What is Sensory Processing Disorder? For kiddos with SPD, their brain has trouble receiving and responding to information from the senses. A child can be oversensitive or undersensitive to touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing, vestibular (balance), and proprioceptive (body awareness in space) senses. For a more in-depth explanation, check out this post.
Sensory play is powerful! It helps children integrate into their environment and regulate their senses. And, it can be done at home with items you probably already have!
Think of the brain as a muscle. Sensory play is workout! It strengthens the brain’s ability to correctly process sensory input. That means your kiddo gets to have fun and feel better.
Let’s explore sensory play! Get creative. There are tons of activities that stimulate integration for multiple senses at the same time. We’ll go through each of the 7 senses and share some of our favorites ideas and activities!
Tip: keep in mind that sensory avoiders and sensory seekers might enjoy or dislike some of these activities. Go slow and figure out what works best for your child.
Dry, crunchy, wet, squishy, slimy! There are so many different types of textures your kiddo can explore to help with touch integration. Before you go out and buy sensory toys, check your pantry and storage.
Do you have dry rice, beans, or pasta? Bingo.
Have shaving cream stashed under the sink? Awesome.
Have a backyard, park, or beach nearby? Sand and dirt are free!
Here are some activity ideas!
1. Rice. Dump rice in a large bowl or bin and let your child feel and move the rice. The texture of the rice stimulates their sense of touch. For a more challenging version of this activity, have your child use measuring cups and pour rice into a bowl!
2. Shaving cream. Squirt shaving cream directly into their hands or onto a smooth surface like a play table. Have them squeeze the cream or finger paint with it! Bonus: sense of smell is a factor here too depending on the type of shaving cream.
3. Make Mud. Find a local park or some dirt in the backyard and put dirt into a bucket. Let your kiddo feel the dry crunchy dirt. Add small amounts of water and let them feel the transformation from dirt to mud! You can also do this with sand.
We don’t normally think of taste when we play, but it’s important! Check out these ideas for integrating taste into sensory play.
1. Taste test. If your child will allow it, cover their eyes with a blindfold. Let them lick something off a spoon (peanut butter, yogurt, etc). See if they can guess what it is!
2. Cooking. If it’s safe, let your kiddo be your assistant chef. They can be your taste tester, and feel involved in the “game” of cooking.
3. Fingertip food. Use raspberries or other soft candy that fits on the fingertips. Help your child place berries or candy on their fingertips. One by one, let them eat the piece off of their finger and count how many are left. Bonus: this one integrates touch and counting!
Smell is a fun one, and you can really get creative! Here are a few ways to include smell in play.
1. Spice yogurt finger painting. Put some plain yogurt (dairy-free if need be!) into a bowl. Add some spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, etc. Let your kiddo finger paint on a smooth surface with the spiced yogurt and experience the smells!
2. What’s that smell? Similar to taste test, blindfold your child if they’ll let you. Hold something fragrant near their nose and instruct them to sniff! See if they can guess what it is, or tell you if they like it or not.
3. Stop and smell the flowers! This is something you can easily do on a walk or visit to the park. If you or your child spots a flower (or other fragrant plants), take a minute to smell it. Ask them if they like the smell or not, thumbs up or down!
Here are some ideas for integrating sight into play! For sensory avoiders who are sensitive to light, go slow, and let them guide the activity.
1. Hang up string lights! Let your child help you hang up string lights in their room or play area. They are visually stimulating, and many retailers sell child-safe options.
2. Colored objects. Play with brightly colored objects like construction paper, toys with contrasting colors, and paint! These activities often integrate touch as well!
3. Flashlight shapes and stars. Use a big piece of construction paper or cardboard and cut or poke shapes and holes in it. Turn the lights off and use a flashlight under the paper or board to project “stars” and shapes onto the wall or ceiling!
Sound can be used on it own or as a bonus with several activities! Sensory avoiders may want to wear noise-canceling headphones or earmuffs and control when sounds happen.
1. Listen to music. This one is as easy as it sounds! Play your child’s favorite music during activities, or calming music during relaxed play.
2. Dance party! Find songs with actions - like wheels on the bus - and have a dance party! This integrates sound, balance (vestibular), and proprioception (body awareness in space).
Read a sing-along book. There are several sing-along books available today. Even if your kiddo doesn’t want to sing, they can listen to you sing!
Get your body moving! Proprioceptive activities can be fast or slow, but either way, they are fun to do. Here are some ideas!
1. Animal walks. Get on all fours! Pretend to walk across the room like a bear, or flip over and walk like a crab. Use their favorite animal if you can!
2. Hopscotch! Jumping is great proprioceptive activity. You could also have your kiddo hop to a specific color or number. If you have a trampoline, use that too!
3. Tug of war. Use a jump rope or soft blanket and have a tug of war! Make sure the surrounding area is safe or has pillows nearby to crash on.
Bonus! Any weighted activities will help your kiddo get proprioceptive input. Have them help carry groceries, put away heavy books, or pull the hose to help water flowers!
Our sense of balance can be stimulated with a variety of different games and play.
1. Swing. If you have an indoor swing, great! Don’t have a swing at home? No problem. Get a strong blanket and two adults. Each adult holds one end while your child is snug and safe inside the blanket. Lift the blanket up and create a swinging motion.
2. Exercise ball. Help your child sit on top of an exercise ball. Slowly help them rock back and forth, and side to side! This engages their vestibular sense and core strength.
3, Yoga poses! Try easy yoga poses like downward dog.
Sensory play helps your child
- Bridge connections in the brain’s pathways for nerves.
- Support language development.
- Develop fine motor skills
- Facilitate gross motor skill development
- Stimulate cognitive growth
- Improve problem-solving skills and social interactions
- Help develop and enhance memory
- Relax anxious or frustrated children
- Learn sensory attributes. (e.g. hot, sticky, wet, dry).
Now that’s powerful play!
Figuring out what works best for your child will take some time. Be patient, make small changes, and celebrate small victories. Sensory play is, after all, play! Have fun with it.