Babies and children learn and discover the world through their senses. Find out what the importance of sensory development in children is and how they learn through their seven senses.
What is Sensory Development?
Babies begin to learn through their sensory systems. They take in information through their sensory organs – such as their eyes and ears. The mind and the senses work together to create a meaningful world.
Sensory development in early childhood is important for overall health and well being. It forms the foundation of a child’s learning and perception.
Babies start reacting to sensory stimulation from birth. They turn their head towards sound, follow objects with their eyes and discover their hands and feet by touching them.
Later they start to develop eye-hand coordination and will use their hands to touch something they see. They then begin eye-hand-mouth exploration by putting things into their mouths, which stimulates the sense of taste.
Much later their visual depth perception develops, enabling them to move safely without falling down stairs or walking into things.
Although the senses develop independently, by the end of the first year babies achieve sensory integration. They are then able to process information from multiple senses together – especially vision and hearing. [source: de Witt]
What Are the 7 Senses?
Touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell. These are the five basic senses.
But did you know the body also has two other important senses – proprioception and vestibular?
Let’s take a look at each one of the seven senses.
1. Sight (Visual)
Through the sense of sight we are able to:
- Interpret the information that we see
- Recognize objects or the environment around us
- See where we are moving and navigate through space
- Receive information (through the eyes) and transfer the information to the rest of the body so that we can react and respond to our environment
- Build language and vocabulary by naming what we see
Sight is the least developed of the senses at birth. Babies cannot focus clearly or see further than 30cm ahead of them.
Visual stimulation right from birth is very important in order to develop this sense. Your baby must learn:
- How to follow objects with his eyes
- To distinguish between colours
- How to get the eyes to work together
- Hand-eye coordination
- Spatial perception – where he is in relation to things around him
- Depth perception – what is in front or close, what is behind or far away
Between 1 year and 18 months, children have the same vision as an adult.
Exercises such as making your baby follow a toy with his eyes will not only strengthen the eye muscles but also improve his visual perception – an important skill needed to read later on.
2. Hearing (Auditory)
Through the sense of hearing we are able to:
- Sense and interpret sounds that we hear
- Determine what direction the sound is coming from
- Determine the distance of the source of the sound
- Understand the importance of a sound (e.g. a car speeding towards you when you are crossing the road is a sound of danger in that context)
The auditory system is better developed at birth than the sense of sight. This is because it is already developed by 28 weeks of gestation. Sound is carried on airwaves which is picked up by receptors in the ear. [source: Richardson]
Newborns can identify their mother’s voice early on and can hear high-pitched sounds well.
Hearing and listening are crucial skills during childhood and are closely linked to learning. The better your child is able to hear and listen, the better his intellectual development will be.
This is because he has developed good auditory perceptual skills. He will also be less frustrated than a child who can’t learn as easily because he cannot process sound well. [source: Pieterse]
3. Smell (Olfactory)
Through our sense of smell, known as the olfactory system, we are able to:
- Smell pleasant and unpleasant odours
- Differentiate between smells
- Be alerted to danger
Smells in the environment are picked up by receptors (billions of tiny hair cells) in the nose.
The sense of smell appears at 14 weeks of gestation. It is well developed at birth but must be further stimulated.
Infants recognize their mothers through their smell before they can even see them.
Interestingly, smell is the only sense that is linked to the emotional centre of the brain. This is why you can smell a familiar shampoo or other scent and be flooded with memories.
Smell also alerts us of danger. When a person is in danger, he emits pheromones. These can be smelt by animals and children. [source: Pieterse and Richardson]
4. Taste (Gustatory)
Through the sense of taste we are able to:
- Identify whether a food can be eaten or not
- Identify and differentiate between the four basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter
We perceive taste through the taste buds on our tongue that register anything that comes into contact with them. There are different receptors for the four different tastes.
Newborns are born with a full set of taste glands, although it takes a few years for these glands to develop fully. They can already taste sweet, sour, salty and bitter tastes.
This sense is closely linked to smell and is also developed in the womb by 28 weeks.
