Children first start learning about the world by instinctively using their five senses. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells and tactile experiences all help stimulate a child’s cognitive development. Sensory play provides children with the sensory experiences that strengthen their cognitive skills. That’s why it’s important to give youngsters plenty of opportunities to use their senses as they explore and interact with their environment.
Developing each of the five senses is a step toward children learning other skills as they grow. Sensory experiences work to raise a child’s innate curiosity. Children use the sensory skills of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and touching to receive information for their brains to process. Stimulating the senses that send signals to the brain strengthens the neural pathways for learning. For this reason, sensory play helps a child learn to process and understand new information. The more of his senses a child uses and the better he becomes at using them, the more he can learn.
The sensorimotor stage, the earliest stage of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget's stages of cognitive development, occurs during the first two years of life. This is the time when infants and toddlers use their senses to explore the world around them. Cognitive development increases as children process the information their senses take in. From the beginning, infants use the senses of sight, hearing and feeling to learn and discover. During the sensorimotor stage, a child goes from being aware only of what is in her immediate environment to developing memory.
Sensory experiences help develop the brain, which processes different kinds of information. Cells known as sensory neurons carry information from the sensory organs to the brain. Learning occurs as the brain sorts out this information and builds new connections. Although many of the neurons in the brain aren’t connected when a baby is born, the messages that neurons relay to each other create connections as learning takes place.
Cognitive development generally refers to thinking skills that include memory, intelligence, reasoning and problem-solving. A child uses his cognitive abilities to process the information he collects from his senses. Because most cognitive skills are learned, they can be improved. The Ask Dr. Sears website suggests giving your baby toys that stimulate several senses at once to increase brain development. A toy can be simple and inexpensive, and still do the job, as long as it stimulates your child's cognitive growth.