Can Our Play Mats Benefit Cognitive Development Through Sensory Play?

This site has limited support for your browser. We recommend switching to Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.
Congratulations! Your order qualifies for free shipping You are £55 away from free shipping to Mainland UK.

Free 14 Day Open Box Return

Pay later with PayPal & Klarna at Checkout

Can Our Play Mats Benefit Cognitive Development Through Sensory Play?

Can Our Play Mats Benefit Cognitive Development Through Sensory Play?

Picured Left to right Anthony (Happy Feet Play Mats) Dr Tascha Clapperton (Newcastle University) and Market (Happy Feet Play Mats).

In summer time last year we worked with Newcastle University on a secret project. As part of that Dr Tascha Clapperton who is Professor of Sensors Technology did a review of literature to see if sensory play mats could benefit in cognitive development in children with a particular focus on children with sensory processing issues and ASD.

Below we explore the first part of Dr Clappertons review that focuses on laying out the stages of development our children go through and just how important they are!

Cognitive Development Literature Review Part 1 by Dr Tascha Clapperton

Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development suggests that intelligence changes as children grow. A child's cognitive development is not just about acquiring knowledge, the child has to develop or construct a mental model of the world through active exploration of their environment. According to Piaget, cognitive development occurs through the interaction of innate capacities and environmental events, and children pass through a series of stages. Piaget's theory of cognitive development proposes 4 stages of development [1].

  1. Sensorimotor stage: birth to 2 years (with the goal of Object Permanence)

  2. Preoperational stage: 2 to 7 years (with the goal of Symbolic Thought)

  3. Concrete operational stage: 7 to 11 years (with the goal of Logical Thought)

  4. Formal operational stage: ages 12 and up (with the goal of Scientific reasoning)

The sequence of the stages is universal across cultures and all children go through the same stages in the same order (but not all at the same rate). Although no stage can be missed out, there are individual differences in the rate at which children progress through stages, and some individuals may never attain the later stages. Each child’s development is determined by biological maturation and interaction with the environment [1].

In this report, the first two stages of cognitive development (birth to 7 years old) will be discussed. Understanding these two stages which each child experiences through their growth will give us an insight of the importance of active exploration for cognitive development for typical development. It is of great significant to help children to progress through these stages. However, some children may struggle to progress through each stage which will be discussed later in this section.

The Sensorimotor Stage (Ages: Birth to 2 Years)

At this stage, the infant learns about the world through their senses and through their actions (moving around and exploring the environment). During the sensorimotor stage, a range of cognitive abilities develop. These include: object permanence; self-recognition; deferred imitation; and representational play. They relate to the emergence of the general symbolic function, which is the capacity to represent the world mentally. At about 8 months the infant will understand the permanence of objects and that they will still exist even if they cannot see them and the infant will search for them when they disappear.

The main achievement during this stage is object permanence - knowing that an object still exists, even if it is hidden. It requires the ability to form a mental representation (i.e., a schema) of the object. Towards the end of this stage the general symbolic function begins to appear where children show in their play that they can use one object to stand for another. Language starts to appear because they realise that words can be used to represent objects and feelings. The child begins to be able to store information that it knows about the world, recall it and label it [1].

The Preoperational Stage (Ages: 2 - 7 Years)

Toddlers and young children acquire the ability to internally represent the world through language and mental imagery. During this stage, young children can think about things symbolically. This is the ability to make one thing, such as a word or an object, stand for something other than itself. A child’s thinking is dominated by how the world looks, not how the world is. It is not yet capable of logical (problem-solving) type of thought [1].

However, as mentioned earlier, children will pass these stages at different rates. One reason may be due to developmental delay, which is common in those children deprived of normal sensory stimulation – for example, in premature neonates and some institutionalised children. This may result in a delay in later stages of social development [2]. In addition, a difficulty in processing, integrating and responding to sensory stimuli has been described as a feature of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) since this disorder was first identified [3]. This difficulty in processing sensory information can result in either hyper-sensitivity or hypo- sensitivity to sensory stimulation. The unusual response to sensory information can result in an aversive reaction to or avoidance to sensory information or sensory seeking behaviour. Therefore, this unusual response to sensory information often leads to less engagement with their environment [4].

Considering the two above stages and according to studies, motor development allows infants to gain knowledge of the world. This has a vital role in social development. According to studies, significant relationships exist between the development of motor skills, social cognition, language and social interactions in typical and atypical development [5]. It is evident from these studies that the development of motor skills can influence the social skills and the number and types of opportunities that infants and children have to interact with others, and thus have consequences for the development of social relationships. Poor or atypical motor development could therefore be an important contributing factor to problems with language, social communication and understanding and social interaction that are found in several neurodevelopmental disorders [5].

Cognitive Development Literature Review Part 2 by Dr Tascha Clapperton

The importance of touch in Cognitive Development
Piaget and Inhelder (1956) have suggested that the child's early perceptual activity is essential for future cognitive development. According to Piaget and Inhelder, it is the perceptual sensorimotor structure that constitutes both the point of departure and the foundation of the entire representational construction of space. The practical perceptual and motor activities engaged in by the child during the first two years of his life influence later symbolic and conceptual activities. Through active, haptic exploration, young children process a great deal of information from their environment. Both active and passive touch contributes to a child's knowledge of shape perception. While research suggests that passive touch provides a useful function, haptic exploration or active touch is more effective for information processing [6].

