By Dr. Laura McNamera
Power Of Play In Quarantine Times
In recent years, there has been increasing pressure to pack more and more structured activities, clubs, homework, events and hobbies into our childrens’ lives. This is often at the expense of having less time for children to engage in unstructured, creative and imaginative play. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and being stuck in varying degrees of quarantine, many children are experiencing great change and upheaval in both their personal and educational lives. Online learning and social distancing are stripping back their opportunities for social interaction and learning with peers, so how do you keep your children actively engaged and mentally stimulated?
Free play — which enables children to explore play resources in their own way — and sensory play — which encourages children to use their senses to investigate resources — can give children an opportunity to unwind from these mounting stresses, embark on their own learning journey, and still have tons of fun!
Free play offers many great advantages in developing investigative skills; it allows kids to engage their senses, allows freedom of sorting and categorizing, testing ideas, self-reliance, and exploring cause-and-effect relationships.
Breastfeeding is an example of an early multisensory experience for babies; they are able to see, hear and feel physiological sounds and motions — like their parent’s breathing or heartbeat — touch and feel during skin-to-skin contact, smell odors, and taste milk from their lactating parent. Sensory play, as babies and children grow, also encourages the creation of new neural pathways in the brain, these pathways facilitate development by fostering motor and language skills, it can also help to reduce anxiety.
Here are some tips and ideas for setting up vegan-friendly free play and sensory play experiences:
Helpful Tips For Sensory Play Success
Free play and sensory play sessions should be supervised by an adult. The child leads the direction of the learning, with the adult helping to ensure the safety of the session, answer questions if required, and offer new vocabulary. It’s important that the objects chosen for each activity are safe and appropriate for the age and learning stage of the children taking part. For example, avoid small parts for younger children that could present a choking hazard if swallowed, items that the children could be allergic to, and sharp or rough surfaces that could cause injury. Aprons, tubs, trays, and groundsheets can be helpful for reducing and containing mess where the activities involve liquids or likely spills. Sometimes the messier activities are easier to do outside, as the cleanup is more straightforward.
Ideas For Sensory Sessions
- Sensory busy bags: Choose a selection of items that look, feel, smell, or sound interesting and place them in a fabric bag for children to discover and explore – for example, objects with different colors, textures, shapes, and sizes; a mixture of solid and hollow objects or other items that make interesting sounds when tapped, struck or shaken; objects with distinct smells — like scented rose petals, lavender, or mint leaves — in sealed fabric bags that allow the scent to pass through. Younger children can interact with the materials to explore their properties, and older children can also think of ways to sort and group the items, and come up with their own ideas about how the objects are similar or different.
- Sensory boxes: Make stimulating sensory boxes by reusing cube-shaped tissue boxes. Choose a selection of items with interesting shapes and textures — such as toys, foam letters, cotton wool, play dough, pom poms, or found objects like twigs, leaves, or pebbles — or that make sound when the box is rattled — such as a bell, dry pasta or rice — and set up one or more boxes with an item inside. With their eyes closed, the child can place their hand in the box and try to describe the object they feel, investigate whether it makes a sound, and try to guess the object. The object can then be taken out of the box, revealed to the child, and replaced with a new item. Children can also use their imagination to decorate the boxes with paint or wrapping paper to make them look more exciting.
Sensory trays: Choose a few touch-safe household substances with different properties that children can experiment with, such as diluting juice, vegan jelly, cooked spaghetti or noodles, vegan cream, cereal, vegan yogurt, or uncooked rice. These can be added to individual tubs, jugs, and bowls for older children to pick which mixture from the selection they want to make and experiment with, in a large tray or basin big enough to contain any mess. Add some of the substances directly to the large tray or tub for younger children to play with and explore. You can introduce descriptive vocabulary such as soft, hard, squishy, liquid, solid, mushy, and mixture. Children may want to run their hands and even feet though materials to experience the different sensations. The sensory trays can also be themed, for example, toy vehicles, animals, foam letters or numbers, and can be used for imaginative play and creating art.
- Outdoor sensory experiences: Children can create a sensory journal by drawing, taking photos, writing about, or even collecting some items they find that fit into different categories, such as colors or pairs of opposites — rough and smooth, scented and unscented, big and small, noisy and quiet, shiny and dull, heavy and light, light and dark.
Ideas for free play sessions:
- Loose parts play: Gather safe, clean items that could be used for exploring their properties and imaginative building, such as lids, cardboard boxes, kitchen roll tubes, pipe cleaners, pom poms, washable marker pens, and craft supplies. Encourage older children to build something from their imagination, or set them an open challenge (for example, to invent and build something that could take you to space, to let you explore under the sea, or to help around the house; or design a new animal, alien or type of food).
- Toys for imaginative play: Some toys naturally lend themselves to free play, such as blocks, balls, soft toys and dolls, play food, toy vehicles and toy animals, as they can be played with in different ways. For example, set up an area with toy blocks for children to begin to build and invent. Younger children also often enjoy investigating how to take apart blocks from an existing stack.
- Sand and water play: This is ideal as an outdoor activity, but can also be scaled down (to reduce mess) as an indoor activity. Provide children with tubs of sand and/or water, and a selection of items, such as toy vehicles, boats, animals, jugs, funnels, buckets and spades, and things which float (such as empty plastic bottles) and sink (such as pebbles). Children can invent their own games to play with the objects, interacting with the sensory landscape of the water and sand, while implicitly exploring concepts such as floating and sinking, pouring, wet and dry, solids and liquids, and mark making.
- Play with ‘real life’ items: Items that adults would normally use can make for engaging play and discovery time for younger children as they learn about the world around them. For example, items such as silicone oven mitts, plastic bowls and lids, sealed plastic bottles with a small volume of water that children can see splashing inside, slippers with velcro straps or a zip to pull, or even a pair of socks, can make for fun investigation and open-ended play as children find out what the objects look and feel like, and what they are able to do with them. Similar objects can also be used by older children for imaginative play (such as using cushions to build a fort, den or animal sanctuary for their soft toys), and role playing (such as playing a chef, shopkeeper, scientist or astronaut).
Making time for open-ended free play and sensory play can allow children space to unwind, develop their ability to play independently and imaginatively, and enable their creativity to shine. We hope your family has great fun playing!
How do you keep your kids engaged and learning? Let us know in the comments below.