How to: Preschool Sensory Play
Your little toddler doesn’t seem so little anymore. They just celebrated their third birthday and you’ve lost track of how many months old they are. Your child isn’t quite a kid, but definitely no longer a baby. You’ve got a preschooler!
A child of 3 to 5 years of age is considered a preschooler. So whether or not your child is attending a formal preschool program, they are no longer a toddler. Preschoolers are different from toddlers in that they are developing the basic life skills, independence, and knowledge that they will need as they enter their school years. Though they are maturing physically, emotionally, and cognitively, play remains one of the primary ways they will be learning and experiencing the world.
What are developmental milestones for a preschooler?
Preschoolers are learning many new skills and stretching their cognitive abilities. Though there are the major skills to look out for, be aware that every child develops differently, and yours might accomplish one skill earlier than others. Don't worry about small differentiations from the norm, but if you have concerns about the overall development, consult your pediatrician.
At 3 years-old, your child will probably have the fine motor skills to dress themself and the gross motor skills to pedal a tricycle. You’ll notice your child is more interested in interactive play rather than parallel play, and asking deeper questions about their environment. You may have already noticed an uptick in the number of times your child asks, “Why??”
By age 4, a child is likely able to dress and undress, cut basic figures out of paper and paste them on another piece of paper, draw little stick figures, name four or five colors, and understand simple joke structures. At age 5, kids will mostly be able to count, draw a person with the arms, legs, and body in the right places, exhibit imaginary and pretend play (sometimes with an imaginary friend), ride a two-wheel bicycle with training wheels, and articulate well enough to be understood.
How do preschoolers learn best?
Everyday life skills
The preschool age is a time for rapidly growing independence; your child learns to separate from you. Young children, preschoolers included, have so little control over their lives– they are reliant on the whims of the adults around them. Having a predictable routine gives a child a sense of control over their days, and sets them up for success. In fact, a lack of routine can lead to a struggle with regulation that detract from everyone’s learning and happiness.
Beyond this, the routine itself is part of the learning. Giving a child a chance to practice moving from one thing to another, cleaning up when it’s time to clean up, learning important self-care skills like washing hands before snack– these are all routines that help a child become simultaneously independent and a member of the group.
During the preschool years, she will learn essential life skills, like dressing and feeding herself. Because children learn best when there are clear rules and expectations, establish regular routines. The morning routine can involve going to the potty, getting dressed, and eating breakfast -- all skills that your child will eventually be able to do on her own. Give some specific tasks that will make her feel important and empowered, like feeding the dog or putting dirty pajamas in the hamper. Simple chores can help her feel as though she has a daily contribution to make.
In addition to using life skills as learning opportunities, play is still a major player in supporting the way preschoolers naturally develop. The three main categories of development are cognitive, physical, and social-emotional. All three of these are developing simultaneously, and none of these areas develop in a silo. They are interconnected. A really clear example of two areas of development that might initially seem unrelated, but are, in fact, very related is language development and physical development. The development of verbal speech relies on the physical development of the mouth, tongue, and throat. Having the right oral muscle development allows a child to experiment with sounds that eventually become speech. By experimenting with sounds, infants and toddlers are also building the muscles they will need for speech.
Play allows for this holistic development because it naturally encompasses all three domains. And if that’s not convincing enough, the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has said, “Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.”
What is sensory play?
For young children, play is often a full body activity that helps them develop skills they will need later in life. Running, dancing, climbing, rolling—these activities all foster muscle development and help fine-tune motor skills. Children also build their mental and emotional muscles as they create elaborate, imaginative worlds rich with a system of rules that govern the terms of play.
Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates a young child's senses of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing, as well as anything which engages movement and balance. Children, and even adults learn best and retain the most information when they engage their senses. Providing opportunities for children to actively use their senses as they explore their world through ‘sensory play’ is crucial to brain development – it helps to build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways. This leads to a child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks and supports cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interaction and problem solving skills.
What are sensory play ideas for preschool aged children?
When thinking about providing sensory play opportunities for preschoolers, here are some learning domains and play activities to consider:
Fine Motor is the development of the small muscles in the hands.
Gross Motor is the development of the large muscle groups in the body.
Pre-math is the development of knowledge, skills, and concepts related to more formal academic math.
Playing “I Spy”
Comparing sizes and shapes
Pre-literacy is the development of knowledge, skills, and concepts that lay the foundation for reading and language development.
Reading and listening to stories
Exploring writing (scribbling, making letters, etc.)
Conversations and questions, especially ones that help expand vocabulary
Social-emotional development is all about managing one’s emotions and building positive relationships with others.
Paying attention to others’ emotions and talking about them
Adult-supported conflict resolution
Listening to stories and talking about character’s emotional experiences
Whether they engage at school or at home, sensory activities facilitate exploration and naturally encourage preschoolers to use scientific processes while they play, create, investigate and explore. They allow this special age group to refine their thresholds for different sensory information, helping their brain to create stronger connections to process and respond to sensory information that will ultimately prepare them not only for grade school academic learning but also nurture healthy social skills and foster good relationships with others, as well as their own selves. Contact us today to learn more!