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Sensing the world around

Jelly fingers

Gemma Sumner from Coventry has discovered that it’s not difficult or expensive to set aside a sensory area in toddler group.

Children love to explore! Think how many times you’ve found a young child putting their hands in messy goo or hiding behind the curtains. Soon after there’s the shrill sound of excited laughter as they discover new things. At Toddle Tots we have been blessed with people who understand the benefits of sensory play and learning – for both children and adults! Sensory play can be any activity that stimulates and uses the senses – touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight. Not only does it encourage exploration, it helps children develop cognitive, emotional, physical and other skills.

When people think of sensory play equipment, they tend to assume it will be expensive, specialist items. However, in our experience, a box of instruments at singing time or a bowl containing a small amount of water and a few carefully selected utensils (hand whisk, spoon, measuring cups) are brilliant items for sensory play. With a little thought, we have been able to link sensory activities into our session themes. When our theme was ‘What can we see?’ the children loved viewing the world through the glasses they made with coloured film lenses. A bubble fish lamp and sparkly material draped on the floor when the topic was ‘Going to the beach’ were also popular.

We are privileged to have benefitted from the support of a couple in our church who understand the importance of sensory space. Ray and Mary were carers for their daughter who had complex needs, fosters parents and are volunteers with various organisations, including mental health support. Particularly in caring for their daughter, who had difficulties with communication, they have seen the advantages of using sensory equipment in day-to-day life. A sound pad that had a choice of pre-programmed phrases, meant that their daughter was able to respond to basic greetings or questions. They found that this means of non-verbal communication brought comfort in times of distress and helped break down barriers. Their daughter also had a teddy which, when activated, played music. While the physical act of cuddling the teddy made her feel comforted and secure, she could also respond to the music, interacting in her own way with the environment she was in.

In addition to the activities we do with the children, we also feel that it is hugely important to have a dedicated sensory space. This provides a calming surrounding for adults and children alike, and helps those with extra needs to be included into our group. Recently a child came along who has a sensory processing disorder. At the end of the session, their mum commented on how the child had been able to remain engaged for a considerable time with the activities in our sensory space. Her child had been able to interact with others and mum was able to relax a little.

Recently, Toddle Tots added ‘The Blue Den’ to our weekly session. This is a space off from our main play area, which, fortunately for us, was built with glass brick walls and a twinkling stars ceiling light. Each week we create a calm environment with large cushions and foam floor tiles. There are tactile items such as a wooden massage ball with ridges and a soft fleece blanket which can be picked up and felt. Visually we have a mat that includes lights which can flash, acrylic wind spinners hanging from the ceiling, and a ‘fairytale door’ that opens to reveal a mirror. Most of the items are sourced from child-friendly, high street ranges, rather than from specialists, although we do hope to invest further in the equipment in the future. Our reading corner is also in this area.

Since The Blue Den was opened in January, it has been used by parents trying to calm distressed children, mothers bonding with their babies while feeding, and children having their own adventures. It has also proved to be a great place for children and adults to spend quality time together, building their relationships. For me personally, as mum to 5- and 2-year-old boys, I find it a peaceful and relaxing space in which to gather myself for a few minutes. It’s an opportunity to unlock the creativity in my mind that usually gets bypassed in the hectic life as a parent.

While not everyone is blessed with dedicated space for sensory experience, a pop-up tent (our previous sensory space) or a corner of the room, partitioned off, can work just as successfully.

Why not think about setting up a sensory play or learning area in your toddler group. Experiment with different items and discover what works. As has happened in Toddle Tots, I am sure you will find it an ever-evolving space or discovery and sensation.