Last reviewed 14 February 2020

Children love to explore the world around them through their senses. This is how they come to know their world. Their natural curiosity lends itself to teaching and learning opportunities through a rich multi-sensory environment says Rebecca Fisk.

The senses are the way that messages are channelled to the brain. Our senses provide the activity that actually develops and builds our brains and nerve networks, they are the “raw materials from which our mind will emerge” (Gerhardt 2004)

What are the different senses and how do they help us?

There are seven senses which children use to experience the world. Senses are rarely used in isolation from each other, for example, when we eat a meal, we will use our sense of taste, smell and sight to decide if it is something we wish to eat. The senses gather messages about the world we live in and sensory pathways conduct these messages to the brain.

  • Touch – tactile

  • Taste – oral (speech)

  • Sight – visual

  • Smell – olfactory

  • Sound – auditory

  • Vestibular – balance, gravity, movement (kinesthetic)

  • Proprioception – motor, movement, internal body awareness

When a connection is made about our environment to the brain, via a sensory channel (sense) it builds a pathway in the brain. If this pathway is followed again and again it is reinforced, making it possible for the message to the brain to travel more quickly each time. Over time, patterns start to emerge from experiences that are frequent and repeated, and those pathways that are used very little start to be ‘pruned’ away. For example, if a child is exposed to the sounds and rhythms of two languages from birth, but then one language ceases to be spoken, those particular neural pathways in the brain will not be reinforced and will eventually will mostly be forgotten or ‘pruned.’

We are all born with all our neurons in the brain, ready to have connections made between them, or pathways. It is our early experiences which influence these connections more than at any other time of our lives. Between about 6-12 months there is a “massive burst of synaptic connection” and “our sensory and social experiences become etched in our memory, especially if they are repeated many times or are highly emotively charged.” (Gerhardt 2004). Emotional experiences are often remembered through strong connections with the senses that were to the fore at the time of the experience.

What does multi-sensory learning mean?

We have many multi-sensory experiences in our daily lives, and at times can feel bombarded by sensory stimuli. In order for these messages from the sensory stimuli in the world around us to be understood by the brain, they have to flow quickly in an uninterrupted way from the outside world to our inner world, and this is achieved by different sensory channels. Each person learns through interpreting, understanding and responding to sensory information. We learn to use some sensory channels more quickly and this is due to our early childhood experiences initially. Some people can ‘foreground’ certain senses more readily and tune out others. For example, some children can listen with their auditory/hearing sense to a story and ‘screen -out’ the trees blowing outside on a windy day whereas another child might notice the movement through their sight/visual sense more, maybe to the point of being distracted from the story. It is through our sensory channels that we make connections. Connections are the foundation of learning and help us to use new knowledge to add to existing knowledge, so in order to best support learning we can teach in a multi-sensory way.

Multi-sensory means the simultaneous use of these sensory pathways, using all or some of the senses at once to make connections to the brain. Multi- sensory means using more than one sensory channel at a time to process information about the environment, for example, you might feel the hot water on your skin in the shower (tactile) and at the same time hear the noise of the water running (auditory) and smell the scent of shower gel (olfactory) all at the same time. The brain takes information from all these senses and integrates them to better understand the environment and make assessments of it. For example, the sense of touch would tell you quickly if the water was too hot, so the brain could use that information to be alerted to the danger of getting scalded. Senses support us to know if something feels safe or not. Different people respond differently to sensory information. For example, some people cannot sleep in a darkened room (sight/visual). Some people don’t like the feel of a seam or label in their clothes (touch/tactile). For some people the noise of a hand dryer causes them unpleasant sensory overload (auditory/hearing).

It is thought that people learn better when they are taught using more than one sense at a time as this reinforces the learning through different neural pathways. In 2010 the Department for Education required schools to teach synthetic phonics through methods that ‘use a multi-sensory approach so that children learn variously from simultaneous visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities which are designed to secure essential phonic knowledge and skills’.

Summary

Multi-sensory learning is important because it makes connections to and within the brain so helps us to learn, supporting our memory of experiences in an accessible and inclusive way. It is enjoyable and fun and enables learners to make choices. Providing a mixture of sensory experiences alongside quiet and soothing spaces will enhance your learning environment.

References and Further reading