Sensory Play for Toddlers

toddler sensory play

Sensory Play for Toddlers! Where Memories and Fun are Created!

In toddlers’ development, sensory play and gross motor play go hand in hand. When these two forms of play are allowed to grow into an organic activity, where the kids determine how the play is going to go, “Free Play” is born.
Free Play is where kids get to use their own creativity! It’s where they grow their own confidence in initiating, planning and completing tasks. The results, whether successful or not, lead to learning. Free Play results in learning that is not prescribed. It therefore can lead parents to learn a lot about their own child’s interests and personality. A toddler can turn into a newborn again, a pepper can be a red monster with black bean eyes, and a box of dirt can be a small garden for a little farmer.
In warm climates gross motor play can easily be done outdoors. In cooler climates, indoors might be better. Regardless, setting  the scene for success is the first step. Safety first. Then think of materials that might warrant good gross motor and sensory play. Outdoors, it’s pretty simple, especially if you live near the park or the woods. Kids can find materials and assign their own meanings to them. A stick could be a kings’ scepter, a leaf could be a plate, or a string could be a snake.
Kids do well with free play when the expectation for “Free Play” is set,and setting the expectation is quite simple. I usually use the words “Go Play, Have fun!” However, to help our little ones really get the idea of free play, I suggest getting toddlers into a routine of playing this way. On the flipside, if toddlers are provided from sunrise to sundown with entertainment-based play, Free Play can be difficult.

toddler sensory play
Free Play Sensory Activities
For example, let’s say a toddler first wakes in the morning to play with several push-button toys. These are the ones where a simple press of a button gets a song or crazy visual result. After breakfast, the toddler watches 2 videos, each 30 minutes long. Next the parent takes them to a story hour where they are entertained for 45 minutes. After lunch, they watch another video. They take a nap, to wake to a bit of iPad video game fun. Dinner is next, right before they roll into their evening routine, a routine with very little time for variation.
Now, routine is good. It’s the need for “down time” that needs to be, dare I say it, scheduled more frequently. As parents, we have so little “down time” ourselves! Well, I am of an age that I can still remember when I would have “down time” as a child. Even as an adult, I let myself have this luxury. I do nothing, absolutely nothing. But, as a child, I rarely did nothing. Instead I played. I played whatever in the world I wanted.
Today we refer to kids engaging in “down time” as “Free Play”. And it’s important. Let’s make sure we do more than let our toddlers use down time to watch TV or play video games. I suggest we turn off the buzz of the devices, and let the kids entertain themselves.

If you are still not convinced, let me point you in the direction of Peter Gray. He is a researcher who has been studying kids and how they learn and play for decade. In his new book, Free To Learn: Why Unleashing The Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, as well as in his recent TED talk, Gray makes a case for the much-needed increase in free play. Kids get little down time with days filled with too much structure and being over-scheduled.
Gray points out that it is in Free Play that kids really learn. They learn in ways that don’t let them forget. Free Play lets them learn in ways that make them feel happy and self-sufficient. It creates those wonderful kid memories we adults go to when we are stressed;the feelings of comfort and warmth and being loved for who you are, not what you do.
Kids need these experiences, and Gray’s research shows that kids that have more “Freedom to Learn” are happier, all the way into adulthood. Gray highlights that kids that have less free play have a greater incidence of issues such as anxiety and depression. If we as toddler parents think that more early learning classes, only structured play, and educational-based toys are the
way to go, all we need to do is balance things a little. Give 50% more “Free Play” and
your toddler will thrive! This is not to say that there is no room for clear limits, safety considerations, and appropriate routine. It is a mix of all these things, in a balanced way, that facilitates great toddler Free Play. So get to it. Instigate some fun! Then kick back and Relax.

Top 10 ways to create great “Free Play”.
1.    Less is More. If you as a parent do nothing but sit back and relax, you’ve got it.

2.    Set the scene so sensory items are toddler safe. Make sure that gross motor items are    baby/toddler proof. You can’t be too careful.

3.    Rotate materials every 1-2 months so they are always interesting. I use a 2 month rotation system that uses big bins for easy switching.

toddler sensory play

4. Start by setting any limits for the play space. If your toddler is not to leave the
yard, or go beyond a certain point, set up the limit as soon as you realize it is necessary. All safety issues should have a limit designated, so they can be creative while not having to be reminded of their limits. This builds listening abilities, but as always, never leave your toddler unattended.

5.    Google the words “Adventure Playground Europe Pictures” and you will see that there is really very little setup needed for gross motor play. Gross motor adventures are really fun when filled with stuff you might just be giving to goodwill! These outdoor adventure parks have old tires, old chairs, old grills, etc. The kids love them. Might not be real pretty, but remember they are temporary.

6.    Relax. It will feel strange. Ease into it.

7.    Let your kids lead.

8.    Play if they ask you to join in; don’t just direct. You might be asked to be a
firefighter, a cook or a dinosaur veterinarian. Have fun!

9.    Allow a sense of satisfaction to come over you. Your toddlers are developing lasting
memories which they will relate back to as adults in times of difficulty or stress.

10.    IF you see your kids being creative, tell them. IF you see them initiating new ides, tell them. Whatever they specific ally did that was good, let them know that you think they did it well. They will be more apt to take risks in ways that will help
them learn more the next time they get a chance for some “Free Play.”