Babies put just about everything into their mouths – in order to learn – and this stimulates the sense of taste. [source: Pieterse and Richardson]
5. Touch (Tactile)
Through the sense of touch we are able to:
- Feel pain and pleasure
- Feel whether a pressure is light or deep
- Sense and understand the world around us
- Understand the temperature
- Feel the tactile qualities of an object
The sense of touch is perceived through the skin’s touch receptors. It tells your brain about pain, temperature, pressure and movement in the muscles and tendons.
Touch is the first sense to develop after conception. The fetus is able to react to temperature and pain stimuli in the womb. It is also very well developed at birth.
Babies need to receive constant loving touch in order to develop and be healthy. The sense of touch is important for their emotional development.
Children who do not receive enough touch have slower nerve development and this leads to developmental delay. [de Witt and Richardson]
Babies explore everything through touch at first and continue for several years. This is one of their best ways to learn about the world around them.
6. Balance (Vestibular)
The vestibular system, located in the inner ear, is responsible for the sense of balance. It enables us to:
- Maintain our balance
- Maintain head and body posture
- Determine the direction and speed of movement
- Sense where our bodies are moving in space
The vestibular sense works with receptors in the inner ear that sense when we change our position in space.
This means we know which direction we are going, how fast we are going and if we are getting faster or slower. When it is well developed we don’t become nauseous or react badly to normal movement.
Here is a quick explanation on YouTube of this very important system.
Through the vestibular system, babies learn to sit, crawl, stand and walk by learning about the sense of gravity. They will later use this understanding to learn to perform more complex movements such as balancing on a beam.
Children need a lot of movement during the early years to properly stimulate this system. They need to be making movements such as rolling, swaying, rocking and tumbling.
7. Body Awareness (Proprioception)
The definition of proprioception is our sense of body awareness or body position. The sense of proprioception enables us to:
- Sense the effort we are exerting
- Determine our position in space
- Control our arms and legs
- Sense the force of something or its heaviness
Proprioceptors are found in all of our muscles, joints, tendons and the inner ear. They send information to the brain to say whether our muscles and joints are tense or relaxed, busy or still.
The child is then able to sense where his body is positioned in space and he knows how his limbs are moving. This is necessary for him to be able to explore his world with his body.
Proprioceptors are also responsible for regulating emotions and calming a child – for example with a tight hug when he is distressed. [source: Richardson]
What is Sensory Processing?
Sensory processing refers to how the brain organizes the sensations it receives via the senses. It is how the brain responds to multiple sensory sensations from the ears, eyes and other sense organs. [source]
Information must be understood and correctly interpreted by the brain so that it can tell the body how to respond appropriately.
When the brain processes sensory information properly, the child is able to behave in a meaningful and consistent way.
Right from birth, the senses send signals to the brain to be processed. The more information is sent to the brain, the more is processed, and the more the brain develops.
This means that the best way to develop sensory processing is for parents to stimulate a baby’s senses in order to learn.
Here is a summary of how the brain processes information:
Information is received via the senses
It is sent to the brain to process
The brain tells the body how to respond
It stores information about past experiences which influences how it responds to future experiences
Children’s sensory processing abilities improve and mature as they get older. Their sensory needs also change with time.
Some children are very sensitive to certain stimuli – such as noise, smells or being touched – and others under-respond to sensory stimuli.
The first are known as sensory defensive and the latter are known as sensory seeking.
Sensory Seeking Children
Children who under-respond to sensory stimuli are called sensory seekers.
They receive low levels of information from their senses about their experiences and so their brain cannot correctly process them. It can not tell the body how to respond so it looks for more sensory input.
Sensory Defensive Children
Sensory defensive children are overly sensitive to stimuli. They have sensory sensitivities. The senses receive high levels of information which the brain can’t effectively process so it sends the body into fight or flight mode.
This manifests as negative behaviour because the child can’t respond appropriately. These children even begin to expect that sensory experiences will be negative.
If a child shows sensitivity to a certain stimulus – such as playing in the sandpit – there are various ways you can guide him to slowly start becoming exposed to it. For example:
- Spend time watching others playing with sand
- Talk about what he expects to feel in the sand or how lovely the texture is
- Wear shoes or an apron at first until he is comfortable to take it off
- Use tools at first so he does not have to immerse his hands completely (e.g. a spade or fork)
- Introduce the activity gradually and for short amounts of time at first
- Praise your child’s attempts to try playing with the sand
- Give your child a choice between two activities and see if he will brave one of them (e.g. water play or sand play)
What is Sensorimotor Development?
