This week, I had the privilege of taking my eleven-month-old daughter to our local county fair. It was such a joy to witness her exposure to a vast array of new and unusual sensory information. Sensorial experiences are the root of all learning for young children! Although we have enjoyed reading books together about farm animals and playing with lifelike figurines, nothing compares to seeing, touching, hearing, and even smelling the real thing.
Sights to Be Seen
We spent most of our time among the animals. The horses, cows, sheep, pigs, goats, and donkeys were sights brand new to my daughter, and she was enraptured. She stared, pointed, and repeatedly exclaimed, “That!” I knelt down next to her and provided the language she craved: big, small, baby, mother, brown, white, fuzzy, smooth, eating, sleeping, grooming, standing, walking, running… Even when she sat silently, I could see her brain absorbing everything like a little sponge. Besides the animals, we also viewed antique tractors, self-sufficient water pumps, a hand-cranked cider press, a towering windmill, and many other machines I could not name. All the while, we were surrounded by a crowd of people who were extremely diverse in age, size, skin color, language, ability, and behavior. All of this real variety in one place taught my daughter more than seeing photos ever could!
Although she mostly spectated from her stroller, my daughter found ways to engage her other senses at the fair, too. She felt the cool breeze on her face and the tickle of long grass on her toes when we sat down. We had an opportunity to pet a few animals, but I respected her dismissal of this invitation. A cacophony of bleating, mooing, human chatter, and live music filled our ears. We smelled a wide range of scents from ripe cow patties, to stale hay bales, to heavenly whiffs of fried everything. And of course, my daughter savored her first taste of freshly pressed apple cider. What a rich menu for her sensory appetite!
On outings with children, it is important to remember that an onslaught of sensory input, no matter how enjoyable, can also be exhausting and overstimulating. The key is finding the right balance for your individual child. Our trip to the fair may not have been successful without our sensory balancing tools. My daughter’s sunglasses and noise-canceling headphones come with us almost everywhere to reduce sensory input in overwhelming environments. Of course strollers, wagons, and carriers are essential for babies like mine who don’t walk yet, but they can also become a place of safety and comfort for a child. My daughter felt so calm in her stroller that she actually fell asleep towards the end of our adventure, even as we continued to amble about the loud, bumpy paths of the fairgrounds. With our stroller’s seat reclining back and the canopy pulled all the way down, she can sleep peacefully and be tucked away from the rest of the world.
The other side of this coin is finding ways to allow freedom of movement for non-walking children in crowded environments. Two of the lesser-known senses humans possess are proprioception and the vestibular sense, which together give us coordination and awareness of our body’s position in space. Older children can exercise these senses at the fair by walking, running, jumping, climbing, and riding Ferris wheels or roller coasters. For infants and younger toddlers who do not yet walk, it can be easy to overlook these senses and keep them contained in a stroller, wagon, carrier, or other device for extended periods of time. Don’t get me wrong, these are useful tools—but again, the key is finding a balance. I wish that I could say I hadn’t fallen into this trap at the fair, but I did. I rushed out the door in the morning without remembering to prepare for free movement at the busy fairgrounds. In hindsight, I wish I would have brought a blanket and scoped out an open, dry area for my daughter to sit independently and wiggle while we ate our lunch. Another option would have been to bring rain pants and allow her to crawl without worrying about the mud. In the future, I will make these things a priority so that all of her senses can be utilized and strengthened. We live and we learn!
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