Think about yourself as a child. Did you often go outside and explore nature through your senses? Maybe, you often went to the forest, the beach or a park. You might have compared the structure of black and white sand or searched for leaves that feel softer than others. Outside, you can find many colourful flowers and some have a stronger smell than others. Also, some specific rocks smell like fire when you rub them together. Children also get familiar with the sounds specific bird species make, and they create fun activities for each season.

Within this chapter, you will read about the importance of sensory play in an outdoor environment. After reading this subchapter, you are able to name the 7 senses and you know why practicing and improving those sensory activities are beneficial for children. The chapter also provides ideas that are useful as future teachers.

What is sensory play?

Sensory play is based on activities that stimulate the senses of children. Through those activities, children explore, practice and create (Goodstart, 2016). Understanding sensory play and activities can open doors for the cognitive and behavioural development of children. Sensory integration is the process through which our senses work together. Most people are aware of the five senses:

  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Seeing
  • Hearing

But what about these senses?

  • Vestibular
  • Proprioception

The vestibular sense is all about movement and balancing and postural control. This sense helps us to recognise our body position in how to stay upright without falling. Some children struggle with the nonuniformity of the vestibular sense. We can state that those children are either over reactive/hypersensitive in the presence of the stimuli or under reactive, hyposensitive/sensory seeker. We need the vestibular system to make us aware of the speed and direction of how our body is moving within the space around us (Howe, Brittain & McCathren, 2004). This YouTube video shows vestibular activities and tools to practice with children in order to improve vestibular processing. These activities can also be implemented as outdoor activities. Instead of pillows, the child can jump backwards in the sandpit or on a trampoline. Many outdoor elements can be used as a balancing element. Think about branches or outdoor play attributes such as a tennis racket.

The proprioception sense is about recognizing the body position of our different body parts without looking. This sense helps us to make use of space and recognise the right timing of movements. Intense input is necessary. Therefore, think of activities that work the muscles and joints. It tells children the amount of effort that is needed to move the body (Kabat-Zinn, 2018). This YouTube video explains several different methods that can be used by a teacher to improve a child’s proprioception sense.

Task: Read the list of activities below. Which ones involve the vestibular sense? Which one involves proprioception?

  1. Make a burrito by rolling your child up in a blanket or yoga mat. You can add “toppings” by adding cushions, a yoga ball, pillows, etc.
  2. Lie on your back or your belly on a yoga ball. Pick things up or do other activities while lying on the ball.
  3. Yoga stretches.
  4. Pulling a rope.
  5. Spinning until they feel dizzy and then sitting down until the dizziness is gone.
  6. Airplane: Lift your child up in the air with your feet while you are lying on your back (hold them with your hands too, if you are worried you might drop them).
  7. Blowing bubbles.
  8. Jumping on a Trampoline
  9. Animal walks: Walk like a crab, duck, snake, etc..

(see answers at the bottom of this page).

Benefits of outdoor sensory play:

Children use their senses to explore the world around them and use different strategies to solve problems. Sensory play also increases brain development in a way that children learn how their body responds through their senses. This helps them to create stronger connections to sensory information.

Through sensory play, the student will recognise sensory attributes, objects, and textures such as sticky objects, cold and slippery attributes, and rough structures. This will help the student in problem solving by adapting their body movements to different outdoor situations (Kostelyk, 2020).

Tip for teachers: Teachers can create an outdoor sensory walk. Especially for young children, walking barefoot and exploring the feeling and reaction to the textures, creates sensory awareness and awareness of the world around you.


The sensory walk is a fun way for children to learn and play at the same time. It helps students to develop their gross motor movements by balancing. Teachers can place plastic boxes in a row, and they can fill them up with for example:

  • pine cones
  • acorns
  • sand
  • hay
  • pebbles
  • water

Sensory play can also help children to filter out this sensory information. Some students have trouble in focusing on a certain task or game when the environment around them is too noisy or disruptive. Sensory play helps students to practice with how to block out the noises and focus on the play instead of what is happening around them. Therefore, play time becomes more fun instead of overwhelming (Kostelyk, 2020).

A good way to help students practice those skills is the design of an outdoor musical wall. An outdoor musical wall is a wall placed outside on which musical elements are hanging. Music is a frequent factor in any sensory environment. A musical wall combines the benefits of natural sounds, smells and tastes with playing musical instruments or creating musical sounds.



Look around your house and use found objects and recyclable materials.

