So the scene is set. My little cutie is ready to play and I have all my materials and a whole bunch of space in the family room. Perfect! Let’s do sensory play.
I set up my special textured rug first. It was soft to the touch, with fringes throughout, and vertical lines and love bugs all over it. After that, I put our a soft red blanket, a winter bear, and Montessori inspired toys including wooden balls, wooden snowflake cutouts, wooden bowls, spoons and little non-edible puff balls. Lastly, I went with the soft and warm theme and had a basket of hats, gloves and scarves.
Before we even got onto the rug, baby was ready for sensory play. She wanted the puff balls and pushing them into her sock made her giggle. She enjoyed the added sensory feeling on her toes and liked the challenge of using her thumb and pointer finger to get them out!
The room was quiet, the sun was shining and baby was headed for the center of the carpet. First the bowls were interesting and the snowflake cutouts attracted her attention. Unfortunately, her attention didn’t remain on these items long, and I was a little curious as she usually spent 5-10 minutes with these items when seated at the table. She moved on to the bear and then the hats and gloves, then onto the puff balls again, and then back to the bear!
After several minutes of baby switching toys every other second, I realized I had made a sensory play mistake, one commonly made, but still, not one I thought I would make as a developmental therapist. I should know better!
#1 Mistake in Sensory Play: Set up too many items, or items that are over-stimulating. Baby loses attention and instead of exploring, they just go wild!
Result of Mistake: After sensory play, baby is all charged up, and hasn’t seen or processed any of the toys designed for exploration and learning.
Rule of Thumb to Avoid This Common Mistake: Make play balanced so that the sensory items are not over-the-top stimulating. If you have all the senses involved or too much of one sense at one time, baby can lose focus. We call this “shutdown” where the growing nervous system shuts down and focus can’t happen. Baby goes wild, or at the very least gets quite hyperactive.
In this case, I overdid the visual and touch senses. Too much color, too many toys, too many things to touch and explore.
After a few more minutes of play, as I tried to figure out how to correct my mistake, baby just about lost her marbles. Well, at least her puff balls. She went back and forth between snow cutouts, wooden balls and puff balls till she just couldn’t stand it any longer.
She handled it well for the most part, crawling off the rug and sitting her bottom in the basket for a giggle. I wish I could be so calm and jovial in times of stress!
So I regroup and try again after a few minutes pass and baby calms down. I let her just crawl it off in her natural play space. Good thing she is a pretty good self-regulator.
My new sensory play set up, was much simpler. I scrapped the overly visual rug and went with the soft blanket. Still red and alerting, but just one tone. I also focused on the winter wear, thinking her positive experience with them in play would help when she needed to actually wear them, when we were headed out the door into the cold winter weather.
After spending 10 minutes with the winter gear, she approached the wooden cut outs behind her. She attempted to get them herself, and explored them for 10 minutes as well. Now I feel like I am doing something right. She is able to focus and learn within this new sensory set up.
After a few more minutes, she went back to the winter gear and showed me her skill at combining. Combining is a developmental milestone where babies take one toy they know about and put it with another toy they know about. You know, to see how they might work together, or not!
So after a total bomb at the beginning, this time, winter sensory play went well.
After working with thousands of kids, developing sensory plans and playing with them directly, I can only hope you realize as a parent that there is a bit of trial and error that has to happen when it comes to your specific kids sensory play needs. My baby needed it toned down, but your baby might have been just fine with the original set up.
Basic Sensory Tip to Avoid Mistakes: Simply look to see if your baby is able to focus on the items presented in the sensory activity. If they can’t, the set up is too much for them. If they can, you probably nailed it.
Learning through sensory play is the idea here. So most importantly, have fun! You are loving you baby when you play with them!