When I discovered and learned more about our 8 sensory systems this was a game changer for me in my role, the way I planned, saw my third teacher and how children develop. And all of this is credit to our son. He set me on a path that changed my perspective on just about everything. I understand myself and others better because of him.
We all have sensory systems, and there are lots of misconceptions about our sensory systems. The biggest one is that we only have 5….there are 8 systems we need to be aware of. Some books even talk about the idea of more systems but there is more focus on these 8 for right now.
Tactile, visual, auditory, olfactory, oral, proprioceptive, vestibular and interoceptive.
Abraham, D., Heffron, C., Braley, P., & Drobnjak, L., (2015) Sensory Processing 101, pg. 3, 9, 15, 21, 27, 33, 39, 43.
Another misconception is that sensory play only happens in our sensory tables. When in fact, every single thing that we do, hear, see, feel externally and internally involves our sensory systems.
Our sensory systems develop just like our language, social, emotional, physical and cognitive skills do. I also believe that no other learning can happen unless our sensory systems are operating well and in-sync for the learning to happen in the other domains.
How could this new understanding and knowledge about sensory systems change the way we plan, curate our environments and understand children better?
When I started to plan for our senses and created a holistic experience that involved as many of the senses as I could...I noticed changes. The children were able to regulate more easily and naturally because it was considered in the design aspect. Having materials and loose parts that stimulated their senses and opportunities for movement that both challenged them and allowed for freedom enhanced their abilities to self-regulate while they played. Which in turn reflects on their abilities to develop the other domains.
We know that loose parts nurture children’s development across the learning domains. But loose parts when provided across all variables, also provide stimulation for our sensory systems. The weight of lifting a tire and dragging it across the yard provides stimulation in our muscles and joints (proprioceptive sense) that is calming in our bodies. A simple wood plank to create a see saw or a balance beam helps develop their vestibular system which allows them to have gravitational security (being confident in their body to move about). Feeling safe to move around and calm in our bodies is essential to a child being able to engage in play socially.
Our little guy is a sensory seeker and an avoider. He NEEDS to jump, spin, crawl, karate chop his way through the day. These movements involve his proprioceptive and vestibular senses and when able to do these activities naturally in his play he is able to stay regulated. Which reduces the hitting or throwing of items when he gets frustrated.
I remember an important moment when I saw how much my little guy needed sensory stimulation. We had a pile of loose parts (glass stones, rocks, and other bits) on the floor and he started to crawl through them. He stopped in the middle and began to swish his arms and legs. He crawled back and forth through them. He was seeking out the textures of them on his body, the sounds they made while moving through them, the visual aesthetic of the pieces and the movement his body got while crawling and swishing. He is a sensory seeker...he needs this on the regular to say regulated. And to seek out this stimulation in ways that might be different.
He is also an avoider of sensory stimulation. Bright lights and loud noises cause him a lot of distress. To the point where he cannot play, be in distress for extended periods of time or even be in that environment. This is why a carefully, intentionally thought-out environment or provocation could either nurture a child or hinder them from engaging.
As my knowledge about sensory systems grew and was able to understand how his behaviours were communicating needs through his senses I was better able to plan. I included items and elements he needed and eliminated or reduced ones that hindered him from engaging.
This is when he was able to finally play and develop in the other learning domains. This knowledge and implementation into my practice enhanced all the children’s development. From learning about this for our son, I realized how much this needed to be considered for all the children. That I needed to plan for their senses...not just in the sensory bin.
From what materials I chose to put on the shelves to ensure enough textures, colours and sounds could be explored. The visual clutter didn’t make too much noise in their head and was able to make decisions about what they wanted to play with and create that day. Our brains have to decide what to pay attention to, deciphering sensory stimulation from our bodies and environments and choosing what to “listen to” and make a response.
Planning for our senses is a very important element so that children feel safe in their own bodies and environments so that they can play and learn across all domains.
So, I ask you. How are you planning for our sensory systems? Do you feel you have a good understanding of the 8 sensory systems? How do feel this info could enhance a child’s experience, your role and relationships with parents?
For me, learning about our sensory systems and how to use them as a proactive tool to nurture children’s development came about from survival and heartache to see my son in so much distress. But now I holistically know how important this knowledge is and why I passionately talk about it often. I integrated it into all aspects of my practice and I share this with you in The Modern Educator Toolkit. In one of the 4 workshops in this toolkit, Supporting Sensory Needs is a deep dive into our 8 senses and I share our personal sensory journey of understanding our son and how I made simple accommodations to our environment. In Planning Provocations I teach you how to incorporate sensory and inclusive elements into your planning process for individual and group needs.
What may have started out as survival for us has turned into a new perspective that I believe is essential for children’s development...and can make our roles a little bit easier too.
I am an Early Childhood Consultant and very passionate about supporting and inspiring my fellow Educators. I will share my reflections and experiences about implementing my philosophy, views, and ideas into my practice.