What is Sensory Play?
Kids love to help with cooking, and it's a great way for them to learn about food and nutrition. As an added bonus: cooking is a wonderful sensory-based activity! Sensory play is a type of play where children can engage all five of their senses to explore their environment. It's important for children to have sensory experiences because development of sensory awareness in early childhood supports many aspects of healthy growth and development, including physical, mental, social, emotional, and linguistic skills that are fundamental throughout life.
Cooking uses all five senses - sight (to see what's happening), touch (to wash and prepare foods), hearing (to listen for sounds), smell (as food cooks), and taste (tasting what they are making!). Kids are great at sensory tasks like tasting, chopping, stirring, and more. The best part is that they are just as eager to learn about their five senses as you are to teach them. For picky eaters or children with sensory processing disorders, sensory play with foods is a nurturing way to introduce them to new or fearful foods without feeling pressured to eat. We know through several decades of research that it can take kids repeated exposures (15-20 times or more!) to feel safe and comfortable to try a new food.
Here are 10 ideas categorized by our 5 senses for getting your kids hands-on in the kitchen with sensory play:
1. Expose your child's eyes to various ingredients and foods with different colors, shapes, and sizes. If there is a particular food that they do not like or are fearful of, having it in their line of sight without having to interact with the food can build their tolerance to the sight.
2. Play food detective! What food is this? What color(s) do you see? What shape is it? What does it feel like? How big is it? Based on your observations, what food is it? Add some extra fun by letting your kids explore the food using a magnifying glass!
Touch is an important sensory input for accepting new foods. Let your child explore the different shapes and textures of foods.
3. Have your kids wash fruits and vegetables! This is one of my favorite sensory bins to do at home. You can use your sink for older kids, or for younger kids I like to use rectangular storage bins placed on the floor, like these Sterlite 32 Quart Clear Bin.
4. Have kids use their hands to feel, squeeze, and manipulate food. My kids love squeezing lemons with hand-held lemon squeezers. It's a great fine motor workout, too!
5. Practice math, measuring, and fine motor skills by having your child measure out different ingredients. How does sugar feel compared to flour? What does 1 cup of a liquid ingredient look like compared to 1 cup of a dry ingredient? Get creative using manipulatives like these rainbow fraction measuring cups.
6. Conduct a touch experiment. How does a potato feel (such as soft and squishy) to parsley leaves (rough and scratchy).
7. Kids love any opportunity for listening! When your child is cooking with you or helping out in the kitchen - encourage them to listen for sounds like water boiling in a kettle or pot, crackles of cookies baking in the oven, vegetables being chopped, and more.
8. The sense of smell can be a powerful tool for learning about different foods. Have them smell everything that is cooking, from the onions frying on the stove to the baking bread in the oven to freshly cut apples from the farm stand.
9. Have fun smelling different spices, herbs, and ingredients being used. What smells do they like? What smells don't they like? If your child makes a face after smelling something it might have been because of a certain property of that ingredient - ask them about it.
10. In the steps to eating hierarchy, taste is the final step before eating. Kids may not be ready for it but that doesn't mean they can't experience tasting. Kids who are picky eaters or have sensory processing disorders often do much better with fun and creative taste-based activities like playing a food identification game. Cut-up some ingredients in bite-size pieces. Have your child close their eyes and place a bit into their mouth. Can they guess what food it is by the taste?
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I hope that this blog has given you some new ideas about cooking with your kids and the benefits of doing so. Cooking is a great way to spend time together while building independence in kids by teaching them how to make their own foods. Parents may be surprised to find their child, who has been afraid of certain foods for as long as they can remember, suddenly develop a taste for it. The reason? It's all about exposure! For picky eaters or children with ADHD, sensory processing disorder, and/or other behavioral conditions, cooking in the kitchen without pressure to eat is a great way to expose them to new foods. Some children might want to taste it right away while others will need more time before trying something new. Whatever level of comfort your child is at, there are many age-appropriate ways to get kids involved in the kitchen.
I love the idea of setting up sensory stations where your little one can explore their senses of touch and sight with a variety of food textures and colors. Hear something cooking or sounds that foods make, such as peppers snapping; sample foods being made; sniff spices like cinnamon sticks; and see how different colors of food mix together to make the food or meal. Encourage your child by asking questions about what they are doing while cooking. Further engage your child by letting them choose which recipe you'll cook together next!
Making it Work
It can be hard to find the time in busy schedules to cook together as often as we would like. Keep in mind that cooking together teaches kids important life skills like responsibility, organization, creativity, and teamwork. There are many benefits to incorporating kid's kitchen time into your regular routine - and it doesn't have to be complicated! Organization and preparedness is key - make the kitchen a place that is fun and safe! Make sure you have plenty of utensils that are age-appropriate for your child so they feel confident in their abilities. Start small by setting up an easy recipe or two that will take less than 20 minutes (or longer if you're really ambitious).
What do your children like to cook with? Do they enjoy it? Let us know in the comments below, and we will be sure to reply. We're always looking for new ideas on sensory play at home. What do you like to cook with your child?
Hi! I’m Beth.
I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist and mom of three. I believe that everyone can feel more confident in feeding their families. My goal is to provide parents with practical solutions for feeding their families in an easy way while also reducing guilt and stress around mealtimes. No more worrying about what they are (or aren't) eating! Create a happier home environment where everyone feels at peace with food and their bodies. Get in touch! Contact | Welcome to FTSN! (fromthestartnutrition.com)