When it comes to early childhood development, many parents automatically think of numbers, letters, books, and flash cards.  But many education experts say simply inspiring your little one to use their five senses – touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste – is key.

Using those senses can be done through “sensory play.”

Little Sprouts Play Café in Milwaukee and Mequon offers a sensory play class for babies and toddlers, and their parents.

Organizers of the class said kids have hands-on fun, not realizing the loads of learning and brain development they’re getting out of it.

“It is a great way for kids to play, and you can sneak in those educational skills without them really knowing it,” said Abby Spannbauer, an instructor at Little Sprouts Play Cafe.

Spannbauer said that touching, feeling and molding things like Playdough helps develop fine motor and problem-solving skills. It also encourages mindfulness and independence.

“Even for a one-year-old, creating a sensory bin at home, or allowing them to play with something like dry rice in a bowl is a great idea because it is edible and interactive,” Spannbauer said. “You can add toy cars to it, or you can do a princess-themed bin, which is fun because you can ask, ‘What letter does the word princess start with?’ They can dig and scoop to find things.”

It helps children understand how their actions affect what’s around them, enhancing memory and their ability to do more complex tasks.

Caitlin Decker, a mom of two toddler boys, said the sensory play class has been a game-changer for them.

“It has been great for their fine motor skills and problem solving,” Decker said. “Also, they are then able to apply it to the real world, and they get to explore new things that they love.”

Decker said she will continue bringing her boys to the class because it’s always different, her kids love it, and it helps her cut back on the reliance on technology for learning and entertainment.

“They can play with the stuff presented in class for hours, which is good,” Decker said. “It takes away from screen time and watching TV.”

At the end of the class, kids get to take part in free play, and their parents get a nice break from at-home sensory play clean-up.

“Sensory play can be messy, so they get a break from having to do it at home,” Spannbauer said. “We make stuff they get to take home with them after each class.”

Spannbauer encourages parents to keep it simple and allow kids to play at their own pace. 

If you are interested in learning more about the classes at Little Sprouts Play Cafe, click here.