How sensory play benefits the development of language and communication

Play is children’s work – it’s through play that they learn, explore the world, and develop essential skills such as communication and language. Children engage in lots of different types of play as they develop, based not only on their interests but also on their stage of development and their skills in other areas. Sensory play is a type of play that stimulates children’s senses (touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound) – and lots of children love it! In this article we’ll explore a range of benefits of sensory play for communication and language development and suggest some ideas for you to try with your child at home.

One area of language development that lends itself well to sensory play is building up children’s vocabulary of verbs or action words. Having a wide vocabulary of action words is really important for building sentences, so it’s vital that we create lots of opportunities for children to hear and use action words while they’re playing. You can model lots of action words for your child while playing together with playdough. Use different shaped cutters to make and talk about animals or objects. Model action words at the same time – “push”, “pat”, “roll”, “cut”, and “poke” are fun actions that can be modelled while you’re playing. You can also use playdough in your pretend play – “roll” your playdough into sausages and then “cook” them in the pan. “Mix” a playdough cake together and then “bake” it in the oven!

As well as action words, it’s important that children know lots of describing words to extend their sentences. Messy play lends itself really well to this because you can explore lots of different textures with your child and talk about how they feel. You can play with paint, food colouring, bubbles, water, or any wet or messy foods. Talk about them and how they feel – are they “warm”, “cold”, “wet”, or “sticky”? Make a feely box with lots of different textured items inside, like scarves, shredded paper, dried pasta, feathers, pebbles, and cornflakes. Are they “rough”, “smooth”, “spiky”, “soft”, “bumpy”, or “hard”?

Children’s attention and listening skills are a really important area of language development. You can help tune your child into listening by playing with sound-makers together. Make your own instruments and sound-makers – you can turn saucepans and wooden spoons into drums and take turns to bang quietly or loudly. You can make your own shakers by filling plastic bottles with dried rice or beans – then shake them fast and slow. Make a sound box together – add lots of different items like scrunched up paper, bubble wrap, bags of pebbles or dried pasta, crunchy leaves, and any sound-making toys you have at home. Take turns to pull an item out of the box and see if the other person (who isn’t looking) can guess what it is when you make the sound! Talk about sounds when you’re out and about – listen to the leaves crunching under your feet, the noise of planes in the sky or cars driving past, or the sound of children laughing or dogs barking.

Don’t worry if your little one seems afraid or reluctant to explore some types of sensory play. As with all aspects of play and development, it’s best to go at your child’s pace and follow their lead, and then gradually expand the range of textures, sounds, smells or tastes they feel comfortable with when they’re ready. So, if your child likes playing with dry textures but not wet, try helping them explore wet substances using tools like paintbrushes, sticks or sponges. Introduce new sensory experiences slowly to avoid overwhelming your child. Play with them and remember that your child learns from you – so if you seem reluctant to get messy or dirty yourself, your child will learn from watching your reactions!

Exploring sensory play with your child brings with it a raft of benefits – it supports their development, exposes them to new vocabulary, develops their listening skills, and above all, creates a fun and motivating activity for you to enjoy together. That’s the most important thing after all – because the best way you can support your child’s development is through play. So, get messy and have fun together!

For more ideas of age-related activities you can try with your child at home, check out I CAN’s Early Talkers Box Set. Or, find a wealth of information about typical speech and language development, and how to support development of your child’s skills in this area, on our Talking Point website.

If you’ve got any concerns about your child’s speech and language development, you can book a confidential chat with an I CAN speech and language therapist on our Enquiry Service by phoning 020 7843 2544 (or email us: enquiries@ican.org.uk).

About the author

Amy Loxley is a Speech and Language Advisor for I CAN, the UK’s leading children’s communication charity. With over 13 years’ experience as a Speech and Language Therapist, Amy has worked with a diverse range of client groups across early years, primary and secondary phases, and in community, mainstream and specialist settings in the UK and Australia.

Amy’s current work for I CAN includes designing a school development package on Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), developing and piloting I CAN’s Teletherapy service, and working with a partner to develop a website with information on the links between music and communication.