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Sensory Play: What It Looks Like & Why It’s Important in Early Childhood Education

The Importance of Sensory Play in Early Learning

Sensory play is a fundamental aspect of early childhood education, offering numerous benefits for children's holistic development. From fostering creativity to enhancing cognitive skills, sensory experiences play a crucial role in shaping young minds. Let’s explore what sensory play looks like at The French Académie of Minnetonka, an AEFE-accredited Minneapolis French immersion school for children ages 18 months - 6 years, and its significance backed by research evidence.

Understanding Sensory Play:

Daycare Sensory Play: What it looks like and Why it's Important
Children explores textures and volume while practicing motor and social skills.

Sensory play involves engaging children in activities that stimulate their senses—touch, sight, smell, taste, and hearing. In preschool and early learning settings like The French Academie of Minnetonka, sensory play can take various forms, including playing with textured materials like sand or water, exploring different scents and flavors as we do in our early learning kitchen, experimenting with colors and light, and engaging in tactile activities such as finger painting or play dough manipulation.

Benefits of Sensory Play:

Cognitive Development:

Research suggests that sensory experiences contribute significantly to children's cognitive development. Through sensory play, children engage in hands-on exploration, which helps them build cognitive skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision-making. According to a study by Dunn and Dunn (1993), sensory experiences activate neural pathways in the brain, enhancing learning and memory retention.

Language and Communication Skills:

Sensory play also provides ample opportunities for language development and communication. As children engage in sensory activities, they naturally use descriptive language to express their experiences. For instance, while playing with water, children may describe the water's temperature, texture, or movement. Research by Piaget (1952) suggests that sensory-motor experiences lay the foundation for language acquisition and symbolic representation.

Fine and Gross Motor Skills:

Manipulating various sensory materials helps children refine their fine and gross motor skills. Pouring, scooping, squeezing, and grasping objects during sensory play activities promote hand-eye coordination, muscle strength, and dexterity. Studies have shown that children who engage in sensory-rich environments demonstrate better motor development (Berk, 2009). This is also a key stage on the path to writing in early childhood as detailed in our 2023 Spring Exhibit covering The Stages of Writing Development In The First Five Years.

Social and Emotional Development:

Sensory play encourages social interaction and emotional expression among children. When engaged in group sensory activities, such as building with blocks or playing in a sensory table, children learn to cooperate, share, and negotiate with their peers. Moreover, sensory experiences can have a calming effect, promoting emotional regulation and self-soothing behaviors (Seligman & Darling, 2007).

Implementing Preschool & Daycare Sensory Play in Early Learning Settings:

Daycare Sensory Explorations at French Immersion School in Minneapolis

Early learning educators play a vital role in facilitating sensory-rich environments that support children's development. Here are some strategies for incorporating sensory play in daycare and preschool settings:

  • Provide a Variety of Materials: Offer a diverse range of sensory materials, including sand, water, playdough, sensory bins filled with rice or beans, textured fabrics, and natural materials like leaves or pinecones.

  • Create Sensory Stations: Set up designated areas for sensory exploration, such as a water table, a sand tray, a painting easel, or a sensory garden. Rotating materials regularly keeps children engaged and curious.

  • Encourage Open-Ended Play: Allow children to explore sensory materials freely, without predetermined outcomes. Open-ended play fosters creativity, imagination, and divergent thinking.

  • Facilitate Reflective Discussions: Engage children in conversations about their sensory experiences. Encourage them to describe what they see, feel, hear, or smell, fostering language development and reflection. These are excellent opportunities to incorporate language development!

Sensory play is a cornerstone of early childhood education, offering multifaceted benefits for children's development. By integrating sensory-rich experiences into daycare settings, educators can nurture children's cognitive, social, emotional, and physical growth. Through research-backed practices and intentional facilitation, daycare providers can create environments that inspire curiosity, creativity, and joy in learning.

Ready to visit our AEFE accredited French immersion school in Minneapolis to learn more about our creative curriculum?

Our students benefit from the priceless gift of the French language, cultural immersion, a multicultural environment, weekly forest school, Montessori activities and practical life skills, Reggio Emilia creative project explorations, steam and cultural learning in our on-site learning kitchen, and musical engagement that is built into our curriculum alongside weekly piano lessons offered to our preschool, pre-k, and kindergarten students.


  • Berk, L. E. (2009). Child development. Pearson Education India.

  • Dunn, R., & Dunn, K. (1993). Teaching secondary students through their individual learning styles: Practical approaches for grades 7-12. Allyn and Bacon.

  • Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. International Universities Press.

  • Seligman, M. E., & Darling, R. B. (2007). Ordinary Families, Special Children: A Systems Approach to Childhood Disability. Guilford Press.

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