Tips for Parents on Sensory Development in Toddlers

By Cara Batema
Painting utilizes your child's sense of sight and helps him develop proprioceptive senses.
Painting utilizes your child's sense of sight and helps him develop proprioceptive senses.

Many parents know about the importance of physical and cognitive development in their toddlers, but some parents don’t realize toddlers learn these skills through sensory input. According to Lindsey Biel, occupational therapist and co-author of “Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues,” sensory development is so important that without it, other areas of development are at risk. An ideal way to enhance sensory development in toddlers is through goal-oriented play.

Types of Senses

Most parents know the typical five senses -- smell, touch, hearing, taste and sight. Lindsey Biel introduces two other senses necessary for proper development. Vestibular sense is the ability to move around and feel in balance. Proprioceptive sense relates to body awareness and the relationship between the body and the environment. Toddlers walk with a heel-toe pattern rather than just on their toes, and they can walk in balance if their vestibular sense is developing typically. Toddlers who can enjoy messy play or who can push, pull or carry objects show proper proprioceptive sense.

Signs of Development

Toddlers should respond when their name is called and show curiosity to try new things by running, jumping, climbing or touching objects. Toddlers have a sense of discovery, but they need to be given opportunities to develop this sense. Children might also show an interest in new foods and have a varied diet. Toddlers should be able to walk without running into furniture or seeming wobbly. They learn how to manipulate movements to explore a new environment, such as crawling through a tunnel. If your toddler does not show these signs of development, her sensory input might be impaired.

Sensory Experiences

Many children are starved of sensory experiences, as they spend time in front of the television or computer. The toddler years are especially important for sensory input, so encourage a variety of sensory activities each day. Let your toddler help you with food preparation or folding the laundry. Take him outside to run around or play on a swing or jungle gym in the park. Let your toddler play with toys in the bath and encourage him to play with toys that have different textures, light up or make sounds. Encourage your toddler to play with a ball by tossing and catching it or by kicking it. If your toddler favors one hand, encourage him to play with toys with both hands equally. Encourage fine motor skills through art activities.

Make it Fun

A lack of sensory development can be easily overcome in the toddler years, especially since sensory input activities are involved in many areas of play. Under supervision, let your toddler pick out pebbles in a box of sand for a tactile experience that also improves fine motor control. Play “I Spy” or complete puzzles to work on sight. Experiment with opposite foods, such as salty and sweet, to improve a sense of taste and get your toddler to try new foods. Let your toddler help you cook, and use a variety of spices that are aromatic to improve smell. Sing songs or purchase a child-sized instrument to let your child explore music and sound. There are many possibilities for making sensory development in toddlers fun, and many activities your little one already enjoys are likely sensory-friendly. Approach activities with a sensory goal in mind to help monitor your toddler’s sensory development.

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.