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10 Ways Using Sensory-Based Activities Help Children to Learn Language Skills (Plus Tips and Tricks)

Does your child love dumping toys on the floor? If they see a stick of butter, are they quick to smash their finger in it? Does your kiddo love the pool/bathtub/puddles? Most children love exploring their environment through their senses, whether it's touching different textures, watching novel occurrences repeatedly (think of a child staring at a continuous stream of water pouring), or listening to music, they seek different sensations through various modalities.

Not only does this constant exploration help children learn about their environment, it also helps them acquire and use language.

Here are 10 ways that children learn language skills through sensory play:

1.) Receptive Language (How we understand what is being said):

The amount of opportunities for direction following and learning new words while engaged in sensory play can be limitless. While participating in sensory play with your child, the following instructions can be given to work on attention, concentration, understanding action words, and overall receptive language development:


  • "Pour the water"

  • "Put the foam on/in/through"

  • "Clean up the paint"

  • "Smash/pat/roll/smoosh/poke the play dough"

  • "Pick up the rice"

  • "Give me the buttons"

  • "Pop the bubbles"

  • "Mix the cream and colors"

  • "Stir the noodles"

  • "Pinch the clay"

  • "Stir the mix"

2.) Expressive Language Skills (How we say the things we want to say)

Sensory-based activities provide great opportunities to practice various words, phrases, and sentences while playing in a child's natural environment. By labeling specific actions, attributes and items while engaged in sensory play, children are reinforcing meaning behind words as they experience those words through speaking, feeling, seeing, and executing. Below are some examples of ways that sensory play can benefit expressive language skills:

Words addressed in sensory play:

  • Action words:

  • Pat

  • Smash/Smoosh/Squish

  • Poke

  • Roll

  • Cut

  • Pinch

  • Push/Pull

  • Spread

  • Describing words:

  • wet/dry

  • sticky

  • scratchy

  • smooth/rough

  • soft/hard

  • slimy

  • gooshy

  • squishy

  • furry

  • scaley

  • colors

  • small/big

  • stinky/smelly

  • Functional phrases:

  • All done

  • More Please

  • My turn

  • Help Please

  • Open it

  • Position Words:

  • in

  • on

  • around

  • on top

  • under

  • behind

  • in front

  • in between

  • through

3.) Social Language Skills (How we say the things we say to others)

When presented in a group of peers or when playing with their parents, sensory-based activities provide invaluable opportunities to develop age-appropriate social skills. Below are some of the reasons why sensory activities provide perfect instances for kiddos to practice social languag skills:

  • Sensory activities can often be split in order to give each child an opportunity to play with it (i.e. a child can "split" play dough to share but would not be able to do this with a toy).

  • Sensory activities lend to more creative construction and therefore children learn from each other's own creations (i.e. imitation and creative collaboration).

  • Sensory activities, while they can be split amongst a group, can also be contained to one person to encourage turn-taking skills (for example, a tub of kinetic sand can remain in one tub and can be passed around from child to child so each child can practice waiting and turn taking).

  • The following questions can be asked during sensory-based activities in order to practice social language skills while engaged in group sensory play:

  • What color do you have?

  • What does yours feel like?

  • Do you like this (activity/object)?

  • What does yours look like?

  • What does yours smell like?

  • Which one is your favorite color?

  • Do you want a turn?

  • What should we make with this?

  • Which one is your favorite?

4.) Joint Attention and Concentration Skills

Joint attention skills describe the skills that children acquire that help them attend to something that someone else is looking at. This skill is one of the foundations of early learning, focus, attention, and language development. With joint attention skill development, all other language development is possible. Sensory-based activities serve as great sources to elicit joint attention in young children.

5.) Pretend Play

The ability to imagine and pretend while in play is a milestone in children's language development. Through pretend play, children learn how to be creative and to hypothesize what will happen in given situations. Children learn to predict and anticipate what will happen in social scenes and think out of the box.

The following are examples of how children can use sensory-based activities while engaged in pretend play:

  • Playing bakery or restaurant with play dough, kinetic sand, clay, sand, shaving cream, gel, or water beads

  • Making an ocean with water tubs, water beads, sensory bins, bean tubs

  • Making potions and magic spells with sensory materials

  • Pretending to use sensory bins and materials are construction sites with cars and trucks

  • Sand castles and play dough cities

  • Tea parties with pouring and scooping with things such as rice/bean tubs, water tubs, etc.

