Multi-Sensory Environments and the Impact on Brain Development

Impact Brain Development

Multi-Sensory Environments Impact Brain Development
Cyrus Loves Texture

Parents, teachers and caregivers can impact brain development among typical and atypical children by providing rich sensory experiences. Research tells us that multi-sensory environments impact brain development. The study of the brain and how it works is amazing. At birth, the brain is still a work in progress.

Sensory Experiences

Sensory experiences help develop the brain which processes different kinds of information. Though a decade ago, researchers thought that much of the brain was genetically programed; more recent data shows that there are trillions of un-programmed connections just waiting to be connected. Through sensory experiences, these connections are fired-up! Cells known as sensory neurons carry information from the sensory organs to the brain. Learning occurs as the brain sorts out this information and builds new connections, somewhat like a tree adding more branches. In other words, rich sensory experiences produce rich brains!

Windows of Opportunity for Learning

Individuals who care for young children need to be aware of the window of opportunity for learning. During the first three years of life, children experience the world in a more complete way than children of any other age. The brain connects to the world through its system of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. This means that young children develop their social, emotional, cognitive, physical, language and cultural skills through their sensory experiences. As a sponge soaks up a liquid, young children soak up knowledge using their senses.

Examples of Sensory Experiences in a Natural Environment

No one has to force young children to participate in sensory experiences because this type of play is innately natural to children. The senses are highly developed from birth. Newborns can identify their own mothers simply by smell. The survival instinct helps them obtain food, make attachments to caregivers and develop the sense of security they need to further explore their world.

Multi-Sensory Environments Impact Brain Development
Carson is experiencing texture, sight and sound.


  1. Carson is celebrating his second birthday. After his parents have sung happy birthday, the cake is within easy reach. While the adults look chagrined, he eagerly sinks his hands into his birthday cake. He brings a fistful of frosting to his mouth, tastes it and smears it on the tabletop. Then he offers everyone a sample. In this natural setting, he is exploring most of his senses.
  2. Four-year-old Cyrus walks up to a brick wall, smells it and brushes the tip of his nose against the surface. Then he runs his hand across it. These actions are firing up brain cells.
  3. Five-year-old Lily plants herself in the sandbox and spends the next hour happily dumping, scooping, sifting, piling and smoothing the cold, soft sand. Through this sensory experience, Lily has completed her own science experiment.

Space Speaks to Children

With little effort, positive experiences can be created. Children learn about their world through their senses and movement. What we often notice are the elements that a child will zoom in on: the secluded place, the corner between the wall and the couch; the right sight or sound, like a vantage point to watch or hear the rain pouring out of a gutter.

Those of us, who don’t inhabit the floor, undervalue the sunny spot on the floor. We are not drawn to the pile of dirt or the puddle or the torn wallpaper that beckons a small finger.

As adults, we see things from utilitarian eyes, but children are free to simply absorb experiences.

A long hallway whispers the message “run” to a child. The smell of cookies baking makes them hungry. Bright colors like reds and oranges encourage excitement. Children build images based on experiences.

Space speaks to them!

To this day when I smell a pie baking in the oven, I think of my grandmother. I am transformed to my childhood again. “Come and get some hot cherry pie” she would say. Sensory learning experiences add a lasting memory for children.

Create a Sensory Environment

When you awaken the children’s senses, opportunities will abound. Provide environments that are sensory-centered by adding soft pillows for snuggling, displaying art and fragrant flowers, gathering items from nature and playing music. Young children are wired to investigate by smelling, rubbing, listening, touching, tasting and looking. This is their scientific process for acquiring information. As parents, teachers and caregivers, we need to enhance spaces for learning by making sure that we have a rich sensory space. The list below provides practical suggestions.

Practical Suggestions


  • Model positive expressions.
  • Display beautiful art clipped from a travel magazine and change often.
  • Bring in nature and change it often to represent the season or a theme.
  • Collect pine cones, sea shells, leaves, rocks, etc.
  • Add an aquarium, terrarium, etc.
  • Ample supply of picture books in good repair and change often.
  • Paint and blank paper for creating.
    • Comment on the colors: “I like the way you made green by putting yellow and blue together.”


  • Caregiver’s voice
  • Use a happy voice to talk directly to a baby, toddler and preschooler.
  • Sing songs
  • Praise often
  • Play music, especially classical.
    1. Comment on the different instruments. Do you hear the piano, flute, drums?
    2. Provide musical instruments for children to use.
    3. Point out the sound of the rain on the roof.
    4. Listen to the birds chirping, dogs barking, horn blowing, etc.


  • Outdoor Smells
  • All kitchen smells such as pastries baking, soup cooking in a crock pot, spices simmering on the stove, etc.
    • You might say, “We are having cinnamon rolls at snack time. Do you smell them?”
  • Fragrant flowers
  • Scents such as cinnamon, peppermint, clove, etc.


  • Add textures to be examined such as swatches of cloth like velvet, corduroy, cotton and other fabrics.
    • You might keep the fabric samples in a box for a child’s easy access.
  • Play dough or clay for forming shapes.
  • Age-appropriate games  for the feel.
  • Soft pillows and rugs for cuddling.
  • Plain wood blocks for the hardness.


  • Give a variety of foods to eat.
  • Comment about the food: “Is the ice cream cold?”
  • Soft, sanitized toys.
    • Infants and toddlers will put all toys in their mouth. The environment must be free of all small objects. At the same time, it is important to sanitize toys daily.

Engage Children’s Senses

Children learn best when they engage their senses. Many of our favorite memories are associated with one or more of our senses. As stated earlier, the smell of pie baking transforms me to another place. In my case, it was a combination of smell, taste and sight. The brain triggers a flashback memory. Imagine trying to explain how it feels to finger paint, splash in the water, or pet a dog without letting a child experience it. Children need to be doers in their world using their senses in order to comprehend the information.


Do you have any tips which have added to your experience of sensory environments for kids? Let us know in the comments below!


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, neil conway.

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