Sensory Opportunities In Your Outdoor Environment

When children play outdoors and interact with the natural environment they are learning through their senses. Outdoor play can also promote the development of fine and gross motor skills, problem-solving skills, as well as vocabulary expansion by labeling the sights and objects around them. Playing outdoors with limited material objects can also spark children’s imagination. Thinking specifically about how outdoor play stimulates a child’s senses we must first identify what are our eight senses. 


There are five overt senses:

  • Tactile: Touch
  • Auditory: Noise
  • Visual: Sight
  • Olfactory: Smell
  • Gustatory: Taste


There are also three hidden senses:

  • Proprioceptive: This is the sensation we get from our joints, muscles, and connective tissues that lead to body awareness.
  • Vestibular: Receptors in the inner ear relay information about the position and motion of our heads in relation to gravity. This provides us with a sense of balance and motion, as well as a sense of speed and direction of movement.
  • Interoception: Internal body sensation including hunger, thirst, toileting, breathing, and awareness of emotion.

So how can we engage these sensations outdoors? Here are a few ideas in different environments:

The Beach

  • Walk barefoot in the sand to engage in the tactile receptors of your feet (alternate between dry and wet sand)
  • Build a sandcastle (touch, sight, vestibular input to problem solve body positioning, proprioceptive input to fill and carry heavy buckets)
  • Listen to the birds and the waves crash
  • Jump in the waves or go swimming (proprioceptive and vestibular input)
  • Bury legs or whole body under the sand (provides deep pressure and tactile input when applied and proprioceptive input to break free)
  • Collect objects in a bucket (tactile input and proprioceptive input to hold bucket)
  • Apply sunscreen (smell, touch)
  • Model your internal sensations (“I am hungry”, “I am feeling happy”, “The sun makes me feel warm.”) (interoception)

Woods/Grassy Field/Backyard

  • Listen to the leaves and branches whistle in the wind, birds chirping, and the crunching under your feet
  • Play eye spy or create a scavenger hunt with a list of objects to find and collect (visual discrimination and proprioceptive input to carry objects in a bucket)
  • Walk barefoot in the grass
  • Roll down a hill (vestibular input)
  • Use a magnifying glass to look up leaves, rocks, or bugs up close (visual)
  • Take home a dry leaf and create art by putting it under the paper and tracing with crayons (tactile, visual)
  • Do animal walks (bear crawls, frog jumps, slither like a snake, crab walk, flamingo balance) (proprioceptive and vestibular input)
  • Weed (tactile, visual, and proprioceptive input)
  • Plant a vegetable and watch it grow until you can eat it (tactile, visual, smell, taste, proprioceptive)
  • Water plants (proprioceptive input)

City/Side Walks/Public Parks

  • Practice safely crossing the street - look back and forth for cars, identify crosswalks, press then look and listen for crosswalk indicator (visual, auditory)
  • Create a scavenger hunt (i.e. find 2 convenience stores, 1 local park, 3 stop signs, etc.)
  • Listen to the noises and label what direction they are coming from
  • Use chalk on the sidewalk to make an obstacle course (jump, twirl, walk through narrow path) (tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular input)
  • Blow bubbles (sight and oral input)
  • Jump rope and/or hula hoop (proprioceptive and vestibular)
  • Plan and pack a picnic to bring to a local park (smell, taste, touch)
  • Ride a bike (proprioceptive and vestibular input)
  • Take a ride on a city bus or subway (sound, smell, visual, vestibular input)
  • Don’t be afraid to play outside in the rain and jump in puddles


  • Make snow angels (tactile and vestibular input)
  • Build a snowman (tactile, proprioceptive input to roll and carry large snowballs, visual input to find sticks)
  • Throw snowballs (proprioceptive and visual input)
  • Walkthrough deep snow (proprioceptive input)
  • Go sledding (vestibular input)
  • Roll down a hill (vestibular input)
  • Catch snowflakes on your tongue (taste and oral input)
  • Shovel (proprioceptive input)
  • Monitor temperature and take breaks indoors as needed (interoception)


The opportunities for sensory play outdoors are endless so get out there and have fun!

Author: Christine Rychert OTD, OTR/L


Image Sources:

8 senses






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