Cognitive development and sensory play

In play experiences, combining the sense of touch with the senses of vision, hearing, taste and smell helps build cognitive skills.

Early childhood educators cannot overstate the importance of sensory play in the educational process.

Early childhood educators cannot overstate the importance of sensory play in the educational process.

Ten-month old Cassie is grasping and turning some wooden blocks. One by one, she turns them around in her hands, feeling them carefully, and then she brings them to her mouth to further explore their texture and shape. She notices they don’t seem to smell or taste like anything special. With her tongue and her fingers, she explores the flat sides and sharper corners. She is using all of her senses—vision, smell, touch, hearing and taste—to learn more about these blocks.

Young children learn through using multiple senses simultaneously. Hands-on learning with concrete objects, like Cassie’s experience in the scenario described above, leads to abstract thought as she grows and develops. In play experiences, combining the sense of touch with the senses of vision, hearing, taste and smell helps build cognitive skills.

Cognitive skills are those skills we use when we solve problems and create novel ideas from current ideas. The process of solving problems begins with observation; that is, taking note of the attributes of objects. Young children use all their senses to explore objects and they file it away in their memories. Also, when children have sensory experiences, they store their whole body experiences in their “sensory memory.” We use our sensory memory to begin the process of understanding and gaining knowledge.

By exploring the wooden blocks over and over, a child learns something about the characteristics of blocks. One of the things they learn is that the big block is heavier than the small block, but they all taste the same. As High Scope early childhood specialist Suzanne Gainsley stated, “Discovering and differentiating these characteristics is a first step in classification, or sorting—an important part of preschoolers’ science learning and discovery.”

Early childhood educators cannot overstate the importance of sensory play in the educational process. It is the foundation of all the skills children will use in school learning to read, write and solve math and science problems. Once a child has these experiences, they are able to draw upon the body memory and cognitive memory of their experiences when faced with new situations. Further, the process of observation is a skill in and of itself. Keen observation skills give a child an advantage in school and throughout life.

This process continues through the child’s whole life and is the same process adults use to discover new medications or understand the nature of matter at the molecular level. “By providing students with materials that they can physically manipulate, play with and explore, teachers help them learn more about the world and develop crucial skills that they will utilize later in life,” said Caitrin Blake of Concordia University Nebraska.

For example, a texture or sensory table is a popular place for children in early childhood education settings. Cognitive skills such as math skills are developed through spatial awareness and pattern recognition with objects in the sensory table. Science and technology skills, which are cognitive skills too, include observing, experimenting, drawing conclusions, predicting and learning about the natural and physical world.

Putting items in the texture table that present problems or challenges for children will help them develop cognitive skills. Teachers might put tubes of different sizes and items of different sizes so children must find the right-sized tube to fit the item. Gainsley suggests including “objects that children can pour materials through (e.g., paper towel or toilet paper tubes, funnels with different-sized openings, bendable plastic tubing in different lengths).”

While safety is always a concern the teachers of young children must be aware of and attentive to, providing young children with a variety of materials and objects that have different colors, textures and smells enrich a child’s life and build the skills they will need as adults.

For further research into sensory play and its benefits, Michigan State University Extension suggests the following websites:

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