In our Listen to Your Mother (or Father) series, we ask moms and dads working at Highmark Health to share the wisdom that can only come through the experience known as parenthood. In this post, United Concordia’s Jessica Bomgardner offers observations and insights on stimulating sensory development in babies and toddlers.


Ready to explore the world with my son, Henry.

Ready to explore the world with my son, Henry.

For babies and toddlers, each new day is full of exploration, learning and excitement. As a mother to a curious 18-month-old boy, I know firsthand how strong a child’s desire is to touch everything in sight. As he experiences the world, I realize that he’s using his senses to experiment and catalog his findings while becoming a little person with his own likes and dislikes.

Awakening the five senses — touch, taste, sight, sound and smell — is important to development for children. Even in the womb, babies are listening to their parents’ voices and wiggling their fingers and toes in preparation for the adventures ahead.

Instead of just playing peekaboo for the hundredth time, here are a few ideas I’ve found useful when it comes to stimulating the senses of babies as well as on-the-move toddlers.

Touch

Jess' son Henry painting

Art is one of our favorite sense-developing activities.

My son has a habit of grabbing things that are peculiar to him. He’ll pinch small pieces of paper between his fingers or throw his arms around my exercise ball to muscle it around. In addition to improving a child’s dexterity and hand-eye coordination, there’s much more to enjoy than just rubber balls and plastic toys.

  • Introduce new textures such as sandpaper, silk, wood, marble, grass, leaves, different types of flooring in your house or even something slimy.
  • Compare temperatures (safely!) of hot versus cold, using water or surfaces in the sun and shade.
  • Show how objects can be hard or soft like a rock and a cotton ball or a hard-boiled egg with and without its shell.

Taste

This might be tricky depending on how picky a child is when it comes to food. My son will be interested in something new, but quickly decides the fate of dinner with one lick. If your child is willing to try new things every once in a while, there’s a supermarket full of taste adventures for them.

  • Create a taste-testing “food demo” with foods that have contrasting flavors, like sweet, sour or salty.
  • Keep the new flavors coming by introducing at least one new food or ingredient every few days.
  • Skip the usual dinner routine and introduce age-appropriate world cuisine that has unique flavors, such as Italian fare, Japanese hibachi or Mexican street tacos.

Sight

Jess' son Henry outside creating a chalk drawing

Chalk art isn’t just a visual exercise; it also involves learning about textures … while getting the extra stimulation of outdoor sounds and smells.

This is the one sense that doesn’t need a lot of effort to enlighten. I don’t know about you, but my toddler is actively viewing and pointing all the time. From objects in books to birds in the sky, everything seems to catch his eye.

  • Find an item of clothing in every color and lay them out in a rainbow.
  • Grab a family photo album instead of a book for story time to give them a little history and help them see the difference between photography and illustrations.
  • Line up a few kid-friendly objects that they might not have seen yet and explain or demonstrate what they do.

Sound

Sometimes it might seem like your child isn’t listening to you, but they are quite capable of paying attention to sounds when they want to. Whether they are banging on something or hearing a motorcycle roll by outside, toddlers have lots of opportunities to make and listen to noises.

  • Put on different kinds of music — classical, reggae, rock-n-roll — and dance around with your child.
  • Go for a walk and take note of traffic sounds, animal noises, lawnmowers and anything else that’s new and different for them.
  • Articulate each letter when singing the ABCs or show some examples that use hard and soft letter sounds (e.g., April, Alaska).

Smell

Jess' son Henry walking toward a dandelion held out to him

“What’s that bright yellow thing Mom’s holding? I should learn about that.”

My son used to make this snooty face and inhale/exhale with his nose. I couldn’t necessarily tell whether or not he had the goal of smelling something, but clearly he had the basics down. It may not always be easy to detect when this sense is being used — on the other hand, you can be sure that the sheer act of breathing will facilitate experiencing scent, especially if your child is surrounded by a new fragrance.

  • Take a field trip outside or to a local garden and show your child how to sniff the flowers and plants.
  • Cook up something delicious and let your child see you take a big whiff of the air and say “Mmm!”
  • Have a laugh demonstrating the proper reaction to stinky smells (Pew!) and nice smells (Ahh!).

The things you can do with your child to enrich their five senses are limitless, depending on your surroundings and their willingness to pay attention. Having fun while learning is a chance to use your own creativity to help shape the way your son or daughter sees the world. Bonus points if you can incorporate all five senses into one activity!