Sensorimotor functioning is the body’s ability to integrate the senses and the muscle system.
The child is able to put together information received by various senses at the same time (e.g. what is heard and seen) and react via motor skills (e.g. moving out of the way of the speeding vehicle).
The nervous system, muscles and senses together help a child to become aware of his world and adjust to it.
What is Sensory Perceptual Development?
Sensory perception is the organization, identification and interpretation of information that is processed via the senses. It is the meaning that the brain gives to the information it gets from the senses.
The brain uses what it has learnt previously to interpret this information. In other words, it uses what it already believes to be true about the world to categorize what it perceives [source].
Perception involves two processes:
- Processing the sensory input
- Processing based on a person’s knowledge or understanding of concepts
There is a link between perception and attention. This is important because focusing on building your child’s perception leads to greater attention which builds their concentration span. [source: de Witt]
All learning happens through the perception of the senses. Therefore it is vital that the brain can organize the information it receives, interpret it, process it and react appropriately.
Improving a Child’s Perceptual Development
During the first few years of life perceptual development mainly revolves around the senses of touch and movement. As the child grows and moves towards the preschool years there is a gradual shift to building the auditory and visual senses.
Perceptual development is the foundation needed for any formal learning in the future. A child who experiences problems with perceptual development will have problems with later development. It is crucial that children get early stimulation in order to build all these skills.
What is Sensory Play?
One of the best ways to promote a child’s sensory development is through sensory play.
Sensory play is any play activity that stimulates your child’s senses:
- Balance (vestibular)
- Body awareness (proprioception)
Here are some great ideas for setting up sensory stations to stimulate all the senses.
How Sensory Play Helps Development
The best way to develop and improve your child’s sensory development is through play. Through play, children learn what no one can teach them. For young children, play is the lifeblood of learning. [Hendrick 1990:6]
Sensory experiences provide a way for children to learn using their bodies, which is their main method of learning at an early age. They cannot yet use language to learn as an older child can – through mainly listening, speaking or writing.
The value of experience-based learning is therefore so crucial for babies and young children.
“For a small child discussion and verbal learning have little educative power without actual experience. Learning rather happens through all the sensory channels. Children must live through, explore, and try things out to attach meaning to them” [Hendrick 1990:6].
What is Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID)?
Some children have difficulty processing and organising information received from the senses. These children are often misunderstood in the classroom as it appears they are acting out or have an inability to concentrate.
The cause of sensory integration dysfunction is not clear; however, there are ways to help a child who has this difficulty.
If you see several of the following symptoms in your child, it is advisable to have him assessed by an occupational therapist, who is trained to deal with sensory processing in children.
Signs of sensory integration difficulties:
- Struggles to calm down
- Has low levels of activity
- Avoids gross motor activities such as running, jumping, playing, etc.
- Appears tired and lacks energy
- Has high levels of activity
- Moves continuously
- Crashes into things and seems unaware of his position in space
- Does not like being touched
- Avoids activities such as playing in the sandpit or with water
- Dislikes foods with different textures
- Seeks touch or loud noise
- Overly sensitive to sounds, sights and smells
- Delay in language development
- Poor ability to sleep independently
- Struggles to play independently for a short period of time
- Cannot concentrate in a noisy or busy environment
Children with these difficulties will benefit greatly from being properly assessed by an occupational therapist. They are usually seen for weekly sessions or even given home programmes for the parents to follow independently. [source: Richardson]
De Witt, M. 2016. The Young Child in Context: A psycho-social perspective. Second edition. Van Schaik Publishers: Pretoria.
Hendrick, H. 1990. Total Learning: Developmental Curriculum for the Young Child. Third Edition. Macmillan Publishing Company: New York.
Pieterse, M. 2007. Language and School Readiness. Metz Press: Welgemoed.
Richardson, A. 2012. Toddler Sense. Understanding your toddler’s sensory world – the key to a happy, well-balanced child. Metz Press: Welgemoed.