If you're a parent – especially the parent of a neuro-diverse child – you've almost certainly heard the word "sensory." I first heard it when my oldest was just a baby, and at the time - for me at least - it only applied to play. That was six years ago – since then, my child has been diagnosed with ADHD and sensory needs. I've become immersed in the word's various meanings, understanding that sensory applies to both play and a person's way of processing the world around them.
But what does this all mean? And what exactly is "sensory"?
The quick and dirty: we have five basic senses: taste, hearing, smell, sight, and touch. (My favorite is taste, for obvious reasons). The organs associated with each sense send information to the brain to help us understand and perceive the world around us. Our senses protect us from danger and allow us to interact with and discover people, places, and things. This is why sensory play is so important, especially in the early years – it helps develop those sensory pathways in the brain.
My first experience with sensory play was at a mommy meet-up when my oldest was around 6-months-old. There were finger painting stations, kiddie pools full of spaghetti, water tables, and shakers around the room. Spaghetti-covered babies giggled and splashed while "Mary Had a Little Lamb" hummed in the background. My baby was captivated for the entire hour. I sipped hot coffee and chatted with new friends – it was peaceful and uncharted territory. There was something magic about this sensory stuff, and it worked when it came to keeping a baby busy!
Back home, I was determined to recreate the allure of sensory play. I filled cookie trays with cooked pasta, bowls with water, and plates with paint. It was a disaster. Was my kids captivated? Yes. Was the clean-up worth the 30-minutes minutes of peace and quiet? Absolutely not. That's when I started to look into sensory toys, leaving the messier sensory activities for drop-in programs.
Like spaghetti or paint or water, sensory toys stimulate one or more senses. They typically include bright or contrasting colors, different textures, sounds, and even lights. For neuro-diverse children, such as children with autism or sensory processing disorder, sensory toys offer so much more than an opportunity to play. They help children engage with their senses, provide feedback to their sensory systems, and regulate their sensory needs.
While sensory toys are used to help neuro-diverse children regulate and are incorporated into various therapies, all children benefit from sensory play.
You can begin introducing sensory toys as soon as your baby begins testing out their grip, shaking things around, and putting things in their mouth. But research has shown you can start stimulating your baby’s vision as early as their first days home by introducing black and white flashcards (they can't see other colors until 5 months or so).
Here are our favorite sensory toys for babies newborn to one:
Wee Gallery - Animal Art Cards for Baby
Wee Gallery – Animal Art Cards for Baby
Clover + Birch - Clacker Keys
Clover and Birch – Clacker Keys
Go ahead...shake it, baby! This modern take on the classic toy keys is the perfect gift for the child who enjoys modern design and natural materials. The varying shapes are interesting to grasp and smooth to the touch, while the clacking sound creates a soothing, yet intriguing, noise. These elements combine to create a modern gift that can stand the test of time.
Wee Gallery - Clutch Ball
Manhattan Toy - Fairytale Snuggle Rabbit
Lavish, lush, and satisfyingly snuggly. This bunny blankie is excellent for snuggling, soothing and cuddling. A variety of silky-soft fabrics create a velvety feel unlike any other. Every edge of the blankie features colorful ribbons and satin-like fabrics for added comfort and enjoyment. Its hefty size is great for little ones yearning for a nap-time companion. Encourages self-soothing and sensory exploration.
Clover + Birch - Grasping Rattle
Grasping beads are a simple, yet beneficial, first toy for your Montessori-inspired baby. Grasping beads are traditionally introduced to babies around 3 months to encourage grasping, hand-eye coordination, and transferring practice. The alternating textures of the beads create an engaging tactile experience for babies, and also make for a wonderful teething toy.