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Sensory and messy play

What is it?

Play is essential for learners' development as it gives them endless opportunities to explore, practise and learn new skills. There are many ways we incorporate play into our learners' day: imaginative play, food play, messy play, music and signing, small world play, and physical activity.

Play helps children to develop and improve their gross and fine motor skills, co-ordination and concentration. It also gives opportunities to practise communication skills by making requests or imitating and understanding social cues e.g. taking turns and sharing with others.

Research indicates that between birth and the age of two, most neurotypical children are in the pre-operational stage of learning and from the age of two to seven, children enter the sensorimotor stage of learning. With neurodiverse learners, this process of development is far less linear and these stages may take longer and/or overlap. For both neurotypical and neurodiverse learners, play is essential during all stages of learning, enabling children and young people to experiment with their environment, the objects they find in it and the other people who come and go.

At Strathmore School, we provide lots of opportunities for messy and sensory play which gives learners the chance to experience the world through how things feel, taste, sound, look, smell and how they can use things. For learners who are sensory-avoidant, they may be set targets to increase their tolerance of these things, whereas learners who are sensory-seeking will be supported to explore things around them safely, while also regulating their sensory needs.

There are lots of ways that play can be implemented at home and in the community and ways to make it seem more ‘age appropriate’ for your child. This can include games on iPads or tablets, sports games, dance or drama activities, as well as playing with actual toys. You are likely to be doing some of these things with your child already!

During the school year, parents will have opportunities to come in and observe their child taking part in play activities and to get some information about activities you could replicate at home. As always, parents are always welcome to contact the Family Worker or the Class Teacher for advice and suggestions on how to support your child’s development through play.

Types of play:

  • Sensorimotor play involves the use of sand, playdough, water, and finger paints. Objects that can you can feel, squeeze, shake, smell.
  • Relational play incorporates use of musical instruments, banging objects together, piling objects up. Exploring objects and their properties and how they interact with each other.
  • Functional Play; where specific toys are used as designed, for a specified purpose. These might be cars, dolls, tea sets etc. Notice that although the child’s relationship with the toy is functional, pretence may still come into play as the cars are raced or crashed, and the dolls are fed or need changing.
  • Symbolic Play; where pretence comes into play in terms of the object, which comes to stand for something else, such as a stick becoming a sword or crooking both arms (as in the sign for ‘doll’) becomes a mother holding her baby or running with both arms held out wide becomes a plane.
  • Socio-dramatic Play; which involves acting situations out with roles. Even here however, it should be noted that other play participants, either children or adults, are not necessarily required. It is perfectly feasible to have a multi-cast five-act play led with just one actor taking all the roles.

Further reading