How sensory-rich play can promote wellbeing and encourage learning in children with SEN
Young children are naturally sensory beings with everything they experience conveyed through their senses. It goes without saying, therefore, that sensory play can not only be fun and engaging but also a brilliant learning tool. Often trivialised as “messy play”, sensory-rich experiences are vital for developing connections in the brain, which is why sensory play should not be restricted to very young children or “golden time” at school, but valued in its own right for the sensory education which it provides.
Typically when a child experiences something, an electrical signal passes from one neuron to another, relaying information about what s/he sees, touches, tastes, smells, hears and feels. This sensory information travels through the central nervous system to the brain to be analysed, creating new pathways as it does so. The more times these connections are made, the more established the pathways become and the more swiftly they function, which is important for speedy recall as well as increasing interconnectivity between different parts of the brain.
The process of how sensory information is used to make sense of the surrounding environment and decide on possible courses of action is known as sensory processing. This can be explored using the example of a metal chain found in a collection of everyday items. Initially, the chain provides a stimulus, which itself provides a sensation, characterised as pleasure, pain, taste, touch, smell or heat. Interpretation takes place in the parts of the brain responsible for processing that particular sensation; so in the case of the metal chain, the sensation might be, for example, cold, noisy or heavy. When a child has encountered the same or a similar sensation enough times to have labelled the stimulus as “a chain”, his/her sensory memory kicks in so that the final comprehension stage involves linking the feeling of touching the chain with its function – perhaps walking a dog or locking up a bike.
When a child encounters objects through exploration and play, a host of sensations, concepts and associations will be stored in the brain to aid future comprehension. With constant sensory bombardment, the brain needs sophisticated processes for categorising and storing information to ensure easy data retrieval. As babies and young children encounter more experiences, these add to, enhance and check the validity of existing understanding, reshaping this if needed in line with new discoveries. So in the case of a chain, understanding may evolve from all metal objects are flexible to some chains are metal. Sensory perception is a prerequisite to action and behaviour and it is amazing to think that actions emerge almost instantaneously, constantly monitoring, coordinating and reappraising changing inputs, without us being conscious of them. Although all learning about the world ultimately stems from our senses, this is not a one-way process, as information from our sense organs is also influenced by our sensory memories of earlier experiences. It is through the senses that children discover the meaning of words like hard, soft and heavy, and fine-tune quantitative and qualitative thinking, such as long as opposed to longer in the case of the chain. This is also how children categorise information, test assumptions and develop thinking and learning.
Without ever being aware of it, our brain pulls together sensory feedback from numerous sources to give us a full and accurate picture. Where the senses do not act together as they should – known as sensory integration (Ayres, 1972) – children can struggle to thrive in the multi-sensory world, making even the simplest tasks difficult to master. Many children with SEN, particularly autism, are sensitive to sensory stimulation, experiencing either hyper- (over) sensitivity or hypo- (under) sensitivity to stimuli. In fact, the importance of sensory learning is evident from Temple Grandin’s revelation that it was the sensory processing difficulties which she experienced, rather than autism, that provided her biggest barrier to participation in everyday life. In some children, this hyper-sensitivity makes them painfully sensitive to touch and a need for personal space; in others, the trigger may be noise, smells or taste. Many potential sources of pain, discomfort, fear and distraction may not be obvious or, conversely, these children may need excessive stimulation to enjoy any benefits.
As parents and practitioners, we can use our knowledge of a child’s sensory needs and aversions to offer him/her a wealth of different and repeated experiences which optimise the environment and prepare him/her for learning. For some children, accessing a “diet” of sensory-rich play and learning opportunities throughout the day can help them achieve a “just right state” (Wilbarger and Wilbarger, 1991). So what might a sensory-rich learning environment look like? A sensory “main meal” would be provided by a sensory room or ball pool, but sensory stimulation also needs to take place in everyday environments, involving little or no specialist provision. Sensory “snacks” are opportunities for children to play with sensory-rich resources in situ, making them perfect for use in mainstream schools and the home.
The sensory room: a sensory “main meal”
The value and appeal of lights and sounds offered by multi-sensory rooms is clear but they can sometimes lack tactile interest. If you’re fortunate enough to access a purpose-built room, you may wish to enhance the sensory domain and soften its clinical appearance with the addition of rugs, bean bags and cushions.
The outdoors environment: a “sensory meal or snack”
Most children love playing outdoors, scrabbling around in the dirt making mud pies and creating endless sludge. Cast your mind back to your childhood and you will probably have memories like these. As well as being fun, hands-on play outdoors supports children’s physical and emotional development. In fact “exposure to greenery” aids concentration and coping with the stresses of life (American Journal of Public Health, September 2004). With this in mind, Redcliffe Children’s Centre in Bristol took six three- to four-year-olds with wide ranging SEN on weekly visits to a local wood. Over nine months, the challenge, space, freedom from loud noises and changing environment increased children’s confidence, communication, cognitive development and attitude to risk (Hill, EECERA, 2010). Staff too experienced a learning journey, gaining a better understanding of children’s capabilities.
