Sensory exploration

Children use their senses to explore and are eager to make sense of the world around them. They do this by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, moving and hearing. Senses in this context also covers movement, balance, and spatial awareness.

Many of our good memories are associated with one or more of our senses, such as the smell of a campfire on a summer night or the sound of a song you adored together with a friend. Now, when your nostrils and eardrums perceive smells and sounds, your brain triggers a flashback memory to those special times. Sensory play and exploration are crucial to brain development, as they help to build nerve connections in the brain. Sensory activities allow children to refine their thresholds for different sensory information, helping their brain to improve at processing and responding to sensory information.  

Sensory play supports language development, cognitive growth, fine- and gross motor skills and problem-solving skills if we let the child explore alone, or with peers, in an environment where adults are there to fill in with words, concepts and a helping hand if needed. 

In science talk with young children, it is very important to be aware of the children’s sensory exploration and to find the right time to let the children phrase their sensory exploration. By observing how children make sense of an object your job as an adult is first to be patient and let the child explore on their own. Fischer, Madsen and Solli (2002) write about this when they are presenting children’s different phases of attention, where the first phase is experiencing, and the second phase is examining. After that, when the child is not fully occupied with what they have found, you can try to make them use their verbal language more by asking certain types of questions. Productive questions (Elstgeest, 1996), designed to prompt children to be productive, address the importance of the children’s sensory exploration in several of the types of questions they are presenting. In these questions they recommend you start with observation and attention-questions, as these are linked to verbs of sensing. You may ask about smell, taste, how something feels, or about details that can be seen through sharp visual perception. They also recommend making the child be active by physically doing things with the object, which also activates the senses in different ways. It is important to take time to stay in the sensory exploration, especially with the toddlers, but also with older children. The adult often goes on with complex questions about “Why is it this way?” etc. (Elfstrøm et. al, 2016), when answering these would often prove difficult for adults, let along children. 

Here is a short film showing you how you can use your senses to explore natural material the same way children do:

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