by Becky Watanabe

It is rarely disputed that the brains of babies and young children not only have an incredible capacity for learning but also demand stimuli to take full advantage of this most influential and unique phase of development (Conkbayir, 2018). With typically 86 billion neurons by birth, a baby’s brain literally is a sponge that responds and shapes itself to all aspects of its environment, and it is our role as early years practitioners to ensure that the stimuli are meaningful, enriching and positive. What better way to do this than allowing children to explore their world in their own manner and pace?

Children are naturally drawn to sensory play experiences, particularly if they are presented in a way that not only looks inviting but is easily accessible too. Sensory play involves the use of materials that stimulates children’s senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. It is through the stimulation of senses, and exploration of varied materials, that children learn and develop skills such as: critical thinking, physical, social, emotional, language, and creative development. Sensory experiences can also play a key role in helping to reduce stress levels in children. The grip and release movements help children to relax as it allows them to release energy followed by a sense of calm- so if you have concerns about a child’s behaviour, it is worth considering aspects of their environment. For example, the quality of resources, interactions, teaching, and disruptions such as lighting, noise, smells and temperature to name a few. 

Just like adults, children struggle to learn under stress and may behave in a manner that would often be negatively labelled. In fact, what they are trying to do is communicate, either verbally or physically, how they feel in response to external stimuli. Young children express and learn to recognise and understand their emotions through play, as they become more familiar with how they feel. The practitioners’ role, when helping children to develop their understanding of feelings, is an important one which requires great understanding of child development and patience. 

Too often, I see children participating in art activities that have prescribed outcomes, usually planned around a theme, topic, or on special occasions such as Easter and Christmas. A common product is a card, which if offered as an open-ended experience, with a mixture of materials, enables children to develop aforementioned skills whilst having fun!  However, when children are invited to design a predetermined card with direction of how it should look, most likely producing replicas of their peers’, it can have a negative impact on them. What impact does this have on children? They lose confidence in their own ability, diminish any opportunity to express their own artistic flare and learn very little. It is important to remember why we are offering such experiences. The resources we provide, the materials we choose, the interactions we facilitate are for the children’s benefit. They need to be planned around the child's current interests, dispositions to learning, and ability, enabling them to be challenged, but with realistic expectations. 

The process of learning happens when children have time, without disruption, to explore and investigate through trial and error as they learn about their world through meaningful play experiences. The product is the result of a multitude of learning processes. So, when children are guided through experiences mentioned earlier, they miss out on the process, therefore the product has added no value to the child's learning. Fred Rogers reminds us of the importance of play;


"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning, but for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood"


If children have access to varied resources, they can explore materials in their preferred way within their own boundaries. Providing exploratory activities for younger children who like to explore with their mouths may involve using edible options, but this doesn't mean you should encourage actual consumption. Therefore, the resources offered for these experiences should not include items that promote this. Safe alternatives, for example switching glue for porridge, enables the children to learn without disruption, and the practitioner to observe interests, learning styles and skill. 

It is through these observations that we can provide an environment that is inclusive for all children. 

Children need to feel valued as competent, confident, active learners who are self-assured and more than capable of expressing themselves through creative activity. Children should not feel under pressure to do something in a specific way. Their own curiosities and learning styles need to be nurtured and expressed through child-led play. The freedom to explore through sensory and open-ended play without an adult leaning over their shoulder, guiding their hand or providing templates with predetermined notion that all children should produce identical pieces of work. An art gallery thrives on the diversity of pieces that demonstrate each artist's character and creativity.