Treasure baskets: a “sensory snack”
Play with a treasure basket, a collection of natural and household objects, is both sensory-rich and portable, making it a perfect “sensory snack”. With an assortment of 50 to 80 “treasures”, none of which are actually toys, children are able to learn a variety of concepts as well as kick-starting imagination and creativity. Take the case of an 11-year-old with SEN, for example, who started tapping objects in his basket, which sparked a song with his five-year-old sibling to create a joyous and rare moment of equality. A 22-month-old recovering from meningitis was also captivated by a treasure basket for the good part of an hour. One at a time he explored the objects, picking up, looking at and seemingly comparing them. He banged a tea infuser against a metal pot, enjoying the sound it made and was fascinated looking at his reflection, pressing it against his face (presumably to feel its coldness), and discovering textures and weights.
A group of teenagers in a residential school freely played with a treasure basket, dispelling any concerns that the objects would be broken or used as missiles. One used a loofah for self-regulation, stroking his arms, while another spotted a red tin, shaped like a post-box, and began looking for small items to go in it. He took on the role of postman, delivering the hidden objects to his peers, then found a small wooden crocodile and incorporated this into his play. Staff looked on with surprise, watching play unfold for this teenage boy who had previously been deemed incapable of imaginative play. It seems that play with open-ended resources can remove glass ceilings about what children with SEN can achieve, raising our expectations of what is possible.
At a busy exhibition, some everyday objects captured the interest of an autistic boy. He used a heavy metal chain, two metal pots and some scoops for what was clearly domestic role-play. Stirring the chain in the pot, tossing and pouring it out, he was happily engaged in imaginative play, typical of any child of his age. When I discussed this with his mother, it transpired that she regularly offered him open-ended objects like these to play with, and that explorative and imaginative play were commonplace.
Another source of interest for many children is objects of awe and wonder like silk cocoons. These not only fascinate but are great for bringing stories to life and providing much needed sensory stimulation. Collections of resources are also great for inspiring exploration, investigation and play. Balls are always popular but tend to be one dimensional from a sensory point of view. You can introduce interest and challenge to a collection by including balls of different weights and materials such as leather, wicker, wood or bean-filled fabric. Obviously, care needs to be taken if objects are likely to be used as missiles but, as with the teenagers in the residential school, this is not a foregone conclusion. The clever addition of complementary resources, such as spoons for collections of eggs and balls, significantly increases the potential for satisfying and sustained exploration and play, as well as developing a host of physical skills. Without prompting, one autistic girl began trying to balance a ball on a spoon. After repeated attempts, and lots of delighted dropping, she mastered the ability to walk slowly and steadily with the ball carefully balanced. The sheer joy on her face at her achievement was wonderful to share, and an important reminder of the importance of providing children with opportunities to challenge themselves and achieve their own objectives.
These play snapshots reveal the ability of objects to ignite explorative play and imagination, but with the addition of sand or water, the potential for objects to become anything or spark scientific exploration are endless. One young girl with a visual impairment happily filled, poured, transported and explored a mixture of sand, dried pasta and glitter using mini pots and spoons. Using an ice cream scoop, she carefully filled a mini terracotta pot with sand and watched as it emptied through the hole in the bottom, leaving just the pasta in the pot. For children who cannot tolerate touching sand or gloop, the use of an intermediary object like the spoon acts as a bridge to play, ultimately enabling them to access the resource direct. For one two-and-a-half-year-old who never played with sand, the addition of household utensils engaged him in animated play for over an hour.
Since all learning starts with our senses, sensory-rich play opportunities should be a natural ingredient in any enabling environment, whether it’s an SEN environment or not. With careful support from a sensitive adult, a sensory education can help give children the best start in life, as well as being lots of fun.
Sue Gascoyne is an early years researcher, educational consultant and trainer. She launched the children’s play resource company Play to Z Ltd in 2006 and is the author of Sensory Play and Treasure Baskets and Beyond – Realising the benefits of sensory rich play:
- American Journal of Public Health, September (2004) cited in Gascoyne, S, (2012).
- Ayres, J. (1972) Sensory Integration and the Child: Understanding Hidden Sensory Challenges. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.
- Gascoyne, S. (2012) Treasure Baskets and Beyond – Realizing the Potential of Sensory-rich Play. Berkshire: Open University Press.
- Hill, J, EECERA, (2010) What influence can regular, unstructured, wild, outdoor experiences have on children with additional needs? in Proceedings of the 2010 EECERA Conference. Birmingham: EECERA.
- Wilbarger, P. and Wilbarger, J. (1991) Sensory Defensiveness in Children Aged 2-12: An Intervention Guide for Parents and Other Caregivers. Denver, CO: Avanti Educational Programmes.