What is sensory development?

Sensory development is the development of the senses.

What are the senses?

We have 8 senses that we use to process sensory information. There are 5 external senses that are well-known to all. These include the sensory systems whereby sensory information is received externally, from sources outside of the body, namely, sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell. There are 3 internal senses that are less well-known but just as important as the external senses. These include the sensory systems whereby sensory information is received internally, from sources within our bodies, such as bodily awareness (propioception), bodily movement (vestibular) and bodily basic functioning (introception).


Why are these senses important?

These eight senses are crucial in assisting us to process and interpret information from the world around us. The processing of sensory information is the basic foundation for learning. Before we process emotions or thoughts, we first need to process and organise sensory information. Sensory information such as what we see, hear, taste, touch, smell and sense through our bodies is received via the brain stem (base of the brain). The brain then processes that information as positive or negative and this is translated into an emotional response. Lastly, those emotional responses are translated into reasoning, logic and learning. .

Please see the diagram below for a more visual representation:


Let’s talk about toddlers and sensory play

Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates a child’s senses.. We take in all information via our senses and our brains then process this information to give it meaning. Sensory play facilitates exploration of their senses and the world around them. Through these experiences, toddlers will learn more about their own bodies (e.g. how things feel, look or smell) and how to interpret them appropriately.

As you can see in the pyramid of learning below, sensory systems are at the very base of the pyramid, meaning that they are the foundation of learning. There are various areas in which our children need to develop before academics and cognition are even a factor to consider. Many reasons why so many children need therapy today is because they aren’t exposed enough to the three most foundational sensory learning areas, namely: tactile, vestibular and proprioception. Often children are not moving enough or exploring their environment and therefore cannot understand their bodies and the world around them as they need to. In our virtual world today, children are also often overexposed to visual input through screen time and all the other senses are neglected in the process. Toddlers need to move, run, jump, climb, explore, get messy and be curious through playful engagement. This is the way that they learn and its crucial to further development.



The different ways sensory information is processed

The way in which we process sensory information is dependent on our sensory profile. This is largely inherited from birth but can also be influenced by environment and exposure to sensory stimuli. Our sensory profile is the reason why some people are able to work with blaring music in the background and others cannot focus at all with even a slight auditory disturbance. It’s the reason why some of us love roller coasters and others hate even the thought of being upside-down or spun around.

The way we interpret sensory information influences our ability to learn new information, to perform activities and participate in activities with other people. We all fall in one or more sensory profile category which is what makes us unique and gives us our own specific preferences etc, however if a child’s ability to process sensory information is affecting his/her daily participation in activities, he/she may be experiencing some form of sensory processing disorder.


Sensory Profiles using fond Winnie the Pooh characters as a guideline:
It may be difficult to pin-point exactly where your child lies on this chart but try to watch their behaviours and preferences over the next week and it should slowly become clearer to you.
Sensory seekers and Bystanders (low registration) children require lots of movement and internal feedback in order to self-regulate. Movement and deep pressure activities have a calming effect on them. They need to engage in heavy activities in order to ‘feel’ their bodies moving and working.
Sensory avoiders and more distractible or sensitive children require movement and deep pressure as a way to help them become more alert and settled. They require more time in quiet spaces and benefit from alone time during the day.

The role for us as parents in terms of our child’s sensory development is:

  • Expose them to a variety of sensory information during their first 36 months of life with a focus on experiencing all of their senses through play.
  • Spend time learning about and understanding both your own and your child’s sensory profile. 
  • Talk to your child about their experiences. Reassure them and help them name their responses to sensory stimuli. E.g. “You got scared when the dog jumped on you. That’s okay – dogs can be excited and want to play. Next time, we will wait for the dog to calm down before you say hello to him.” OR “You didn’t like the feeling of the sand between your toes. Did it feel weird or uncomfortable? Lots of things feel weird and all we need to do is remember that we can wash our feet after walking in the sand.”
  • As your child gets older and can start to understand themselves better (school going age), help them to recognise their own sensory responses and give them tips on how to manage them appropriately. Help them to learn what behaviour is acceptable and what is not.
  • If necessary, consult an Occupational Therapist to assist with sensory processing difficulties. They may also give advice on various sensory equipment to use or classroom adaptations that may benefit your child.

Activity ideas to enhance sensory development in toddlers

Remember that multi-sensory learning is the best way to enhance sensory development (stimulate more than one sense at a time)


Written by Courtney Mercer
Occupational Therapist 
Nanny ‘n Me Port Elizabeth Franchise Owner