Toddlers and sensory development

Toddlers are busy people – they’re learning to walk, jump, and run, they’re becoming fluent in a brand new language, and most of them have a bit of free time left to pursue other interests, like feeding rocks to stuffed animals, or memorizing the words to favorite songs or picture books. None of these interests would be possible without the senses, though, and like every part of a toddler, those senses are growing every day.

The physical aspects of sensory systems, like the ability of the eye to take in light and images, and the nerves that allow for a sense of touch, are already in place at birth, and they grow and mature rapidly in the first few days and months of life. In the toddler years, most children’s sensory systems are primed and ready to get better at processing all that information they’re taking in about the world, to help children keep learning.

Why is sensory exploration important?

It’s not just Baby’s body and their no-longer-quite-so-tiny feet that are growing like weeds in the baby and toddler years. In the first few years of life, your child’s brain grows faster, and creates more connections, than it will at any other time in their life. Those first few years of life, up until age 3, is the time for Baby’s brain to grow a massive garden of synapses (sometimes referred to as “blooming”), and it’s the rest of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, when Baby will start eliminating unnecessary synapses (sometimes called “pruning”).

The best way to help Baby on their unconscious quest to build as many connections in their brain as possible is to feed that tendency for growth. The synapses that grow the strongest are the ones that are activated the most, so if you talk to Baby often, that’s going to strengthen the parts of the brain related to language development.

How can I help encourage sensory exploration?

Sensory exploration, or exploration with and of the senses, can mean any number of things, since all of the ways children (and adults) relate to and learn about the world is through their various senses – that’s what they’re there for. Sensory exploration, and sensory play, are what happens when parents, caregivers, and educators work to help make sure children are exposed to different experiences that engage all of the senses. This can involve craft projects that use different textures than what children usually feel, sports or outdoor play activities that give children the chance to explore the spatial relationships between the parts of their bodies, or something as simple as reading a book together.

Toddlers generally have a good understanding of three-dimensional objects – like, say, the books their bedtime stories come out of – and are ready to start learning to decode the meaning behind the two-dimensional images like the illustrations in those books. After all, the connection may seem obvious to adults, but to toddlers, making the link between the illustration of a kitty cat and their favorite four-legged friend can take some time.

Colorful picture books, as well as pictures on the wall, are great ways to help stimulate your child’s visual interests as they learn, but it’s talking to them about what they see that can make the mental connection between images and the real-life objects they relate to. That’s seeing and hearing – two senses out of the big five – that go into the mental process behind connecting a story about baseball with the foam ball they tosses back and forth with you at the park.

Other easy ways to incorporate new, fun sensory experiences into Baby’s life include:

  • Weird art projects: Sure, paint is great, and crayons are classics for a reason, but using unique ingredients, like paints made with soap, or shaving cream mixed with food coloring, provide a whole new sensory experience for the sense of touch.
  • Sing-along: Playing music, both familiar and new to Baby, isn’t just a feast for the ears, but also a chance to dance, sing along, and bring the rest of their senses along for the ride.
  • Understand a little messy eating: While, of course, table manners are one of the many things Baby is learning as they grow, messy eating can also be a kind of sensory exploration, as they investigate new colors, textures, and flavors, as well as getting the nutrients they need.
  • Know when to take a break: Sensory exploration is fun and exciting, but some small children can find that there are just too many things going on to sense, and can start to get overwhelmed, especially when they’re tired. A soothing touch, and the opportunity to retreat to somewhere dim and quiet can help to combat this feeling of over-stimulation.

Sensory interests in early childhood can be early indications of interests that may develop or expand later in life.

  • Alice Sterling Honig. “Infants & Toddlers: How Children Develop Sensory Awareness.” Scholastic. Scholastic Inc, 2016. Web.
  • Lois Barclay Murphy, with Rachel Moon. “Babies and their Senses.” Zero to Three. ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, February 22 2010.
  • Louise Parks. “Sensorimotor development: Hands-on activities for infants and toddlers.” Texas Child Care Quarterly. Volume 37, No. 4. Web. Spring, 2014.
  • “Baby’s Brain Begins Now: Conception to Age 3.” Urban Child Institute. The Urban Child Institute, 2016. Web.

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