In addition, mechanosensory stimulation has proven to be exceptionally important for typical development– a fact demonstrated in organisms across phylogeny. In rats and worms, researchers are able to examine the effects of sensory deprivation from the behavioural to the molecular level [2]. Studies have shown that sensory stimulation can alter many aspects of development by a number of different mechanisms such as anatomical, synaptic, and cellular or molecular [7].

The importance of sensory stimulation for children with ASD

The main concern is that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often display an abnormal reaction to tactile stimuli, altered pain perception, and lower motor skills than healthy children [8]. Current estimates show that between 45 and 96% of children with ASD demonstrate these sensory difficulties [3]. Sensory and motor processing impairments might influence participation of children with ASD in daily activities and must be taken into account for a therapeutic intervention. Children with ASD exhibit hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory stimulation. Children who exhibit sensory hyperreactivity may respond negatively to common sensory stimuli, including sounds, touch, or movement. Their responses include distress, avoidance, and hypervigilance. Children who are hyporeactive appear unaware or nonresponsive to sensory stimuli that are salient to others. A subgroup of children who are hyporeactive exhibit sensory-seeking behaviors (i.e. they appear to seek intense stimulation to increase their arousal) that may manifest as restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior [9]. Sensory-perceptual abnormalities in people with autism have been described in the perception of sound, vision, touch, taste, and smell, as well as in kinesthetic and proprioceptive sensation. These include hyper- and hyposensitivity to stimulation, often fluctuating unpredictably between the two; sensory distortions, where for example depth may be wrongly perceived or still objects perceived as moving; sensory tune-outs where sound or vision may suddenly blank out and return again; sensory overload; multichannel perceptions where for example sound may also provoke sensations of color and smell; difficulties in processing information from more than one channel at a time, and indeed, difficulties in identifying the channel through which stimulation is being received in the first place [10].

Abnormal sensitivities may arise not because of instantaneous differences in sensory thresholds, but rather because of how stimuli are processed over time. Specifically, it is hypothesised that autism may be associated with a reduction in sensory habituation. On the one hand, this reduction may contribute to an inability to detect novel stimuli in the presence of ongoing ones, leading to a hypo-sensitivity to changes in the sensory environment [11].
According to studies, 46.6% of ASD-related anxieties are coded into four main sub-themes from most to least frequent: (a) sensory, (b) specific uncommon phobias, (c) fears about change/ novelty/uncertainty, and (d) anxiety relating to social/language/communication demands [12]. Considering this evidence, it is important to avoid exposing children with ASD to unpredictable environmental stimulation. Moreover, a careful process is required in order to encourage them to explore the world and process information without making them anxious or respond aversively.

As it is mentioned earlier in this report, touch has emerged as an important modality for the facilitation of growth and development [2]. Studies have shown the positive effects of tactile and kinesthetic stimulation on the development of premature/low birth weight neonates. However, children with ASD would prefer not to explore the objects due to their fear and anxieties of being exposed to unpredictable textures. This may result in a delay to progressing through the cognitive development stages.



Several observations indicating reactions of individuals with ASD towards tactile perception.

One of the Cognitive Behaviral Therapies (CBT) for Children with Autism is exposure. Exposure is used to provide graduated, systematic, and controlled exposure to difficult stimuli that has caused problems for the client in the past, and relapse prevention strategies are taught to increase the repertoire of appropriate behaviors and responses of the client. More specifically, CBT interventions have often been used to address issues of anxiety for children with ASD. Thus, gradual exposure to objects with different texture and materials could be one way to improve the sensorimotor development of children with ASD [13]. The gradual exposure to different textures may also increase active exploration.

Studies with individuals diagnosed with autism have shown that they are very aware of fabrics and textures in their environments, and the clothes on their bodies impacted their day to day functioning. Their familiarity with what they perceived as good and bad textures/fabrics enabled them to develop coping strategies to avoid and escape stressful experiences. In a similar study, the data revealed that participants preferred interacting with satin, denim and cotton, mostly favoring satin due its softness, comfortableness and light-touch feel. The fabrics that were reported to be the most difficult to cope with were: hession, polyester, wool, and spandex, especially, hession and spandex, due to their abrasiveness, and itchiness. It should be noted that each autistic individual has their own repertoire of sensitivity [14,15].

According to the above mentioned evidence, it is important to encourage children with ASD to actively explore the world, considering their sensitivity to unpredictable situation such exposing to random and complicated textures. It is suggested that the surface textures of pieces of playmats puzzles should be changed gradullay and in an ordered structue. Thus, when individuals walk or touch the playmats, they will be exposed to a gradual and ordered or predictable pattern slowly. This would encourage children with ASD to be more motivated to continue exploring the world around them without feeling anxiety that may hinder or restrict their behaviour.

We hope you enjoyed Dr Clappertons review of early years cognitive development. We've fond it fascinating to say the least.

As always if you have any questions or need any help please get in touch through our social media or drop us an email here

Anth & Marketa

Your Bag

Congratulations! Your order qualifies for free shipping You are £55 away from free shipping.
No more products available for purchase

Your Bag is Empty