“Isn’t sensory learning really a preschool thing?” a friend recently asked. This question spawned a great conversation exploring why it's an understandable perception and why it really is not. She nodded knowingly when I talked about how joyful, present and engaged kids of all ages are when they activate multiple senses. The idea that had her on the edge of her seat, though, was that, per research, using multiple senses helps humans learn better. We both reflected on how much kids today use sight and, to a lesser extent, sound, especially as their technology intake increases with age. Suddenly, we both really wanted to learn more about how using multiple senses benefits our kids and how to build more of that kind of learning in.
Using more than one sense helps us learn and that is true throughout our lives. Infants can learn visual rhythms, but only if they have both visual and auditory information from which to learn. Corporate training programs are designed to address multiple senses and learning styles. But, why is that? Why does multi-sensory learning outperform uni-sensory learning?
One easy answer—you get more information when you use more senses. Today, humans use sight most often during waking, learning hours. In any given moment, though, what you can see alone is not as informative as what you could see and hear. For example, as my five year old learns to bike the neighborhood, I certainly hope she uses both what she sees and hears to track the movement of people, animals, and cars around her when she decides when and where to turn.
There is more benefit to using multiple senses at once than simply getting more information. Each sensory system utilizes different parts of the body and a different set of parts of the brain. So, to put it simply, kids harness more brain power when they use more than one sensory system at once.
When we consider how the brain develops, we can understand the benefit in terms of pathways. As children take in and process new experiences through their senses, neural pathways associated with what they have learned form and strengthen in the brain. If one sense is used in learning, one sensory system is activated in the brain, creating one set of connections or associations with that learning. If more than one is activated, multiple sensory systems are activated, and multiple sets of connections related to the learning experience form.
Although it’s not hard to buy that more pathways must be better, the benefits are even more clear given the way kids later access what they have learned. Our brains are like databases that are designed to locate similar things. That focus on similarities makes us more efficient. When we try to recall or apply something stored in memory, we do so by remembering similar information. We can see this manifested in kids as they “make connections” between new situations and prior experiences. A young child may see a new dog and say the name of their neighbor’s dog. Or they may go to a new park and inquire about whether or not this is the park they usually visit.
So, when kids use multiple senses, they not only form multiple sets of connections, those various sets of connections are all related to the same learning experience. This means the memory of what they have learned is actually more easily accessible to your child because there are more ways the information can be triggered and retrieved from memory later on.
By the end of our chat, my friend was sold—the more multi-sensory learning experiences our kids get, the stronger their sensory systems become and the more accessible all that they learn will be later on. But what about her question about sensory learning in the early years? In some ways, she was right—even though multi-sensory learning benefits all ages, early childhood is prime time for sensory learning.
Human brains start out very open and flexible, leaving young children ready to utilize a wide range of senses. Over time, though, perception narrows as parts of the brain that are used repeatedly are strengthened, while those not used as often diminish. With such a focus on screens, many children hardly use senses other than sight and sound. The narrowing of perception towards these two dominant senses gets harder and harder to undo as children's brains solidify. This makes the early years a critical time to burn pathways that support kids at using and integrating all of their senses—with that broad base, they'll have so much more to draw on down the road.
The good news? All you need is time, a rich sensory learning environment (nature!) and a starting point. Try one of these multi-sensory play ideas with your kids, and you're on your way:
- Raid the spice drawer. Whip up some mud pies and bring spices into the play.
- Lay down in a field and close your eyes. Sense what you feel. Then, add in a moment to notice the sounds you hear. Open your eyes to add sight last. Even if this lasts mere seconds, repeat it and, over time, kids will build stamina and love for this practice.
- Make mud faces on the trees. Take time to feel the differences in mud recipes, hear the sound of mud as it plops on the bark, and watch carefully as the mud patty transforms into a face.
- Make close friends with a tree. Feel its bark with your hands, even your cheeks. Lay down beneath it and gaze up. Close your eyes and listen to the sound it makes. Sniff a leaf, then crumple and crush that leaf to see if you get a different scent.
- Do some “heavy work” together. Welcome kids to climb a tree (even if with your help), move small logs about, pull wagon loads of stuff around the yard—look for these and other opportunities to send sensory input into joints or muscles. You’ll help kids activate the often overlooked proprioceptive sense.
- Find other multi-sensory DIY activity ideas for family play time.