6.) Speech Sound Development/Speech Articulation Skills

The beauty of using sensory-based activities is that they are so open-ended in how you can use them. As a Speech Pathologist, I have used sensory-based activities in order to teach speech articulation skills numerous times. Below are some ways in which sensory activities can be used to teach speech clarity skills:

  • Use onomatopoeia

  • "Pat Pat Pat" while patting playdough to work on /p/ or /t/ sound or initial/final consonant deletion

  • Smooooooshhh to work on /s/ blends or /sh/ sounds

  • Use small, consonant-vowel-consonant words to work on short words for your child to articulate to gain success in clear speaking:

  • cut

  • poke

  • pat

  • hit

  • roll

  • got

  • Use short phrases (2-3 words) to encourage clear speaking, slowing down, and enunciating sounds:

  • "Put in"

  • "Put on"

  • "Take out"

  • "Roll it"

  • "Pat it"

  • "Cut it"

7.) Memory Skills

When children participate in sensory exploration, they are engaged across several senses (hearing, sight, touch, smell). As they continue to play this way, they continue to get feedback through their senses which may help with memory. In addition, sensory activities can be modified in order to specifically work on memory skills. For example, children can play games in which items are hidden in sensory bins and are asked to remember where they are and search for them. Children may also remember the cause-effect relationship of how these activities interact with their actions (i.e. how a kinetic sand interacts with how you shape it, how water beads will bounce around when you scoop them up, etc.) As the memory skills of a child develop, their language skills increase as they retain information in their environment.

8.) Inferencing

Inferencing is the ability to draw a conclusion based on information that is known or provided. Since a lot of sensory play is open-ended and there is not a concrete action-reaction relationship, many opportunities for inferencing can arise.

Here are some examples of how children can practice inferencing during sensory-play:

  • "How should we make____( pancakes, milk shake, cakes, etc.)"

  • "What should we use to scoop?"

  • "What happens when we mix blue and red?"

  • "Our hands are sticky, what should we do?"

  • "What kind of food should we make?"

  • "How do we make a big splash?"

  • "Where should we hide the (item)?"

9.) Calm/Relaxation

Today's society can prove to be a confusing and rushed world for kiddos. More and more these days, children need tools to calm, get centered, and relax. Children that are not in a calm or relaxed state are often not ready to learn, are distracted, non-compliant, and confused. Sensory activities often serve as appropriate ways for children to calm down and therefore gain focus for learning. Exploring the specific kinds of sensory activities that your child enjoysncan be beneficial for their learning, language development, and overall well-being. At the end of this article are some tips and tricks for productive sensory-activities.

10.) Problem-Solving Skills

Because sensory play is largely directed by the child or the play partner (or both), children naturally learn to problem solve as they explore. For example, a child playing in a bean tub may use several different containers to see which one works for scooping best. They will use the process of elimination to figure out which container works the best and will therefore develop problem solving skills. They learn to clean up with assistance and how to do this in the most efficient way possible. Using tools, exploring sizes/comparisons, and determining the function of each specific material can lend themselves to the development of problem-solving (and language) skills.

Some Tips and Tricks for Successful Sensory Play

  • For prepping and avoiding total messes in your home

  • Do sensory activities in the tub or a baby pool for easy clean up

  • Use a shower curtain or drop clothes under an a specific area for easy clean up

  • Old t-shirts, art smocks, or trash bags with holes cut out are necessary to decrease chance of getting clothes messy

  • Having a small designated trash can or bucket as a "done bucket" so your child can place discarded items in, will help avoid tracking materials through the house

  • Do these activities outside when possible

  • Examples of activities

  • Shaving cream in a ziplock bag with paint or food coloring

  • Small Tupperware bins filled with dry beans, noodles, rice, small glass gems, dry noodles, small erasers, pom poms, oats, cut up straws, beads, dry lentils (CHOKING HAZARD-needs to be supervised)

  • Playdough

  • Clay

  • Light toys in a dark room (lamps, disco lights, flashlights, etc.)

  • Music

  • Water tub (can use actual tub, Tupperware bins with water-needs to be supervised)

  • Food oil in bottles or ziplock bags

  • Shampoo or body wash in a bag or bin

  • Finger paint

  • Water beads

  • Hair Gel

  • Aloe Vera Gel

  • Small objects to hide in any of the above materials such as letters, numbers, figurines, small animals, pom poms, glitter, beads, vehicles.

  • For Clean Up Skills

  • Don't just clean up your child's mess, teach them how!

  • Use specific instructions in order to help them clean up (i.e. "Put the cup in the trash"

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