Children (especially young children) are hands on learners who explore, collaborate and solve problems through direct interaction with the environment around them. By exploring their surroundings using their senses they continually refine their knowledge of the world.
All human experiences are determined by sensing the world around us. This sensory learning, whether it be through sight, smell, hearing, touch or taste allows us to take in information about what is happening in our immediate environment. This form of learning is particularly acute in babies and young children. Think about how your baby begins to explore the world using as many senses as possible: their eyes will be drawn to the bright patterns and colors on your clothes; they will put everything in their mouth to taste and feel; they touch everything they can reach. All of these are opportunities for them to discover what makes up the world around them. If you think about it, people are born into this world as natural scientists and explorers.
Young children especially need sensory learning as they live in a different world than older children. They don't need worksheets to learn but instead require opportunities to learn through play and exploration. Early education needs to be less like school and more like a choose your own adventure story, allowing young children to direct their exploration and experimentation, sometimes having to take a step back and follow a new path.
By playing and experiencing young children lay the foundation of their understanding of their world around them. Without stacking blocks, how will they understand the fundamentals of balance or spatial reasoning? Even with stacking blocks, multiple senses are engaged. They are hearing the blocks fall, feeling the pieces lock into place and seeing the patterns or colors. Furthermore, they have the opportunity to expand beyond the simple tower and develop their imaginations as they develop cities with people and stories. All the while this allows them to learn about what is possible and what is actual.
Many of our blog entries on this site introduce simple ideas for children to begin to explore. They are topics that range from something as simple as patterns and to as complex as the idea of blubber. You might read them and think "That is a cool experiment" but we hope that you see it as more than simply an activity. It is an opportunity for them to learn by engaging multiple senses. For example, the activity in which we examine if vinegar and water mix, engages their sense of sight as they watch colors mix, sense of hearing and touch by hearing and feeling the bubbles as you add the baking soda. By allowing them to engage their senses they have increased the inputs into their brain making a stronger connection.
Young children have an abundance of dendrites (the branches on neurons that receive inputs) and these connections are continually rearranging as they develop. They can either be reinforced or pruned depending on the stimulation (or lack thereof) that they receive. By increasing the number of inputs during learning, you will increase the number of inputs being transmitted to the dendrites and therefore the connections are more likely to be reinforced. Dynamic multi-sensory play and experimentation allows for this increase in input and reinforcement. Furthermore, it engages multiple portions of the brain creating increased possible connections across sections of the brain.
Given all the benefits of sensory play it can still be something parents dread. After all sensory play can get pretty messy.
However, approaching sensory play with the right mindset will allow for activities that can be controlled but still allow for exploration. After all, how can you resist when you see how much fun they are having!