How We Learn About the World Around Us

Our sensory systems include touch, taste, smell, vision, hearing, movement (vestibular) and body awareness (proprioception). [1] We interact with the world through these senses. We may withdraw from something if our brain perceives it as potentially harmful, or we may have little or no reaction if it is regarded as familiar. [2] Sensory exploration allows a child to discover the world around them and learn how to react and respond. A baby explores through looking, listening, making sounds, touching and mouthing toys. A child experiments with how to move over, under and around obstacles and later learns what happens if they spin themselves around until they get dizzy.


Can We Not Just Skip the Messy Play?

As a parent, you may wonder whether it is really such a big deal if your child doesn’t enjoy certain types of play. The teacher at school may have told you that your little girl did not want to put her hands in the finger paint or refused to go in the sandpit with her friends. Are these just preferences, or does your child have sensory processing difficulties? While it is true that all children and even adults have inherent interests and behavioural preferences, our threshold for sensory input is influenced by both genetics and our personal life experiences. [2] Today at school may have been the first time she was expected to get her fingers messy and so she may have not known how to respond. The more sensory opportunities a child has to explore and experience, the more opportunities the brain will have to register sensory information. All children need to learn to use their senses, not just those with sensory processing difficulties.


The Building Blocks for More Complex Learning and Behaviour

As our sensory systems play a very important role in learning in early life, it would impact on our abilities later on. An easy example of vision would be a child who at school-going age may confuse his letters such as ‘b’ and ‘d’.  A child with hearing (auditory) discrimination difficulties may confuse words such as ‘doll’ and ‘tall’. A child with difficulties relating to touch (tactile) processing may later have difficulty distinguishing between a square and a triangular block when using only touch. [1] The vestibular system is linked to many other areas of the brain including the limbic system which is essential for the development of our physical, emotional and social regulation. It also plays a role in the development of eye movements needed for tracking, scanning and discriminating objects. The proprioceptive system refers to our body awareness, which helps us understand our body’s position in space. This is important for gross motor, fine motor and visual perceptual skills. [1]


How Do I Find Activities and The Time to Ensure Sensory Experiences for My Child?

With a hectic daily routine or being a working parent, it may feel like you hardly ever have the time or energy for messy or outdoor play. You may have seen multiple websites and blogs with awesome ideas, which just feel like a lot of tidying up after a long day. It doesn’t always have to be. Sensory experiences are everywhere and in everything. It’s your child being with you in the kitchen, pouring out ingredients with his hands. It’s about smelling the vinegar and lemon or sweet vanilla while mum is cooking. It’s at snack time when she decides to squash her jelly with her fingers. It’s during bath time when you squirt a little bit of dad’s shaving foam on the mirror and make some shapes. It’s when you go outside barefoot on the grass or play in the sandpit. It’s hanging upside down from the jungle gym or being thrown up in the air by dad.


A Closing Thought

The day will come when your child has grown up and your house won’t be messy anymore, but remember they will only be children once. Enjoy your time with your child and try to be mindful of incorporating sensory experiences in their daily lives. Encouraging sensory play will allow your child to experience and interact with the world in many different ways. It’s not necessarily about making sure they enjoy every type of food or texture, but more about allowing them opportunities for their brain to process a variety of sensory information so that they can learn and develop as best as they can!  



  1. Case-Smith J, O’ Brien JC. Occupational Therapy for Children. 6th ed. Missouri, Mosby, 2010.
  2. Dunn W. The impact of sensory processing abilities on the daily living of young children and their families: A conceptual model. Aspen Publishers, 1997.