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Children demonstrate the ability to distinguish, process, and respond to sensory stimuli in their environment.

Perceptual development refers to how children start taking in, interpreting, and understanding sensory input.1 Perception allows children to adapt and interact with their environment through the use of their senses. Children are born with the ability to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. While these senses are not fully developed by birth, they quickly improve in the first few months of life. For example, a newborn’s vision is limited to eight to 12 inches.2

In a few short months, their vision has greatly improved as children can see objects from the other side of the room, and make out patterns and colors.3 Children can hear sounds even before birth, and as infants they begin to distinguish among these sounds. The ability to do this directly influences children’s language development.

Perceptual development is closely linked to physical development because children’s growing motor abilities allow them to explore their environments in new ways. Children can use their mobility to reach for objects, or play with objects in different ways.

As they get older, they will be able to use sensory input to change an action or behavior. For example, children may be able to perceive how to move their body around obstacles, or know how to hold in their hands objects that they perceive to be fragile. Children learn about their world by engaging their senses with their surroundings. This is why appropriately stimulating environments and meaningful engagement and interactions are encouraged for young children.

Developing Preferences

Each child is unique when it comes to sensory likes and dislikes. Some children enjoy splashing in the bath or getting their hands dirty while exploring different textures. Other children may shy away from touching different materials, instead preferring to simply observe. Just as adults have preferences, young children are developing preferences for what they see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. Caregivers should pay attention to what children enjoy and what they steer clear of. Caregivers need to be sensitive to these differences and set up various types of activities to accommodate children’s sensory preferences. For example, children who do not enjoy getting their hands dirty should not be forced to play with sand, water, or other types of sensory materials that may make them uncomfortable. Children who are overwhelmed by too many sounds and sights should be watched closely for signs of overstimulation while playing. Positive early experiences tailored to children’s comfort levels and needs are important for healthy development.

Birth to 9 months

Children begin to use their senses to explore and become aware of their environment.

Indicators for children include:

  • Responds to changes in the environment, e.g., startles when hearing a loud noise, turns head toward light
  • Explores objects through senses, e.g., mouths, touches objects
  • Attempts to mimic sounds heard in the environment
  • Has a range of vision that extends to several feet, which in turn leads to seeing colors and seeing objects from a distance
  • Feels the sensation of being touched and looks around to identify the source of the touch, e.g., person or object
  • Recognizes familiar objects and begins to demonstrate favoritism for certain toys

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide an environment where the child can observe and explore
  • Place mirrors and attractive toys in the child’s line of sight, e.g., a mobile over the crib
  • Interact with the child by singing songs and manipulating toys together
  • Provide objects and experiences that encompass different colors, sounds, textures, e.g., music box, a toy that lights up, a book with different textures

7 months to 18 months

Children begin to use sensory information received from their environment to alter the way they interact and explore.

Indicators for children include:

  • Begins to manipulate materials, e.g., pounds at play dough, squeezes finger foods
  • Begins to show a preference for or aversion to particular sensory activities, e.g., pulls hand away from unfamiliar objects or unpleasant textures
  • Becomes aware of obstacles in the environment, e.g., crawls around the table to get the ball
  • Adjusts manner of walking depending on the surface, e.g., walks carefully across gravel

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide the child with choices for experimenting with sensory objects
  • Observe the child’s reactions to objects and experiences in order to note what he or she enjoys
  • Expose the child to different textures, smells, sounds, and sights

16 months to 24 months

Children continue to work on using perceived sensory information to decide how to interact with their environment.

Indicators for children include:

  • Plays with water and sand tables; explores by pouring, digging, and filling
  • Enjoys physical play, e.g., wrestling, tickling
  • Recognizes situations that need to be approached cautiously, e.g., walks slowly with a cup of water, or with food on a plate
  • Adjusts approach to environment, e.g., changes volume of voice to adjust to noise level in the environment

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide opportunities for the child to experience sensory play, e.g., play dough, water, sand
  • Follow the child’s lead during play; ensure to proceed cautiously with a child who needs time before getting involved
  • Engage in activities that encourage using different sounds and movements, e.g., read a book that incorporates both whispering and loud voices

21 months to 36 months

Children begin to process sensory information in a more efficient manner and use the information to modify behavior while interacting with the environment.

Indicators for children include:

  • Imitates familiar adults when coloring; draws lines and/or circles
  • Adjusts approach to unknown objects, e.g., presses harder on a lump of clay
  • Perceives and acts accordingly when holding a fragile object, both in the actual environment and in play, e.g., walks carefully when holding a pretend tea cup

Strategies for interaction

  • Spend time with the child; draw, paint, and color together
  • Prompt the child to discuss what he or she is feeling during sensory play, e.g., “How does that finger paint feel on your hands?”
  • Allow the child to explore freely and have fun while learning, e.g., child uses finger paint to paint their face and squeals with delight


  1. Bjorklund, D. F. (2000). Children’s Thinking: Developmental Function and Individual Differences. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  2. Brazelton, T. B. (1992). Touchpoints: Your child’s emotional and behavioral development. New York: Perseus.
  3. Brazelton, T. B. (1992). Touchpoints: Your child’s emotional and behavioral development. New York: Perseus.

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Reviewed: 2012