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Why is there so much free time and playdough at preschool? The developmental benefits of sensory play.

Submitted by Heather on Thu, 04/16/2015 - 10:17

Providing open-ended sensory activities with various materials (such as play dough, clay, kinetic sand, puffy paint, ice, cornstarch and water, and many others you have seen at preschool) gives children opportunities for exploration and discovery. These experiences last a lifetime, as what we learn through our senses create powerful memories and understanding of concepts such as melting, liquid, solid, hard, soft, squishy, gooey, color, etc.  

The benefits of these sensory activities are many. In these activities, children experience themselves as powerful and capable of creating.  They are free to explore without the restrictions of one method or goal of doing. They are in the driver's seat. Each activity is not about coloring inside the lines, this is a blank canvas, the possibilities are endless.  

Often, the child is the scientist, learning through cause and effect how they can manipulate these materials, create forms, and see how they transform. At this age, it is a process, goals shift quickly, and very rarely are they trying to create an end product to keep and take home. If I mix the yellow and the blue play dough, I make green! It's magic but real and they are the ones making it all happen. 

The teacher's role in these activities is to create the opportunities, and to scaffold this learning in non-intrusive ways, providing them with new vocabulary and engaging with them in the excitement of these new discoveries and experiences. Didactic, rote instruction that regularly re-directs children's attention away from their creations and purpose is intrusive to their process and teaches them that their choice is not as valid or important as their teacher's.  

As teachers, if we can instill a love for their natural drive to discover, our impact can last a lifetime. If we aren't careful and we spend too much time directing and coaching children's activities, putting ourselves center stage, the unintended lesson of other as more important than self may take root. Free exploration and discovery builds a stronger foundation of self and confidence. 

These first reasons (confidence building, exploration, joy, creating without rules) are the most important and powerful reasons for providing many opportunities for this kind of open, sensory play at preschool. Life success and a sustained love of learning are more likely for the child with a strong foundation in confidence, curiosity, and inventiveness. The future of humanity will greatly benefit from creative, internally motivated adult minds. Our job as teachers is to nurture this love for learning and innovation in developmentally sensitive ways. 

In addition, these open sensory opportunities allow children to develop concrete skills in areas vital for the more immediate kindergarten success. On the road from baby to preschooler, many skills are developing at varying rates. The capacity to crawl comes before walking which comes before the capacity to run.  

One of the key academic skills developed by sensory experiences is fine motor. When a child looks up to us beaming with pride because they wrote the first letter of their name, it is a huge accomplishment. It wasn't easy for them. Much like riding a bike, it required a level of cognitive understanding and motor skill and strength that took time to cultivate. 

"Children are designed to enjoy activities that challenge them to experience new sensations and develop new motor functions."* Children's adaptive responses to new sensory explorations (playdough, paint, play, exploration) are the innate experiments (trial and error) that move them towards their goal of mastering new skills and cognitive constructs. This is evident in activities such as learning to ride a tricycle, swing on the monkey bars, or the process that begins with painting a series of lines and eventually moves towards learning to draw or paint a face or person.

There are many, many developmental stepping stones on the path to reading and writing, which tends to be the goal we all seek for our children. Too often, this is sought by parents and teachers way before a child is truly ready. 

Repetition of sensory experiences with materials of various kinds such as painting, and molding with play dough and then clay (even tougher) build those muscles so that the task of controlling a crayon, marker or pencil becomes easier over time. Children are naturally driven towards the motions of pulling, grasping, rolling, pouring, scooping, molding. If we ask a child to build those skills through writing or coloring alone, we are setting them up for frustration and failures that don't support their confidence building and can work against their ability to perceive themselves as successful and capable. We may also be discouraging an inherent drive to discover and learn which is at the core and surface of every young child.

There are also powerful reasons for providing preschoolers with sensory activities in social contexts. Often we find children wanting to create together. The seeds of adult collaboration are beginning to germinate here. They are making decisions together, working towards a common goal. In addition to the many benefits already noted, these moments support their developing empathy and problem solving skills, while providing the nutrient of social bonding. You may have noticed our beautiful two-sided acrylic easel on the patio. This was an item on our wish list for several years, and then, last year one grandparent generously built one for us.  

A day doesn't go by without children painting together there. They can see each other through the paintings and interact as they paint. Sometimes they follow each other's paint strokes, sometimes they create a bigger painting together and sometimes they paint something on their own.  Many times, we find that children are discovering new colors made from two or three colors that are there. 

Children are developing their sensorimotor systems in the first seven years of life. "Educators often call reading, writing and arithmetic, 'the basics,' but actually these are extremely complex processes that can develop only upon a strong foundation of sensory integration."*  The five or six year old that has had a multitude of open sensory experiences in their toddler and preschool years will find the task of writing her name much easier than the peer who has not had the opportunity of these experiences. Mastering these skills at a developmentally appropriate time, allows the child successes that further support the drive to learn and master new things.

*Quotes from Jean Ayres, Phd. in Sensory Integration and the Child