Squish, Scoop, and Splash! Using Sensory Play for Emotional Regulation

What is Sensory Play?

There is an old parenting tip that’s been handed down for years. “If a child is cranky, just add water!” It makes sense. Using sensory play for emotional regulation is necessary for children to release stress, self-regulate and develop appropriately. Many adults find comfort in ocean waves and bubble baths. They may go to the woods or walk barefoot in the sand to relieve stress. Some find the kneading of bread dough or burning candles relaxing. Children are no different and need opportunities to engage in sensory play on a daily basis. 

Using sensory play for emotional regulation with dish washing

Sensory play is play that involves the senses. This includes sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, but sensory play also encompasses balance, movement, and spatial awareness. Children need experiences with all of these areas to fully develop. 

Sensory Play and Emotional Regulation

girl holding yellow plastic cup full of macaroni engaged in sensory play

Children are constantly absorbing the sensory input all around them! The choice of upbeat or slow music can create an entirely different mood in a classroom. What about lighting? Lamps and natural light are calming while overhead fluorescent lights are harsh and can lead to headaches.

Children come to the classroom with different needs and from different experiences. Young children cannot express their emotions through words. Having something to do with their hands can make it easier to process and express their emotions. It is for this reason that many play therapists incorporate sand and water play. It is even recommended that adults to play with toys for stress relief!

Ideas for Getting Started

Using sensory play for emotional regulation with kinetic sand and ocean accessories

There are many ways to to incorporate using sensory play for emotional regulation! One of the easiest is to have a sand and water table or bins. Both substances are relaxing to sink little hands into and are great tools for calming children. Keep it interesting by adding scoops, containers to fill, and objects hiding in the sand. 

Playdough is one of the greatest tools in the early childhood classroom. Add manipulatives, loose parts, or natural objects to change things up. For even more sensory play, make your own together!

There are sensory activity suggestions built into the Experience Early Learning curriculum! Here are a few to try:

Cut a Carrot

Explore rolling orange playdough into carrot shapes then using craft sticks to slice them like real carrots. If desired, make small “tangerine” dough balls then use the craft sticks to cut them into segments.

Cinnamon Flour

Mix flour with cinnamon or other spices. Scoop, fill cups and explore digging and playing in the soft flour.

Float or Sink

Fill a bin with water and set a number of different objects on a tray. Children experiment to see if an object sinks or floats.

Leaves in Water

Fill a bin with water and put a handful of leaves in it. Leave out strainers and slotted spoons. Invite children to explore the water and scoop out the leaves.

Soothing Sensory Items

You can also download suggestions for Sensory Soothing Items free! 

Heather Williams
Heather Williams

Heather Williams, an Education Support Specialist for Experience Early Learning, has worked in the field of early childhood for over 20 years and holds a Master’s in Education. She is a certified teacher, a former Professional Development Specialist for the CDA Council, and has spent years providing training and coaching for various Head Start programs. She is passionate about the importance of play for learning and loves to inspire creativity in both educators and children.  


Admin. (2022, November 17). Exploring the benefits of sensory play for children. Only About Children. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.oac.edu.au/news-views/sensory-play/

Heckman, W. (2021, March 22). Relieve stress, play with toys. The American Institute of Stress. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.stress.org/relieve-stress-play-with-toys

Let the playing commence! Community Playthings. (n.d.). Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.communityplaythings.com/resources/articles/2016/bev-bos-on-play