelph-Humber, Jocelyn is currently a Child Life intern working with Morgan Livingstone within her community practice in Toronto. As a soon to be Child Life Specialist, Jocelyn is passionate about supporting the psychosocial needs of children coping with potentially challenging life experiences such as illness and hospitalization.
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