Science of Play

Create sensory-rich experiences for maximum learning.

Although we associate it mostly with carefree fun, there is also science involved in child's play. The latest educational research shows that from infancy on, play teaches us the valuable skills needed to strengthen our bodies and develop our brains. Play improves a child's ability to identify, sort, react to, and expand upon the information presented to him in an environment.

Children learn best by experiencing the world with their senses. They need to see, feel, hear, smell, and even taste things to understand them fully. A child is in an optimal learning situation when he participates in activities that utilize his senses. This is called "sensory play." The more children use their senses, the more completely they learn.

The science of play actually starts at conception! Playfully, to build leg and abdominal muscles, an unborn infant uses his legs to push off a uterine wall, causing him to flip and tumble. Once a child is born and through his adolescence, he should be surrounded by materials that invite use of the senses and provide quality learning opportunities.

Engaging the senses during exploration enables children to develop communication, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. Self-confidence and social development increase as children master what they are trying to achieve. More importantly, sensory play leads to imaginative play, which is crucial for emotional and cognitive development. Imagination helps children anticipate scenarios, too.

When my children were growing up, I created a learning wonderland in our house based on research I conducted while at Johns Hopkins University. You, too, can make sensory-rich environments or scenarios for your kids. All you need to do is clear out an area like the basement, family room, or even the garage to use for playtime. Next, rummage through closets, storage items, and your kitchen to find creative learning tools.

Then, pull it all together while being especially conscious of the five senses, which can be incorporated in the following ways:

Smell.

Cooking and baking can offer a great way to boost math skills while stimulating the senses. With a chocolate chip cookie recipe, all of those spoon, cup, liquid, and solid measurements enable math practice and tickle the sense of smell. Another time, try creating a "smell test" station with dip sticks in oils, perfumes, and other aromatherapy items (being mindful of allergies and sensitive noses, of course).

See.

Create opportunities to explore and see the world with scavenger hunts and nature discovery. Find tips to foster nature-based activities at www.parentguidenews.com/Articles/NaturalSplendor. In a different play session, bring out some black lights, and see the kinds of effects they create on different colors and surfaces. The lights can also be used for calming behavior.

Hear.

Create your own special headphone experience by streaming a range of different sounds like music, banging, drumming, etc., through them. In addition, your children can form a rock band with microphones, bongos, and tambourines.

Taste.

Make a sensory diet of taste experiences through cooking with varied flavors, taste testing, and even food fights!

Feel.

Try to keep on hand a truckload of art supplies like clay, paint, putty, "slime," canvas, plastic, and more. In the summer, employ water toys of all types and sizes for a fully tactile (and wet!) experience.

Self in Space.

Many call our sixth sense "self in space." To develop gross motor skills, use a range of equipment like pogo sticks, jump ropes, a trampoline, and swings. You can never get enough physical exercise!

Some other fun, sensory-rich learning activities to try are game nights, creating photo exhibitions and art galleries, rock collecting and polishing, knitting, sewing, and carpentry. Within the context of free multi-sensory play, children learn how to make friends; use motor skills; and assimilate the symbols required to read, write, and calculate.

You can't go wrong as long as you keep learning and fun in mind! Anything you do will be a success when you make a conscious effort to be as creative as you can. The more sensory-rich your fun zone, the more scientific your play becomes. You'll be amazed by how much your children can teach themselves. Your child's growth in strength will also help him feel peace, comfort, joy, and a positive attitude of "Yes, I can!"