Young children are constantly exploring the world around them. At this age, they’re taking in their environment at breakneck speeds. That’s why incorporating sensory activities into your daily routine and lesson plans is so important.
Sensory activities encourage children to think deliberately about and discuss how they use their five senses – what they see, hear, smell, touch or taste. Sensory play is critical for children because it encourages experimentation, exploration and discovery. It can also help with memory and can even calm anxious or frustrated kids.
At ChildCare Education Institute, we’ve been helping educators like you get the tools and training you need to help your students grow and develop for the past 20+ years — and that includes tools around sensory play and learning. With that in mind, we’re sharing everything you need to know about sensory language and answering some of the most-asked sensory questions, including, “what is sensory language?”.
What is sensory language?
If you’re wondering, “what is sensory language?”, it’s simply descriptive words or phrases children use to connect any of their five senses.
For example, something might feel soft or warm to the touch. Or a toy’s appearance might be described as light, dark or shiny. A sound can be loud or quiet, and it might buzz or bubble.
By incorporating this language into your students’ vocabulary, it will greatly enhance their communication skills. They’ll be able to better understand and describe the world around them, more clearly communicate with adults and their peers (increasing their conflict resolution skills), boost their creativity and so much more.
The best part? Helping your students learn and incorporate these words is easy — and can be incredibly fun for your students.
Sensory language examples and activities
There are a number of ways to teach sensory language in the classroom, and below are some of our favorite sensory language examples and activities.
Sand sensory play: Using sand for sensory play is perfect, especially for sensory language. The finely divided mineral particles give kids a wealth of options because of its appearance, smell, texture, weight and how it moves. We could also list its taste, but let’s leave that out from this particular activity.
Playing with sand can help toddlers develop their language skills. For example, during play, have them describe how the sand looks and feels. Instead of asking yes or no questions like, “is the sand small?”, it’s best to use open-ended questions. Not only will it help them develop their sensory language, it will also help grow their conversation skills.
Another one of our favorite sensory language examples and activities is incorporating accessories into your sand play. Give your students animals, cars or trucks or other small toys and have them create a scene. This is a great opportunity for story telling and will further boost their sensory language skills.
Whether it’s in a playground sandbox or jar in the classroom, using sand is one of the many sensory language examples you can incorporate into your classroom.
Finger painting: American artist and educator Ruth Faison Shaw is credited with introducing finger painting into classroom curriculums in the 1930s after observing children like to “smear.” Since then, it’s become a staple of childhood, as well as one of the best sensory language examples and activities for toddlers.
When you let children use their ten tiny digits to create “artistic” masterpieces, it gives them the perfect opportunity to explore, learn and develop through sensory play. This messy activity is great for helping toddlers develop their sensory language skills.
Have them describe the paint colors and textures as they slip, slide, squish and sweep their paint-covered hands across their paper. Again, ask them open-ended questions about how the paint feels and what it looks like. For example, don’t ask, “does this color (blue) look like the sky?”, but instead, “What does this color look like?”
Then, take it a step further by asking questions such as the inspiration for their painting and finally, where you should keep their work of art. After all, they’ll undoubtedly be proud of their Rembrandt.
As an added bonus, finger painting can be inexpensive if you’re on a shoestring budget or need to quickly make your own. You can find numerous recipes online, but one of our favorites uses only two ingredients: shaving cream and food coloring. Just squirt some shaving cream into a bowl or directly onto the paper, add food coloring and voila, you have a quick, easy and non-staining paint.
Is it messy? Yes. But is it also one of the most effective ways to teach sensory language? Absolutely!
Sensory bins: A sensory bin is a container filled with small items and materials to help ignite your students’ senses. They provide hands-on opportunities for your kiddos and give you the chance to stimulate your students and encourage their language development.
To get started, all you need is a large container and filler materials. Typically, sensory bins fall into two categories: dry and wet.
In dry sensory bins, you can use dry rice, beans or pasta; shredded paper, cotton balls, packing peanuts, beads, unpopped popcorn, small toys and more. Wet sensory bins may include playdough, shaving cream, soap and water.
The best part of sensory bins is the options are limitless! Simply create your bin and let your students explore.
The only rule is you need to play alongside your kiddos and ask open ended questions along the way so they can practice their language skills. For instance, ask them to pull out a certain type of object, then ask them to describe how it looks and feels. This is an easy and engaging way to help them learn the answer to, “what is sensory language?”
Food play: We know, you’re not supposed to let kids play with their food. However, in this instance, we’re giving you a pass.
Kids love putting things in their mouths anyway, which is why edible sensory play is perfect!
Below are six of our favorite ideas that incorporate all five senses:
- Rainbow bread crumbs. This easy, colorful and edible idea from Happily Ever Mom only requires bread, food coloring, milk and a food processor.
- Colorful Cheerios. No Time for Flashcards shares three activities that will leave you cheering for more.
- Marshmallow play. Fantastic Fun and Learning provides five activities for exploring the senses using this classic confectionery.
- Brown sugar sand castle. An edible and inexpensive idea from Hands On as We Grow.
- Painting with Pudding. The TipToe Fairy gives us a delicious DIY recipe for edible finger painting.
- Edible sensory shaker. No Time for Flashcards demonstrates how to make a rattle that will engage your students’ taste, touch, and hearing.
As a bonus, implementing food play could help picky eaters. When you incorporate food play into your lesson plan it helps to desensitize foods for kids, reducing fear and anxiety around trying new foods. Children become more comfortable because this type of play can increase a food’s novelty and there’s no expectation to eat the food.
The main thing to remember with all the above is to discuss the sights, sounds, tastes and textures during each activity.
Sensory language boards: Create posters that list common words for each of the five senses and place them around your classroom to help equip your students with what they need to develop their sensory language skills.
To begin, list a handful of the most common words for each sense. Then, as your class masters those, begin introducing and adding additional words to each poster.
You may also want to incorporate visuals relating to each sense to help connect the ideas, such as putting an illustration of a mouth on the “taste” board or an ear on the “sound” board.
Additionally, encourage your students and their parents to practice sensory language at home and bring in words they hear outside the classroom.
Touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing are the key ways children take in information, respond to their surroundings, seek comfort, nourish themselves and bond with all those around them.
Sensory play is a great way to engage children and help them develop important developmental skills, including motor development, problem-solving and especially speech and language skills
If you’re still unclear on what is sensory language or how to incorporate sensory language examples and activities into your classroom, CCEI is here to help! We offer a number of courses on this, as well as other closely related topics.
CCEI’s Making Sense of Sensory Processing, a one-hour, beginner-level course, introduces sensory processing and covers the process by which the brain interprets sensory information. It also examines sensory processing disorders. This crowd-favorite course also includes helpful teaching practices and strategies for meeting the needs of all learners.
We also offer Sensory Learning For All Ages, a one-hour beginner-level course that examines sensory experiences in the classroom and the benefits of sensory activities for young children. This interactive course explores ways of incorporating sensory learning into lesson plans, enhancing sensory learning centers, guiding developmentally appropriate sensory learning experiences and implementing developmentally appropriate ideas for sensory learning experiences.
To learn more about the sensory language courses above, as well as our entire catalog of 150+ topics, click here.