Parents, we seem to be inundated with the term sensory these days. From sensory processing to sensory integration to sensory bins, it is important to understand what these terms mean and how they will help our kids. Conveniently, the perfect sensory experiences are right outside your door.
Lets start with sensory integration, which is your brain’s ability to take in sensory information through the eyes, ears, skin, mouth, nose, joints, and muscles and process this input to create a response like pulling a hand away from a flame, taking a step backwards when someone enters our personal space, and throwing our hands up to balance ourselves when we missed a bump on the sidewalk or focusing on the conversation we’re having at a restaurant instead of the background noise coming from the table next to us. Sensory information is how our brains make sense of the world. Children’s brains need lots of sensory input to practice taking in and processing sensory information- and there is A LOT of sensory information we take in on a daily basis.
Did you know we actually have 8 sensory systems?
And while we are using these senses all day, every day, our absolute favorite sensory experience is outside in nature (or as we like to call it, the biggest sensory bin of all).
As soon as you step outside, your child can feel the temperature- is it hot? chilly? windy? He’ll also probably feel a bit itchy walking through tall grass and react if he feels a bug crawling up his leg. As children often do, he’ll probably dig his hands in the dirt. These are all wonderful ways your child is experiencing different textures and developing the tactile system- and you didn’t have to set up a single thing!
Can’t you just smell the snow, fresh cut grass, flowers, and salty sea air at the beach? Nature gives us a strong reminder of where we are through the incredibly powerful olfactory sense. When your child ventures out into nature during any season or location, the olfactory sense is getting lots of input.
Crickets and birds chirping, trees rustling, and waves crashing are all sounds we can attribute to nature. When children play outside amidst these harmonious melodies along with us calling their names, planes soaring overhead, and lawn mowers rumbling, their brains are challenged on which sounds to focus on and which to push to the background. We would become too overwhelmed listening to all the noises equally that surround us when we venture outside. By playing in nature, our children can practice processing auditory input without becoming overstimulated.
The vestibular sense helps us stay balanced while running across sand and walking over a pothole filled road. Fun experiences like rolling down hills, swinging across monkey bars, spinning on a tire swing, and changing directions while playing tag all challenge the vestibular sense.
This sense is all about body awareness- through full body movements like pushing, pulling, hanging, and climbing, the joints in our bodies receive sensory information and send signals to the brain about where those body parts are. What better place to engage this sense than at a playground!? When your child transfers weight from one side to the other while climbing a ladder, the joints are getting feedback. As he hangs from the monkey bars, the joints are getting feedback. The proprioceptive sense is also in full-on action as your child runs across the field, swerving right on time to avoid other kids coming straight at him (proprioception combined with the vision sense, that is!)
This one is pretty self explanatory as even Monet couldn’t recreate the perfect palette we see in nature. Sunsets, blue skies, colorful flowers, and fallen leaves fill the canvas of nature’s playground. Nature can be so visually stimulating that babies will tire out from looking around at all the scenery when out on a walk. Toddlers and big kids learn depth perception as they climb greater heights to the tallest ladder, and their visual tracking skills needed for reading are being worked when closely watching butterflies flying all around them.
This sense is responsible for our internal systems like hunger and bathroom needs. And while nature doesn’t necessarily target this sense directly, it certainly can work up an appetite! And boy are they thirsty from all that running around. Kids also need to learn to stop playing and ask for a bathroom break when they feel the need- that’s not so easy when there’s so many fun things to explore.
Bottom Line: Time spent playing outdoors offers one of the most robust and well-rounded sensory experiences. And the best part, it’s absolutely free and there are no materials to prep!