Exploring the Senses in Your Setting


During April, we’re looking at the ways the Arts can provide excellent opportunities to explore all our senses, and how thinking in a multi-sensory way can help practitioners facilitate more creative experiences.

Why Multi-Sensory Experiences are Important

From birth, children learn about the world around them by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing and hearing, all of which supports vital brain development. Put simply, in a multi-sensory experience, the brain takes in information from two (or more) senses, then combines that information to create a new idea or concept, making a new connection in the brain.  In the beginning babies are learning that, for instance, that yellow and gloopy and sweet means custard, and the more that baby experiences custard the more ‘hard wired’ that information becomes.

This happens thousand of times a day, and the more multi-sensory experiences you have, the more complex connections are made in the brain.  90% of these connections will be in place by the time a child is three, and will provide the scaffolding for the way they learn and process information for the rest of their lives.

This process of combining information and creating something new is at the heart of creativity.  By thinking about the arts in a multi-sensory way, artists and practitioners can develop creative arts experiences that support young children’s cognitive development, encourage their natural curiosity and enrich learning experiences.

As children grow, they develop their own learning styles that may favour one sense over the others (most commonly categorised as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic styles of learning, though others have also been identified) but by thinking in a multi-sensory way – say, reading a story while children explore objects found in the story, or encourage them to explore the rhythm of a poem with movement and paint – the same experience can inspire a variety of different learners and help process the information from the other senses.

Multi-Sensory Messy Play

When the word “sensory” is uttered in an Early Years context, minds most often jump to messy play, whether it’s the more traditional sand and water, food based cornflour gloop and vats of custard, or a more outdoorsy approach with mud, sticks and stones.  Bernadette Duffy, who spoke at our Creative Revolution last year has written a brilliant article clearly outlining the massive contribution open ended messy play makes to young children’s cognitive and creative development, which you can download here.

“Children are being creative when they use materials in new ways, combine previously unconnected materials and make discoveries that are new to them, and messy play enables children to do all these things” Bernadette Duffy

I particularly enjoy the way she challenges some of the negative connotations associated with the word messy, and highlights the importance of adults rolling their sleeves up, getting involved, and letting go, too.

“As practitioners, we need to use our imaginations, take risks and leave the security of structured lessons. Sometimes there is a tendency to prepare the materials for messy play and stand back while the children explore, but children will gain so much more from the experience if we engage in the process with them. We need to learn from and with the children as they engage in messy play.” Bernadette Duffy

While messy play opportunities may provide babies and young children some of their earliest opportunities to be creative, Duffy makes the important point that messy play is not just for the under threes, and links to the benefits in terms of personal, social and emotional development; communication, language and literacy; mathematical development, knowledge and understanding about the world, physical and creative development.

This High Scope article helps tackle some of the barriers to sensory play, and includes some interesting ideas for rejuvenating ignored sand and water tables.

The idea of combining toys or objects from other parts of the Early Years setting with the sand or water table is an interesting one – giving children the opportunity to combine familiar things in unfamiliar ways is a great way to support the development of creative skills, but for some practitioners who are used to the clear segregation of toys and materials into specific areas – building blocks in the construction area, toy food in the home corner – it can be a challenging concept.  Which is a shame, because when something is taken from it’s usual place and used in a totally new way somewhere else, it shows the kind of creativity and ability to transfer knowledge into new situations that is at the heart of the Curriculum for Excellence, and cross curricular working.

Other Multi-Sensory Experiences

Sensory experiences don’t just begin and end with messy play.  One of the reasons Education Scotland encourages outdoor play is that

“the multi-sensory experience outdoors helps children and young people to retain knowledge more effectively. there are opportunities for pupils to learn with their whole bodies on a large scale”

Taking arts experiences outside – exploring movement and storytelling, musical instruments in the woods, mud and sticks as a visual art medium – provides inspiration and lends a new dimension to the creative opportunities.  Giving children the opportunity to explore the vastness of an art gallery like Starcatchers’ & National Galleries of Scotland Toddle Tours, or going to the theatre to experience those new sights and sounds and smells, are equally importance multi-sensory experiences, and in many ways the journey there, the steps or revolving doors or other architectural features, will all play an important part in the learning.

Many artists who create work for young children go to great lengths to think in a multi-sensory way when designing arts experiences like Blue Block Studio, playing with sound, colour, textures and smells.  The creative process within the arts, experimenting and combining things in new ways and learning from the results, gives artists, practitioners and children alike wonderful opportunities to explore their senses and become immersed in multi-sensory experiences.  Whether you’re painting your own feet for the first time, or trying to figure out how to make it snow on your audience, the important thing is having the time and space to experiment with the sensations.

Your Creative, Multi-Sensory Challenge

Sometimes the easiest ways to start thinking in a multi-sensory way is to add a new sensory dimension to something you already do, or to combine art forms.  Play music when the paints are out to see if children engage for longer.  Add scent to playdough.  Let children decide which animal should be in the next verse of Old MacDonald using toys as props. Run in circles then try and draw the route you took.

The important thing is to build on something that already interests the children you work with, and create something new together.  It may be a disaster, it may be a triumph, but either way it will start everyone’s brain synapses firing in a different way.

Blue Block Studio

Blue Block Studio is Katy Wilson and Starcatchers’ multi-sensory creative play space which is about to tour to Dundee Rep, Platform, Glasgow and the Imaginate Festival in Edinburgh this Spring.  The experience is specially designed for babies aged 0 – 24 months and their adults to enjoy time together in a calm, beautiful and stimulating environment.

Blue Block Studio77 Solen Collet

To find out more about Blue Block Studio or to book tickets follow this link.


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