The Importance of Children’s Sensory and Play

Sensory and Play

Play is a fundamental occupation for children to assist in the development of critical skills needed to master milestones and school-related tasks.

Outdoor play, recess, and leisure time has significantly decreased in the home and school-settings along with the increasing demands of school and increased screen time in children and adolescents. Outdoor play not only provides adequate time for children to interact with peers developing social-emotional skills, problem-solving, coordination, and provides enriching sensory input needed for self-regulation.

Play and sensory processing are closely interlinked. The sensory system is composed of the 5 basic senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell and 3 higher level senses—vestibular input (I.e. our body’s sense of motion), proprioception (the body’s sense of pressure), and interoception (our body’s sense of internal awareness—hunger, temperature, pain, etc). Sensory processing involves receiving, organizing, and interpretation of sensory input for functional at an optimal level. Individuals have different ranges for how their brain processing sensory information even into adulthood Sensory input and leisure/play have important connections; the relationship allows individuals to receive enough sensory input to regulate the mind-body to function at an optimal level.

In early childhood, each novel experience offers a learning opportunity. A mundane task to a caregiver/adult is establishing new, diverse experiences for the child. A child learns first by mouthing toys in preparation for transitioning to solid foods.  For example, mealtime for a child allows them to explore new food textures, tastes, smells while developing age-appropriate fine motor skills from a pincer grasp transitioning into the use of utensils. These skills will lead to higher-level skills needed to hold a crayon or writing utensil.

Outdoor activities and playgrounds can be utilized as a tool to promote and facilitate skills that incorporate a fun, low stress environment. In school-age children, playing on an organized sports team not only helps develop their coordination and allows practice for the sport but also addresses hand-eye coordination, develops motor planning, problem-solving skills, reaction time, social-emotional skills, and direction following. An occupational therapist may recommend playtime on the playground for an intervention strategy to address upper body strengthening, decreasing fear of movement, or to receive proprioceptive feedback; all strategies and activities can address multiple factors at the same time while being a sense of play for the child.

To learn more about sensory processing or pediatric occupational therapy visit:

Content provided by: Andrea Rhodes, OTD, OTR/L


American Occupational Therapy Association. (2011). Building Play Skills for Healthy Children and Families . Tips for Living Life to the Fullest.

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