Another example of a benefit can be a child who is sensitive to food with a wet or spongy texture such as spaghetti or mushrooms. Sensory play can assist the student in recognizing and familiarization of unknown aspects in an environment with little expectation. Therefore, children will create understanding and trust in the taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound (Goodstart, 2018).


Difficulty in processing sensory activity: Sensory processing disorder

Unfortunately, there are still children who experience difficulty in processing sensory activity. Researchers claim that this has something to do with the fewer time children spend playing outdoors. Two working parents that lead to less exploration of different natural settings can be a result of this. Other reasons behind this can be the increased screen time and the decreased recess time at schools.

For some children, their senses are not correctly sending the right senses to the brain. These children often over or underreact. Whenever a child has trouble in physical activities, social skills or learning in general, this child might have a sensory processing disorder (SPD).

The earlier people provide tools and activities for those children to practice, the better it is for the child (Beck, 2019).

This website provides a checlist for Sensory Processing Disorder for adults. It is interesting to answer those questions and find out whether you experience difficulty in processing senses.

Outdoor education provides a lot of helpful tools and activities for children to practice their sensory processing. You can think of climbing structures, climbing trees, swinging, obstacles and tactile activities. Children use those tools to push, pull, climb over, touch, jump on, or jump from. Playing outdoors is therefore a place to integrate sensory integration, and a place where children can explore and become happy human beings while enjoying sounds, smells, tastes, and elements of nature (Pathways, 2013).

In this YouTube video, an expert team of health professionals discuss the characteristics of sensory processing disorder and how it affects a child and how this can be improved.

Fun outdoor sensory play activities:

To make use of the sensory needs of children during outdoor sensory play, it is important to make use of all the elements of nature. Seasonal changes can be an example of this. For example, fall is a season full of vestibular sensory input. There are several things you can do with your children in class.

We will list some examples down below (Beck, 2019).

  • Catch leaves as they fall.
  • Leaf roll (roll down from a leaf pile).
  • Leaf swing (lay belly down on a swing seat. While swinging back and forth, the student tries to hold and toss fall leaves).
  • Create a fall sensory bin.
  • Search for insects (worms, spiders).

During summer and spring, there are also many outdoor sensory play activities to create. Think about;

  • Outdoor sensory sand table (this table can include shells, sand molds, and scoops).
  • Outdoor sensory water table (including plastic boats, plastic underwater animals).
  • An ice table (use ice cubes and discover how ice melts).
  • Outdoor water and sand sensory bin.
  • Create a flower soup.
  • Plant some plants or flowers outside/ gardening. (this will bring children closer to nature).
  • Include water games and water gun or balloon fights.
  • Outdoor water wall. This wall includes tubes, water reservoirs, high and low moving parts and is very beneficial for different educational themes.
  • Let children play with soap or shaving foam.

During wintertime, every activity that includes snow is considered as outdoor sensory play. You can think of;

  • Throwing snowballs.
  • Creating a snow angel etc.
    However, many countries do not have snow during winter. Therefore, teachers can create other sensory outdoor activities such as;
  • An ice table (discover how ice is formed).
  • Catch the wind in a plastic bag.
  • Create a Scavenger hunt (write down elements on a piece of paper and let children search for it).

Through this link, you can download free sensory diet cards. Those cards describe different sensory activities and challenges for children to do outside.

Key Takeaways

Outdoor sensory play helps to stimulate children’s senses. It helps students to develop their motor skills, language development, recognise body position, and to use different strategies to solve problems. Through sensory outdoor learning, children get familiar with unknown sensory aspects such as texture, sounds, smell, taste and sight. It is important for children to explore the outdoor settings to help them react to what they sense in the world around them.


Answers to Vestibular and Proprioception Task

Vestibular: 2, 5, 6 and 8
Proprioception: 1, 3, 4, 7


  1. Make a burrito by rolling your child up in a blanket or yoga mat. You can add “toppings” by adding cushions, a yoga ball, pillows, etc.
  2. Yoga stretches.
  3. Pulling a rope.
  4. Spinning until they feel dizzy and then sitting down until the dizziness is gone.
  5. Airplane: Lift your child up in the air with your feet while you are lying on your back (hold them with your hands too, if you are worried you might drop them).
  6. Blowing bubbles.
  7. Jumping on a Trampoline
  8. Animal walks: Walk like a crab, duck, snake, etc..




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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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