The sensory system and learning are closely related –
Ballito-based occupational therapist Ashley Dearling explains the connection.
The sensory system is a sophisticated network of specialised cells and organs within the body that collects sensory information from the outside world. Although we generally speak about five main senses, namely sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing, there are actually eight, with proprioception, vestibular and interception being the lesser known senses.
Sensory information from each of these senses is detected by sensory receptors, which are spread out throughout the body. We distinguish between different sounds and pitches because of the microscopic hair cells in our ears, which vibrate in reaction to sound waves. We see different colours and shapes because of the light-sensitive cells in our eyes, which respond to different light wavelengths. Similarly, receptors on our skin react to pressure, temperature, pain and touch. These sensory receptors then direct the information received from our senses to different parts of the brain, which are responsible for making sense of this information so that we can engage meaningfully with the world.
The senses are important because they give us information about the world around us. This is particularly important when it comes to children as they contribute to their learning and overall development. When children touch, taste, see, hear and smell things, and experience how their body moves or responds to gravity, they learn about what things are and how they work. Through this process, they develop physical, cognitive, language and emotional skills. Senses also keep them safe by alerting them to dangers. For example, when a child touches something hot, the touch receptors in their skin instantly alert their brain to this painful stimulus, which results in them instinctively pulling their hand away. Additionally, when children engage with sensory media, they come up with new ideas and develop their problem-solving skills.
The sensory system and learning are closely related because the sensory system acts as a bridge between experiences and learning, enabling us to understand and make sense of the world around us. It therefore serves as the foundation for memory, comprehension, and gaining new knowledge.
The best way to support a child’s sensory development is by offering exposure to a lot of different sensory activities and experiences. For little ones, baby massage can be a fun way to develop the tactile (touch) system and body awareness. Attending sensory play workshops, which incorporate messy play and music and movement activities are also beneficial. It is, however, important to understand that children (especially infants and young toddlers) can become easily overstimulated. If their behaviour is out of character and they are disengaging, pulling away, crying or becoming agitated, give them a break from these sensory inputs.
It’s not necessary to spend money to support your child’s sensory development. Easy activities include gardening with your child; arts and crafts activities involving paint, glue, and materials of different textures; and taking them to a playground where they can jump, climb, slide and challenge their physical capabilities. Nature walks, where they are encouraged to feel natural materials and listen for different nature sounds can also offer a host of different sensory experiences.