Here at LOGICO, we believe that hands-on play is one of the best ways for children to learn. In this article, Rebecca McCalla, from children’s outdoor clothing and equipment retailer Little Adventure Shop, shares five fun elements you can add to your outside space to provide the children with an educational and stimulating play area.
From birth through early childhood, little ones are constantly exploring the world around them by touching, tasting, smelling, looking, and listening. Sensory play is any kind of activity that encourages children to learn using these senses, whether that’s playing in a sandpit, tasting and smelling new foods, or just getting messy in the mud!
This kind of play provides countless benefits. It’s a very effective way to learn: when children are using all five senses to explore the world, they are much more likely to retain information (Educational Playcare). Many sensory play activities also involve a physical element — such as painting, moulding, splashing, or shaping objects and liquids — which helps nurture fine motor skills, aiding muscular development and coordination.
There are no “rules” during sensory playtime, which gives children a valuable chance to use their imaginations, be independent, and generally blow off steam. Plus, outdoor sensory play will encourage your children away from their screens and into the fresh air — something they can never have too much of! In this article, I’ll share five ways to create a space for outdoor sensory play, in the comfort of your own garden.
From playing in the bath to splashing in puddles, children love to play with water. This isn’t just fun, though: it offers lots of educational and developmental benefits. Pouring water into different vessels teaches little ones about the physics of liquids, while also helping to refine their motor skills. So, be sure to offer children somewhere where they can engage with water in your sensory play area.
This could be a small water feature or fountain, or even a specially designed water play table or trough. In warm weather, it could be as simple as filling up a paddling pool or basin of water, adding some floating toys, and letting their imaginations run wild!
Add habitats for wildlife
Wildlife is endlessly fascinating to watch, and many animals and insects — like birds and bees — can produce some very interesting sounds, too. So, you’ll definitely want to add some features that will help attract wildlife to your garden. Birdbaths, feeders, and houses will encourage feathered friends to your sensory area, and bug hotels will provide a habitat for creepy crawlies. You could even consider building a hedgehog house and seeing if any spiky residents move in!
Planting pollinator-friendly plants — like lavender or buddleia — will also help to encourage butterflies and bees into your garden, both of which can be fascinating for your little ones to observe. Be sure to get older children involved in the annual Big Butterfly Count.
Touch, taste, and smell some edible plants
It’s never too early to introduce children to gardening. Gardening provides plenty of opportunities to play with dirt and water, while also learning about where foods come from and how they are grown and harvested. This kind of sensory play can be especially beneficial for fussy eaters: growing produce and getting hands-on with fruits and veggies will help create a positive association with a particular crop, encouraging children to try out foods they may otherwise be averse to.
Whether your garden is large or small, you can always add at least one or two edible plants. Crops such as tomatoes and strawberries can be great fun to grow with younger children — the fruit grows above ground, meaning children can watch them ripen before their eyes. Herbs are also easy to grow and can also provide a great opportunity for sensory play, especially strong tasting and smelling plants like thyme, mint, and basil.
Include lots of textures
Children love to learn through touch, so be sure to include a variety of textures in your garden. Soft bark, paving slabs, and grass give children an interesting range of underfoot textures to explore. A rockery featuring lots of different smooth, rough, and chalky stones will also give children lots of different surfaces to discover with their fingers. You can also include some tactile plants with contrasting textures, such as soft and downy lambs’ ears or crinkly sage.
Get messy with mud
Getting mucky now and then is all part of being a kid, but it’s more than just good fun — it can be a great opportunity for some sensory learning, too. Mud kitchens are becoming increasingly popular for this reason: these are child-size toy kitchens designed especially for outdoor use, allowing children to cook up their own mud-based ‘dishes’ while getting lots of hands-on learning through sensory play. Of course, you could always improvise your own mud kitchen with a bucket of water, a patch of earth, and some plastic jugs and bowls, too!
Be warned: this kind of play can get pretty messy, so be sure to dress the children in old clothes, wellies, and waterproofs.
As a parent, caregiver, or educator, one of the best things you can do for younger children is to provide them with plenty of opportunities to engage in sensory play. So, try incorporating some of the sensory elements I’ve outlined here into your garden, to help enrich your little ones’ playtime.