Outdoor sensory play combines two aspects of play which are so important to child development: outdoor play and sensory play. Making the most of outdoor sensory play opportunities for your toddler will help them thrive.
Sensory play is exploratory play using all five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Through these senses, a young child instinctively learns about the world. Watch how babies bring objects to their face to taste and smell them; this is as natural to them as looking at or feeling the object to understand what it is and what it does.
However, sensory play is more than just instinct. It is vital for brain development, too. Stimulation of the senses sends strong signals to the brain. In a growing child, these signals set the neural pathways that they’ll need for learning throughout life.
Outdoor play is just as important as sensory play for healthy growth and development. It’s good for the body: toddlers playing outside get a dose of vitamin D along with fresh air and muscle-strengthening exercise. It’s also good for the mind and has proven stress-lowering benefits. Plus, it helps children make an early connection with nature which is vital for our future guardians of the planet.
Experienced nursery practitioners know the incredible benefits of combining these two aspects of toddler play. So for this reason, leading nursery schools feature sensory gardens that are designed to maximise the opportunities that sensory and outdoor play bring.
A nursery or preschool sensory garden
Nursery sensory gardens are specially designed to fit in high-quality sensory learning opportunities into the nursery’s outdoor area. They are also intended to be quiet, calming places where the children can learn at their own pace.
Plants are chosen for the scent, color, texture and the sound they make in the breeze, and are non-toxic, of course. Plants like aloe vera, herbs and grasses are often picked out. Space is made for messy play, like a digging patch where children can explore what lives under the ground. Growing fruits and vegetables for the children to enjoy eating is also a valuable experience that nurseries can provide.
Ideas for outdoor sensory play to try with your toddler
Creating your own sensory garden within your home’s outdoor space is a wonderful gift for your child. However, this is often not possible for many reasons.
There is no reason for your toddler to miss out on sensory garden activities, however. Here are some ideas you can try out in your own garden or backyard, or even at the park.
1. Petal potions or perfumes
Collect up petals, herbs and leaves and add water. Ask your child to tear, scrunch, mix and stir up their potion. You can help by encouraging them to talk about what they can see (colors, shapes, etc.), smell, feel and hear. This activity is a lovely way to spend some time playing calmly on a warm day.
2. Minibeast hunt
Toddlers love searching for minibeasts in a garden or park. See what lives under logs and rocks, amongst plants, and on trees. If you can provide a magnifying glass for looking up close, this will add to the excitement.
While you go about your hunt, listen closely to the noises of nature up close, talk about all the textures you come across (dirt, bark, pebbles, etc) and the interesting little creatures you meet.
3. Sand table
Playing with sand is an irresistible and highly tactile activity for toddlers. Add in items that they can use for digging, scooping or mark-making.
4. Dirt sensory bin
You can make this sensory bin by filling a large, heavy-duty container with dirt or compost from the garden center. The list of things you can add to personalise your bin is almost endless: small construction vehicles, flowerpots and gardening tools, or rocks and pebbles. Adding water to make thick, oozy mud is also a great sensory learning experience.
5. Mud painting
If you have access to an outdoor space that you don’t mind getting messy, then this is a fun and creative sensory activity. Paint on the pavement or wall using a pot of mud, large brushes, rollers and sponges.
6. Water play
Water play is so much fun, especially on a hot day. Fill a container (of any size, from recycled food packaging to a paddling pool) with water and encourage your child to splash, pour and stir to their heart’s content. There are so many ways to make water play different every time by changing the container or by adding different tools and toys.
7. Grow your own fruit or vegetable
Teaching children about where food comes from is an important part of their education. It’s really rewarding for the child if they can grow and nurture something they can later eat. They’ll provide the full range of sensory experiences along the way, too.
8. Mud pies
If you can provide your toddler with an outdoor mud kitchen, you’ll not regret it. If not, just a pile of dirt and some old kitchen items like wooden spoons, pots and pans will deliver the same sensory learning experience and hours of fun.
Outdoor sensory play is typically messy, but also incredibly engaging and fun for your child. At clear-up time, simply remind yourself of the positive learning experience you’ve just given your child. These kinds of opportunities are so beneficial for your child’s development.
Ayesha Hoda is a marketing and communications specialist working at Step By Step Nursery Group in the UAE. She holds an MBA degree from a leading business school in Pakistan and has more than 13 years of experience in corporate communications and journalism. She has worked in both agency and client-side roles, designing communication strategies for multinational clients, nonprofits and small businesses in various industries, such as education and healthcare.