Child playing with a try of toys

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Sensory play explained

Written in collaboration with: Elaine Ford, Activities Coordinator at Chestnut Tree House

Sensory play is used with children all around the world – and most of the time, we don’t even realise we’re doing it. A squeaky toy, a brightly coloured playmat, and a crinkly comforter are all perfect examples of using sensory stimulation for children to learn and develop.

Sensory play is an extremely important part of children’s hospice care. When a child visits Chestnut Tree House, whether it’s for a day visit or a short break, the activities team is on hand to facilitate what activities each individual child wants to do. Each child’s needs and interests are different, so this can vary from creating a quiet space to relax in our sensory room, splashing around in the pool, or using the music room to crash, bash, and make as much noise as they want. And all of this comes back to sensory play.

What is sensory play?

Sensory play includes activities that stimulate any of a child’s basic senses, such as sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch. It encourages children to explore different materials, senses and develop a better understanding of the world around them.

Although sensory play is associated with our five basic senses, did you know that humans have eight senses? These include movement, balance, and our internal sensations, such as hunger and thirst.

Why is sensory play so important to children with complex needs?

Many of the children that we care for have severe complex needs, and some may have limited senses, such as visual impairments or hearing difficulties. Sensory play provides an inclusive way of encouraging learning and development, and it appeals to all children, irrespective of their learning styles, likes, and dislikes.

Although sensory play can be messy (check out our favourite playdough recipe at the bottom of this page!), activities like drawing and painting can be beneficial to children’s wellbeing as it can be calming and therapeutic, helping them work through their emotions, anxieties, and frustrations.

We act as sensory role models

When a child is staying with us, they always have an individual member of our Care Team who takes care of all their medical needs, such as their medications and routine checks. With our Care Team being able to offer one-to-one supervisions, or sometimes two-to-one, this means that we can focus on each child’s sensory supervision whilst they’re with us and be a sensory role model. This means trying new things and revelling in new experiences alongside the children, gently encouraging them to try new things.

Top tip: The simpler the resource, the better! This leaves more scope for children to shift from the mindset of ‘what can this object do?’ to ‘what can I do with it?’

A sensory suggestion you can try at home

Playing with scented playdough is a firm favourite activity for many children and young people at Chestnut Tree House. And developing new scents for the children to explore is all part of the fun. There’s a strong link between memory recollections and the sense of sight, smell, and touch. Have you ever encountered a particular smell, good or bad, that has brought memories flooding back? One example which is loved by many of us is ‘chocolate’ scented playdough.

This non-cooked playdough not only smells delicious but is quick and easy to make. The recipe below has a shelf life of six weeks (if kept refrigerated in an airtight container) and provides lots of fun through sensory exploration.

Non cook chocolate playdough recipe:

  • 1 cup of plain flour
  • ½ cup of salt
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 1 tbsp cream of tartar
  • 1 cup of water
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder

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