Sensory Play with Infants

Above, a child touches two very different textures - a cold, hard block of ice, and a soft, porous sponge.

What is Sensory Play?

Sensory supportive materials offer opportunities to stimulate a range of children’s senses, encouraging children to explore and discover while also promoting brain development. While the benefits are vast and neurologically complex, sensory rich experiences can be simple to set up with common household materials. For example, introducing young children to assorted textures (bumpy, scratchy, smooth, wet) or temperatures builds connections between sight and touch or even sound. Additionally, open ended materials such as these, invite children to make layered discoveries and re-discoveries as they pour, squeeze, splash, and stack in new interpretations of the material, which is not always the case in store-bought toys with predetermined uses.

These experiences set the stage for ongoing and rich exploration, and for making deeper connections over time. Children learn to test, trust, and understand their environment through their senses, such as feeling food before tasting it. This is a great example of how children make connections through sensory experiences that they can then build on that form critical building blocks for cognitive, physical and social development. 

Rooted in Research

Above, an infant uses their toes to touch materials with different textures on a light panel.

During a child’s first year, they are experiencing rapid and constant developmental growth. As they explore the world around them, they are continuously testing and assessing the relationship between themselves and their environment. Early sensory stimulation primes children for complex concepts later on. Visual stimulation, or even visual stimulation combined with auditory input, is a predecessor to understanding cause and effect or to the development of language. Both of these are complex cognitive skills that, in turn, then support the evolution of abstract thinking and problem solving.  “Infants self-stimulate to create an infinite number of games that keep the brain active as they simultaneously process with different senses,” explains Lewin-Benham (p.62). While sensory play does not always have to be messy, giving children the freedom to explore and create mess carries its own benefits. It provides a safe environment in which children can test and define their own boundaries and comfort, provides additional sensory input, and provides larger scale outcomes of child driven experimentation. The bathtub, yard, or a porch are great spaces for messy play that doesn’t involve a ton of prep or clean up. During sensory play, help support a child’s learning and connections, as well as their language development, by talking through the experience in real time and narrating their play.

Tools for Making Sensory-Rich Experiences Safe for Infants

As infants learn about the world around them, it’s no surprise that most items eventually end up in their mouths. Oral sensory input is a fundamental way in which infants explore and understand new materials and environments. While that may seem like a barrier for planning sensory-rich experiences for infants, there are many tools available to make this play both safe and beneficial.  

Sensory bottles 

  • Purchase or collect (and clean) sturdy plastic bottles. 
  • Fill bottles with water, baby oil, food coloring, glitter, beads, sequins, etc. Once you assemble the bottle, screw the top on and use a hot glue gun to secure the outside of the cap.

Sensory bags

  • Similar to sensory bottles, but bags allow infants to squeeze and poke the materials inside. Once you fill your sensory bags, close it and secure the opening with packing tape.
  • Double up on two quart or gallon sized ziploc bags, and fill with hair gel, shaving cream, tempera paint, water and oil, etc. 

Sensory table or tray

  • These are a staple in toddler and older classrooms, but can provide many opportunities for infants to experiment with sensory materials as well.  When using sensory tables and trays, it is important to know that the materials might end up in your child's mouth, so be sure that they are large enough to safely explore. 
  • Collect snow, leaves, flowers, or pinecones from outside. 
  • Use ice molds to make new shapes with ice cubes, or even add food coloring to change the color of ice.
  • Fill a tray with soapy water, funnels, and scoops, add drops of tempera paint and invite your child to finger paint in a tray.

Light panels

  • Adding a light panel will enhance sensory play by adding an additional element.  
  • All of the materials above can be examined on light panels as well.

Infants & Toddlers at Work by Ann Lewin-Benham, page 62, Teachers College Press, New York, NY, 2010

Above, the child on the right observes laminated petals from flowers on a light panel.  On the right, a child examines a sensory jar with many bells, versus an empty sensory jar.

Sensory Play that Targets the Senses

Infants learn by using their five senses. Sensory play elevates the experience for a single sense and/or poses intentional connections between multiple senses.

  • Sight - Show high-contrast images, or create your own with black paint and white paper (or vice versa). Incorporate flat mirrors with tummy time by inviting children to strengthen core muscles and observe their reflection.
  • Smell - Introduce infants to safe herbs and plants for them to touch and smell, such as calendula, chamomile, basil, and lavender.
  • Touch - Collect items with different textures and talk through the experience… “the dog’s fur is soft, the grass is wet, and the carpet is bumpy.”
  • Sound - Fill containers with different amounts of a uniformed material, such as jingle bells or wooden beads. Invite infants to roll, stack, shake, and knock over the containers to make different sounds.
  • Taste - Make or purchase edible finger paint, which is safe for children over 6 months of age. The pigment in most of these paints come from fruits, vegetables, or spices.  As babies paint, they most likely will try to taste the paint, and products such as these make the beneficial exploration safe.
  • Dual sense experiences - Combine spices with water and use the aromatic material to paint with, or collect herbs and use them as a paintbrush. Scrunch materials such as mylar and foil to observe reflections and to hear different sounds. Make flower soup by adding flowers, leaves, strainers, funnels, and scoops in a container with water and essential oil.