The Importance of Sensory Play for Adults

Written by Dr. Edythe Heus
RevInMo Founder – Los Angeles

Can you imagine going through your days with an impaired ability to see your surroundings, listen to conversations, and feel the touch of your loved ones?

Your quality of life will drastically decrease, won’t it?

That’s because our senses mediate our experiences in this world. If we want to have an enjoyable life, we need the ability to perceive our environment well.

The bad news is that several factors, such as age, disease, and injury, can dull our senses and inhibit us from experiencing the world with clarity and vibrance.

Fortunately, there is something we can do to sharpen our senses and, in the process, strengthen our brains and enhance our performance: sensory play.

Essentially, sensory play is an activity that stimulates one or more of our senses. Read on to find out why everyone should be engaging in it!

The Transformative Effects of Sensory Play

Sensory play is most often recommended for children as it is an excellent way to help them learn about their environment, cultivate their language skills, and develop their gross and fine motor skills.

However, anyone can reap the benefits of sensory play even beyond their formative years. Here’s how it can benefit adults, too:

Strengthening Synaptic Connections

Sensory play facilitates the creation of synapses—junctions at the edge of neurons where nerve impulses are transmitted. These are crucial for thought and memory.

Every time we encounter sensory stimuli, neurons link with one another, building new synapses in the brain. Repeated stimulation makes our synapses larger, making it easier for neurons to send stronger signals.

Thus, the more sensory experiences we seek out and the more often we do so, the easier it is for the brain to process sensory stimuli.

The opposite is true as well. The less sensory stimulation we get, the weaker our synapses become and the harder it is to perceive sensory information.

While it’s much easier for children to create and strengthen synapses, we can still continue to improve our neural connections through sensory play well into adulthood.

Promoting Neuroplasticity

One of the primary roles of our sensory systems is to rapidly recognize different stimuli as we encounter them in daily life for us to react accordingly.

For instance, hearing the hissing of a snake alerts us to the presence of danger and prompts us to be more careful.

But to do this, our sensory systems must first learn that a hissing sound is a signal of danger. This learning process promotes sensory brain plasticity, wherein our brains’ sensory regions are remodeled, improving the detection and discrimination of stimuli.
Research shows that this sensory plasticity has positive effects on the following:

  • memory encoding and retrieval
  • attention regulation
  • metabolic load optimization
  • downstream neuroplasticity

And in general, better brain plasticity gives us improved chances of recovering from a stroke or traumatic brain injury and rewiring our brain to compensate for the loss of function.

Enhancing Athletic Performance

Efficient sensory perception and integration are crucial for athletes whose success hinges on their ability to process information and react accordingly.

A basketball player, for example, needs accurate information about their body’s position in space and other players’ position on the court to decide whether to shoot or pass the ball. They also need to make this choice instantaneously, or they will miss their chance to create a good play.

Research comparing elite athletes with novice ones reveals that the former is much better at reacting to sensory stimuli than the latter.

Furthermore, abilities crucial to sports, such as balance, posture, and motor skills, are all contingent on the accuracy of the information we receive from our different sensory systems.

More Than the Five Senses

In school, we are taught about the five senses: vision, audition, gustation, tactition, and olfaction. But did you know that we also have other senses that help us navigate the world?

In addition to the senses mentioned above, we have interoceptive senses informing us about what is happening inside our bodies.

For instance, our vestibular system is chiefly responsible for our sense of balance. We also have a proprioceptive system, which tells us how our body is positioned in space and in motion. We even have a sense called visceroception, which monitors the signals from our visceral internal organs.

So when engaging in sensory play, we must think about stimulating both our exteroceptive and interoceptive systems.

Engaging in Adult Sensory Play

Any activity that stimulates our senses can be considered sensory play. However, passive sensory stimulation is ineffective in inducing positive cortical responses in our brains.

That’s because a phenomenon called sensory gating ensures that only relevant sensory information reaches our brain. This ‘gatekeeping’ happens when we perceive stimuli irrelevant to a task at hand or when we are performing purely repetitive movements.

Research shows that for sensory play to be beneficial for neuroplasticity and sensory integration, we need to give it our full attention. But in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, it’s hard to intentionally activate our many senses. Here’s how to make it easier for you to do so:

RevInMo: A Treat for the Senses

The exercise programs of RevInMo stimulate a slew of our senses, from the tactile to the vestibular. We make use of a variety of textured equipment to activate your senses of touch and proprioception. The gymnastic ball is also a staple in RevInMo exercises, challenging your sense of balance while strengthening your muscles.


The best part is, RevInMo truly feels like play, unlike most exercise programs that feel like hard work or even punishment. RevInMo feels nurturing and fun, just like how all play should be.

Stay on top of your fitness and enhance your sensory performance at the same time when you sign up for a RevInMo class!

Start here: https://revinmo.com/virtual-classes/

Sources:

Brown, K. E. (2017). The Neurophysiology of Sensorimotor Integration in Healthy Aging and Chronic Stroke. [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. The University of British Columbia (Vancouver).

Ceunen, E., Vlaeyen, J. W., & Van Diest, I. (2016). On the Origin of Interoception. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 743. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00743

Chen, X., Liu, F., Yan, Z., Cheng, S., Liu, X., Li, H., & Li, Z. (2018). Therapeutic effects of sensory input training on motor function rehabilitation after stroke. Medicine, 97(48), e13387. https://doi.org/10.1097/md.0000000000013387

Davey, S., Bell, E., Halberstadt, J., & Collings, S. (2020). Where is an emotion? Using targeted visceroception as a method of improving emotion regulation in healthy participants to inform suicide prevention initiatives: a randomised controlled trial. Trials, 21(1). doi:10.1186/s13063-020-04479-9

Gascoyne, S. (2016). Sensory Play: Play in the EYFS. Andrews UK Limited.

Ghanavati E., Zarbakhsh M., & Haghgoo H. (2013). Effects of Vestibular and Tactile Stimulation on Behavioral Disorders due to Sensory Processing Deficiency in 3-13 Years Old Iranian Autistic Children. Iranian Rehabilitation Journal, 11(1), 52-57. http://irj.uswr.ac.ir/article-1-371-fa.html

McGann J. P. (2015). Associative learning and sensory neuroplasticity: how does it happen and what is it good for?. Learning & memory (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.), 22(11), 567–576. https://doi.org/10.1101/lm.039636.115

Megha, M., Harpreet, S., & Nayeem, Z. (2013). Effect of frequency of multimodal coma stimulation on the consciousness levels of traumatic brain injury comatose patients. Brain injury, 27(5), 570–577. https://doi.org/10.3109/02699052.2013.767937

Perez, M. A., Field-Fote, E. C., & Floeter, M. K. (2003). Patterned Sensory Stimulation Induces Plasticity in Reciprocal Ia Inhibition in Humans. The Journal of Neuroscience, 23(6), 2014–2018. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.23-06-02014.2003

Stanford University Medical Center. (2010, November 17) Stunning details of brain connections revealed. Science Daily. ​​https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101117121803.htm

 

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