While all children can seem particular about their likes and dislikes, children with sensory processing disorder (also called sensory integration dysfunction) will be so severely affected by their sensory preferences that it interferes with their normal, everyday functioning. Treatment for sensory processing disorder is a fun, play-based intervention that takes place in a sensory-rich environment typically under the guidance of an occupational therapist. Many families have requested more information about this topic and we thought summer was ideal time to share some therapist-recommended and kid-approved sensory activities that can be a fun way for any child to develop sensory processing skills.
What is sensory processing?
Remember those five senses you learned about in elementary school – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell? Being able to process information from the “five senses” is crucial to a child’s world and an important part of child development. Sensory information is how we learn from our surroundings, and how we interact with our environment. Sensory processing involves the ability of a child’s central nervous system to organize sensory feedback from the child’s body and surroundings in order to make appropriate behavioral responses. As children grow they are constantly exploring new sensory information. This information continues to expand the knowledge their sensory system relies on to react appropriately to their environment. A healthy sensory system allows a child maintain attention to tasks, respond to what is happening around them, and engage in positive social interactions. A developed sensory system is crucial to a child’s successful engagement with the world.
What is sensory play?
The term sensory play describes a variety of creative, play and movement-based activities that help children develop their sensory processing skills. Sensory play is a great developmental tool for all children, no matter how they handle sensory input. Sensory play can also be particularly helpful for children whose oversensitivity to sensory information, or need for extra sensory input, is affecting daily routines.
Sensory play activities
Below are descriptions of two specific areas related to sensory processing (sensory regulation and sensory defensiveness) and related sensory play activities recommended by occupational therapist Katie DeWeerd.
Sensory regulation & fun “heavy work” activities
Giving a child’s muscles extra “heavy work” or deep pressure can change the way their body feels and help a child develop body awareness. This type of activity affects the part of the sensory system that manages proprioceptive input (our body’s ability to sense where we are in relation to our surroundings). This input comes from receptors in the muscles and joints and activating these receptors can help a child who is usually very hyperactive to calm down and focus. It can also help a child who is sensitive and anxious about touch, sound or movement to calm down enough so that they can better handle a new place or a new activity. Here are some fun heavy work activities you can try at home:
Wall push-over: Have child stand with both hands on the wall, shoulder-width apart, and tell them to try and push the wall over to the count of 20. Join in, acting silly and demonstrating how to put all your body weight into the pushing. Repeat this five times or more, counting to 20 each time. Continue this activity by trying to push with a different part of your body (shoulders, hips, back, etc.).
Tortilla roll: Pile up a variety of pillows and fluffy comforters. Let one child roll off the couch carefully into the pile. After several turns, roll the child up like a tortilla in a comforter and then pull one end to unroll the child quickly!
Heavy loads: Have your child be a helper for a day that just happens to be full of heavy lifting chores! They can carry large soft drink bottles from the hallway to the pantry, carry a laundry basket from room to room filling it with books along the way, or stack all canned goods from the floor of the pantry to a shelf.
Animal walks: Place names or pictures of different animals in a cup. Take turns selecting an animal from the cup and walking around like that animal. Focus on animal movements that require weight-bearing through all extremities, such as crawling, crab walking, jumping or bear walking (this is done by putting hands and feet on the ground while keeping legs and arms straight and moving forward!).
Hermit crab: Place a large bag of rice or beans on the child’s back and let them crawl around with a heavy “shell” on their back. Measure how far they can go without dropping it and see if they can beat their own record each time they try.
Wheelbarrow walking: Hold the child’s ankles and see how far they can go walking on their hands. If they are a young, small child, hold their ankles while they walk up the stairs on only their hands to provide even more input. Be careful!
Sensory defensiveness & fun tactile activities
Of the types of sensory input that may cause a child to demonstrate sensitivity, tactile defensiveness (overreaction to ordinary touch sensations) is most frequently reported. Examples of tactile defensiveness include children having issues wearing certain kinds of clothes, walking barefoot outside, or touching something sticky or gooey. Providing a child with a variety of new and different tactile experiences will help a child’s sensory system learn how to process less-desired information from their surroundings and help the child’s overall sensory processing. Here are some fun tactile sensory activities you can do at home:
Sensory bins: Fill different plastic storage bins with dry beans, rice and pasta. Then add cups for scooping and small plastic cars or animals for finding surprises and let your child dig, pour and play! Encourage your child to explore the different textures by hiding objects in the beads, driving cars through the beans and pretending you are mixing up your favorite meal. Demonstrating that this can be fun and will eliminate their anxiety over having new tactile experiences, making a huge difference in their sensory play success. Make sure your child is old enough to not swallow small pieces or select items that do not pose a swallowing or choking risk.
Finger painting: Many children enjoy this messy activity. If it is not a favorite, encourage your child to use one finger at a time or provide something small they can dip in the paint (such as a Q-tip or ½” pieces of a cut-up sponge) so they get used to being close to the texture. For a different tactile experience, mix a grainy material like sand into the paint or get creative with a blob of shaving cream or chocolate pudding. For a cold sensory experience, freeze finger paints in an ice cube try and let your child slide the frozen cubes around the paper!
Water play: Fill the kitchen sink or a large tub with sudsy water and a variety of unbreakable pitchers, bottles, turkey basters, etc. Pouring and measuring provide sensory input to the hands and are excellent for developing the tactile system. Be sure to watch children closely when they are near water. Even a bucket of water can pose a drowning risk.
Note: If your child’s sensory difficulties are affecting their ability to make it through normal routines on a daily basis, it may be time to seek help. An evaluation by a pediatric occupational therapist can determine if there are sensory treatment strategies that can be used to help your child engage successfully with the world.
This article is part of a CHoR series on developmental play activities. If you are interested in future articles on this topic, sign up for Tid*Bits, CHoR’s free family newsletter.