Play to thrive! Awesome sensory play for toddlers

Crushing Leaves

Crushing leaves has huge developmental benefits! Here's how to add it to your playtime.


It's not often little ones get a green light to crush, stomp, throw, smell and make a grimey mess.

Crushing leaves (and getting a little dirty!), though, is the perfect 'sensory play' activity to do all that and provide oodles of fun learning benefits for kids. Not to mention the bonus physical, creative, emotional, cognitive and immunological developmental benefits, too.

In fact, play is essential to kids' learning and development, as well as a great bonding exercise. "Play is an opportunity to engage completely with children, promoting a stronger and healthier parent-child relationship," according to Dr Kimberley O'Brien, Principal Child Psychologist at Quirky Kid Clinic. So if play has fallen off the family agenda, pop it on the top of your list today.

Here's how to maximise the healthy play perks and amp the fun factor …

Tap into those senses

Not quite a zen spa, but it is a natural sensory experience! "Crushing the leaves with their feet or between their fingers, learning about cause and effect, feeling the texture and difference between green and brown leaves, hearing the crunchy sound of crushing leaves, smelling them… all of these sensory experiences are wonderful for young children," encourages Dr O'Brien. "Exposure to a variety of sensory stimulants encourages children to be more open to trying new things and less sensory avoidant. According to the research, exposing children to a variety of sensations increases their cognitive capacity to process and make sense of the world (Moyles, 2014)."

Just add dirt

With leaves comes dirt, and science suggests that the dirty stuff could actually be a good thing for building our little ones' immunity. "What we know is that as our society has become better at hygiene generally, we have seen a rise in allergic diseases like asthma and eczema which are linked to poorly functioning immune systems," explains Dr Ginni Mansberg, GP, author and resident medical expert on Sunrise.


Dr Mansberg says it is these findings that gave rise to the "hygiene hypothesis". "The hygiene hypothesis theorises that by not exposing children to dirt, grime and germs at an early age, they are not developing a well-functioning immune system," she explains. "Kids' supercharged immune systems are fighting dust, grass or pollen, leading to asthma attacks and eczema. That's not to say your child should grab handfuls of dirt and eat it – soil contaminants like lead and other chemicals pose a health risk and aren't good for children to eat. But recently we are focusing on the role that exposure to germs – through potentially eating some dirt! – could help our children acquire important gut bacteria. It's this friendly gut bacteria, or 'commensal organisms', that coexist with us in a harmonious way and actually help a number of our digestive processes, keep our metabolism working smoothly and build immunity."

Breathe in that fresh air!

We all know that fresh air is pivotal to life. Fresh air invigorates the mind and body, cleaning our lungs, transporting oxygen to our cells and body to provide energy, releasing airborne toxins from the body and more. So breathe it in – it's free!

"Studies suggest that playing outdoors seems to be beneficial for a child's attention span, physical and mental health," says Dr Mansberg. And if you think wet hair, a little rain or a cold and fresh air don't mix, think again. "Children don't catch influenza from rain, wind or the cold! Influenza spreads from person to person through the air by coughing or sneezing, or by direct contact with the virus on hard surfaces or people's hands. Being cooped up in poorly ventilated rooms all day or in a class with 20 other sick children is more dangerous than getting wet in the rain!"

Move that little body

Sure, your little one can sit amongst the leaves and crush those golden maples between their teeny digits, but they can also get physical! Let them rock! Roll! Throw! Kick! "Physical play builds active, healthy bodies and develops gross motor skills," explains Dr O'Brien. "Movement is so important, particularly when toddlers are learning to run or balance. Research shows children aged 12-24 months need a minimum of three hours unstructured free play per day (preferably outdoors) to develop gross motor skills on par with same-aged peers."

Explore like Dora and Diego

Encourage toddlers to discover the world around them. "Natural products like leaves, bark, branches, water, sand, rocks or dirt are great for kids to play with because environmental materials offer unique textures, scents and consistencies ripe for sensory discoveries," explains Dr O'Brien. "It's about taking the time to actively connect children to nature at a young age to nurture their curiosity and willingness to learn about new things in the outdoors. Parents need to model this behaviour to facilitate their child's environmental awareness."

Crush creatively

A little imagination can go a long way. "Dry autumn leaves are an excellent creative medium because they pose minimal risk and they are very versatile," explains Dr O'Brien. "Toddlers can develop balance and coordination by stomping on a pile of leaves, while a parent rakes them up. Fine motor skills and dexterity can be improved when children crush objects in their hands. Parents might like to lead some imaginary play to help young children learn how to tell a story. Build a snowman out of the leaves and pretending to be cold, or dig a big hole in the leaves and pretend to be a bear coming out of hibernation. Link your story to nature since you're in the outdoors."

Crushing leaves: Easy Play Tips For Parents

If your mind goes blank the second you are handed a leaf and told to 'play', relax! Check out these easy tips to help adults summon their inner (dormant) child.

Have fun! Pop your gumboots on and jump up and down on the leaves. Be silly! "Make time for play and give yourselves space to jump, run, play…" says Dr O'Brien. And connect! "Research shows the parent-child relationship develops when adults follow the child's interests and make time to connect for at least 30 minutes a day. The benefits include increased trust, affection and more opportunities to share feelings and experiences. What more could a parent ask for? A close connection formed in childhood is also likely to open doors for sustained communication in adolescence and early adulthood."

Get curious! Interact with your little one by comparing the green leaves with brown leaves. How is the texture different? The smell? What happens when you scrunch the leaves up? Is there a different affect? "A curious mind is much more likely to develop critical thinking skills which make children more alert to situations that call for thinking (Salmon, 2008)," explains Dr O'Brien.

Start throwing! "Have a leaf throwing battle - no one will get hurt!" suggests Dr O'Brien. "It's not quite a snowball fight, but it can be just as fun. Throwing leaves can also enhance cognitive development as toddlers learn about the physical force required to lift a light object (more than a heavy object). These simple activities will enhance your child's understanding of physics and may ignite an interest in science and the world around them."

Get buried! "Instead of the parent burying the child under leaves or in the sand, let the child bury the adult," advises Dr O'Brien. "Parents often take the dominant position and lead play, but taking turns will encourage your child to do the same on their next play date. Leadership and turn taking skills are important in any playground."

All fall down… " A pile of freshly raked leaves allow for a soft landing and falling down for fun is a great chance to build resilience and coping skills," explains Dr O'Brien. "Research shows children who are overly protected or cocooned by parents can grow up being risk-adverse and lack coping skills."

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