You know that common adage about Christmas morning where the kid gets a big, shiny gift with lots of bells and whistles, but they end up playing with the box? It’s true, and it begs the question: will we ever learn? When I think about the hundreds I could have saved on pink castles, blinking keyboards and bins full of rainbow-hued ponies for my daughter and instead just dragged in some boxes, bags and paper…well, let’s not go there.
I can honestly say that except for a paintable human body model kit and a sewing machine, I don’t remember any of the gifts my parents gave me. But what I do remember is being swung by the arms around and around by my dad over the grassy baseball field, the taste of “nature food” I concocted with friends in our hut (rating: zero stars), and late nights running wild through the neighborhood, coming home freezing cold and smelling like the outside.
So what do all of these little anecdotes have in common, and how do they apply to parenting now? These memories are strong and impactful because they involve the senses. The grass, the cold, the dirt, and even the dark, fasten the touchstone moments on which much of my childhood past hangs.
Kids nowadays may not roam and ramble in the way common to past generations—and I consider myself lucky to have been on the tail-end of that era — but it is still 100% possible to supplement what their little minds and bodies need. The common name for it is “sensory play,” and it is vital to every stage of a child’s development. It provides fertile soil for “creative flow” through concentration and brain growth through interaction. Those gifts I mentioned as “memorable?” They were actually tools my parents used to spend time with me, teach concentration, and develop dexterity, introduce novel vocabulary, and most importantly: talk with me.
Sensory play provides ample subjects about which parents can talk to kids; hearing your words is just as important as them feeling the sand, or dough, or rice run through their hands. So don’t think you can leave it out. Make talking an integral part of play and three decades worth of studies show that you will give your kids the priceless gift of a better future.
I imagine that as time goes on, we may have to become increasingly creative in order to fill the sensory and exploratory needs of children. One area in which we have past generations beat, though? Information. The internet is chock-full of thousands of creative, inexpensive ways to give our kids the gift that keeps on giving: sensory play.
Here are some of the classics for your repertoire that cover all of the senses and encourage talking:
1. Sensory Box: not just for Christmas and birthdays anymore, the almighty box is the perfect vessel for hundreds of daily sensory delights. Cut a little opening for a crawler to enter, and stick blinking Christmas lights through the top. Flip it over and hang ribbons of different lengths, textures, and colors. Cut holes of different sizes for kids to peek and grab through. For walkers and toddlers, painting or coloring on the box with markers is a big hit if you’re feeling generous. Preschoolers love box cities, cars, planes, boats and trains. Give them a few hints and then let them go wild.
2. Sensory Bags: this concept has been around for a while in many forms. Soda bottles with oil and glitter, wands full of floating confetti—they’ve kept many pockets in their seats through church meetings, school classes, and the like. But thanks to those who have forged ahead in the DIY realm, you can find new and innovative ideas to create and implement these squishy wonders in your own way. They are meant to be soothing and captivating, and they make for great distractions or transitional aids. Customize with specific colors, themes and visual qualities (sparkly, etc.) for more talking opportunities.
3. Sensory Bins: these are an easy way to captivate tiny ones who are still sitters or crawlers. Digging through sand, pasta (cooked or dry), bubbles, or a homemade texture of your creation to find toys or interesting objects is the holy grail of sensory play. Just try pulling a baby away. Make sure the objects and textures are age-appropriate and involve lots of dialogue: “What did you find? Are there more? You found an elephant!”
4. Sensory Games: for the parent who wants to bond and boost brain development in small infants during the all-important zero-to-three window. Becoming an active player in a sensory game with your child is worth more than all of the pink castles, ponies and blinking toys that this world has to offer. The benefits a child will experience throughout life when they regularly interact with parents through these kinds of experiences are exponential. Singing, blowing, tickling, ringing bells, and exploring everyday objects in detail will up your word count and strengthen a bond that will last a lifetime.
Keeping these materials handy and in an easy-access spot can mean the difference between a long, frustrating afternoon, and a future memory strengthened by sensory stimulation, language development, and a whole lot more words than you had originally planned. And your willingness to engage, play, talk and laugh along with your child through sensory play, means so much more.