Sensory Play and Emotional Regulation

Sensory play is very important for all children.  Up until the age of 3 ½ or even 4 years old children are still working out where they end and the world and people outside of them begins.  Sensory play allows them to grasp that they have a skin that contains them.  This type of play is all about exploration through the senses: touch, taste, hearing, smell and sight.  This is a stage of messy play where you often can identify what they have been playing with simply by looking at them. It is very important for their development and in helping them begin to develop an emotionally expressive language as they grow.
Here are some clever ways to achieve sensory play in your home. Remember that when hands are busy and engaged on the outside, it is often much easier to talk about or just express what is going on inside. Children of this age cannot always express what is going on emotionally for them. When your child needs help to regulate their emotions, you might find that using this type of play can help them to calm down, when other methods may not work.
Make play-doh: If you make it together there is the added sensory experience in the making it…it also means if they eat it, it is safe and you know what is in it.  Allowing them to get messy as they mix in food dye to make different colours is something young children love to do, especially if doing it with you.  Another benefit of making it in different colours is that you can assign a feeling to each colour (red = angry; blue = sad; yellow = happy; green = excited etc).  Then, when they are feeling a certain way they can reach for the colour that fits their feeling, or they can mix up different amounts of each feeling to best describe how a situation is making them feel.


Sensory tables offer a wealth of benefits for all children and especially for those with special needs.  Engaging in sensory experiences like running fingers through dried rice or pouring water can distract and calm a child who is feeling over-stimulated or anxious. It promotes self –discovery and encourages a child to explore new textures, which in turn supports social and emotional development.
Offering textures like dried beans, sand or cotton balls promotes hand-eye coordination and gives the opportunity for a child to pinch, grasp and enhance fine motor skills.  As children discover new textures and objects, they tend to have a verbal response.  Engaging them in a sensory table is great way to work on language development.
NOTE: Be aware of potential choking hazards with these and supervise your child appropriately when engaging in this type of play


Sensory Basins - for a wet sensory basin you half fill a bowl with warm (not hot) water.  Add a squirt of washing up liquid (don’t mix just add it in).  Add in a teaspoon of cinnamon or ginger.  Add a handful of glitter (diamond glitter is best in water).  Give your child a handheld whisk and allow them to stir the water.  This will form bubbles while they see the glitter sparkle and smell the cinnamon/ginger giving them significant sensory stimulation.  Depending on your child’s capacity you can take a straw each and when you say GREEN LIGHT everyone blows into the water, making bubbles grow bigger and bigger.  When you say RED LIGHT everyone stops blowing and pops the bubbles with their straw or their finger.  Your child might also like to put some small toys into the basin and play in the water.
              For a dry sensory basin you can fill a bowl/basin with (uncooked) red and green lentils, add in some (uncooked) bow tie shaped pasta because it looks like butterflies.  Get two small cups/follower pots (the tiny seed planting size) and have your child run their hands through the contents of the bowl, pour from one cup into the other and you may even bury something in the bowl that they must burrow through with their hands to find. You can, of course, improvise depending on what you have available on the day, other dry materials they might enjoy include: rice, barley etc.

Music (rhythm and synchrony-based activities) activates every subsystem in the brain, including areas that regulate emotion and motivation.  Setting aside specific time to sit together and make music allows children to bond with family members and gives them a sense of containment.
Music time can be especially beneficial to children who are non-verbal.  For them, music can be a way of expressing themselves and interacting with their peers.  Provide children with instruments, like egg shakers, bells or toy drums…you can make your own instruments such as pouring dried peas into an empty Pringles tube and sellotaping the lid on (decorate the tube or wrap it in colourful paper) to make a shaker, equally, using an empty baby formula food container with a burst balloon stretched over the open top and secured in place will make a great finger drum.  Encourage them to make noise with their instruments and move their bodies to the music.  Sing songs that incorporate the name of each child so that everyone feels like they have an individual role in the activity, e.g. “James is here today, James is here today, clap our hands and shout Hooray that James is here today” and repeat for everyone’s name…even if there are just two of you doing it.
Additionally, incorporate music in other activities of the day.  Sing songs while cleaning up and transitioning into new activities like nap or snack time… “We are cleaning up our toys, we are cleaning up our toys, it’s fun to sing and make some noise while cleaning up our toys” or something like this to the tune of your choosing.

Joanna Fortune is a Clinical Psychotherapist specialising in child and adolescent Psychotherapy, with over 12 years experience working with children and families. She regularly writes in national media on parenting and family issues.
Joanna recently hosted a series of successful talks for Kildare County Childcare Committee.