Making Sense of Sensory Development
Throughout the Fall, we will share a bit about how we think about a child’s developing senses and sensory processing in the context of outdoor play. To kick off the season, we’ll lay out a few of the big ideas on which we draw in this work. We hope these provide a helpful start to a season-long reflection for both the adults who join us each week in classes and those who are with us online. We look forward to reflecting with you on the ideas we share as we play with the children we love.
What is the sensory system?
The “sensory system,” in a broad sense, is the part of our nervous system dedicated to receiving and processing the information we take in through our “senses.” When we say “senses” we refer to the subsystems within that sensory system that each rely on their own set of body and brain functions to perceive and process a certain category of inputs.
More than “the 5 senses”
Many of us remember learning about the five senses in elementary school. The fab five (first five listed below) are relatively concrete, easy to identify and to connect to both body parts and experiences, so they offer a great starting place for kids. That said, many neurologists identify nine additional senses, some pushing that list to a total of 21.
This season, we will focus our adult learning on seven senses—the fab five, plus two more. The other two are the Vestibular and Proprioceptive senses. The names are big and the workings a bit more abstract, but understanding a bit about them can help you understand and support your young child. To follow is a quick description of each of the seven:
If you spend time around young children who play freely, you’ll likely notice that sensory stimulating activities are pretty darn engaging. Watch a bit more closely, and you’ll notice that different children respond to sensory inputs differently. My 5-year-old, Willa, cannot pass a mud puddle without full immersion, while her close friend has strong disinterest in touching mud, preferring to poke at it with sticks. Why is this? Whose experience of mud play is more enriching? Is Willa “better” at mud play than her friend?
Each person experiences sensory stimulation differently and has different threshold for sensory input. To help make sense of this, we use a simple metaphor—that each one of us has an internal sensory “cup.” The cup represents a volume of sensory input required to have a full, sensory-stimulating experience. For example, when we have just the right amount of light, sound or touch to fill our cup, we have a optimal or ideal experience. When our cup is too empty, the senses are not as activated as possible, limiting all of the wonderful development that can come from sensory engagement (more on that soon!). On the flip-side, when a cup overflows, sensory systems can get overwhelmed, causing children to experience discomfort and fear responses that inhibit learning and can even materialize in behaviors adults often find challenging.
The trick is, each child has a cup sized just right for them. Willa’s cup is quite large with respect to her friend’s. So, it is likely that both girls were making great sensory strides with their mud play, each according to the size of her own cup.
If we offer children opportunities to activate multiple senses and give them both space and our trust to engage their senses on their own, they can work towards a full cup. And, even though we want our children to get the very most they can out of life, we need to honor all levels of sensory stimulation as great experiences for our kids, so that we don’t push children into sensory overload.
Finally, if we deprive children of access to sensory-rich environments, we diminish the opportunity to benefit from sensory stimulation they so need (more on that coming too!).
With the increase of indoor time and technology, the world around us has narrowed to emphasize visual and auditory senses, almost to the exclusion of others. What an important time to make sure our children get the chance to fill up their cups with stimulation for all of their senses.