Infants & Toddlers: How Children Develop Sensory Awareness

Teachers can heighten children's awareness of the world around them by stimulating the senses.

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

AT BIRTH, BABIES' BASIC SENSORY SYSTEMS ARE working, but these become more complex, coordinated, and sophisticated during the early months. Young babies see best when something is presented from 12 to 18 inches from their eyes, such as when you hold them in your arms for feedings. They are adept at discerning colors when only a few months old. By 4 months, infants wave a hand back and forth in front of their eyes as if to puzzle out why the front and back look so different!

Toddlers who can handle three-dimensional blocks and toys with dexterity need to learn to decode two-dimensional visual images. Colorful pictures in storybooks are just the thing to hold your toddlers' visual interests. Take your toddlers on outdoor walks together around the block or to a nearby park so they can see grass, flowers, and other interesting sights. Stimulate, but do not overstimulate the visual sense by decorating your room walls with artwork placed at toddler eye levels. Point to and talk about the different colors and images in the artwork.

Taste and Smell

Babies turn their heads away from strong smells, such as vinegar. Infants have hundreds more taste buds for sweet tastes than do adults. They enjoy naturally sweet liquids, such as low-sugar fruit juices.

Toddlers love to squish, taste, and lick foods. Fill containers with vanilla scent or cinnamon for toddlers to sniff. Be sure to draw toddlers' attention to the wonderful aromas of foods prepared for snack and meal times. If possible, grow bulbs indoors in a pan of water with pebbles so toddlers can sniff the perfume of hyacinths and narcissus flowers in bloom.

Listening

Newborns hear sounds well and startle at loud sounds. Babies are extremely sensitive to making sense of sounds. Very early they discriminate speech contrasts that involve the rhythmic high- and low-pitch sounds of voices. These special auditory powers of babies enable them to learn any of the languages of the world. This ability decreases by 9 or 10 months; infants then begin to tune in only to the sounds of the language you are speaking with them.

Be sure to sing with your toddlers. They will love swaying and clapping to easy rhythmic nursery rhyme chants.

Touch

Infants are exquisitely sensitive to touch. Babies who are rarely touched have brains 2 1/2 times smaller than babies who are touched a lot. Make sure all your babies get lots of loving "touch time" throughout the day. Provide soft, furry textures, smooth soapy surfaces, and sandpaper roughness, too, so your toddlers can learn to discriminate how different textures feel.

Sometimes toddlers have a tough time settling into nap. Calming back rubs help toddlers deal with sensory overload.

Heightening Sensory Awareness

With infants:

  • Look closely at infants each time you interact with them. Communicate with babies with your happy, smiling eyes.
  • Offer foods with interesting textures for babies to explore.
  • Talk in "Motherese" (or "Parentese"). These high-pitched sounds, with long, drawn-out vowels and interesting tonal patterns, attract babies to focus more on your face as you talk to them.
  • Hold and cradle babies with a loving touch.

With toddlers:

  • Display beautiful posters, banners, and wall hangings to arouse their aesthetic awareness and appreciation of beauty.
  • Provide foods of attractive colors and textures.
  • Play gentle music and songs each and every day. Alternate between new and familiar songs.
  • Offer a quiet touch. This helps soothe toddlers overstimulated by tiredness or by frustration in working difficult toys or puzzles or when they move from an infant to a toddler group.

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  • Subjects:
    Child and Infant Care, Child Development and Behavior, Five Senses
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