I am no Pinterest mom, let’s just start there, but my kids, like yours, are crazy for slime and just about any "messy play" they can get their hands on. So when a picture of a kiddo playing in a tub of colored noodles come across my feed, I was intrigued.
As an occupational therapist, sensory integration is my jam, so I set off to re-create the photo. I purchased colorful vegetable noodles, boiled them, and waited for them to cool. Then I boiled more noodles, and more, and more. It took ten boxes to cover the bottom of our bin.
I was done before we started, but with all the time and money I'd invested, I pushed on, thinking it would all be worth it in the end.
Spoiler alert, it wasn't.
I added a few shovel toys and then into the bin my 18-month-old went. His face said it all. Mind you, he cannot talk yet, but it took all of about three seconds for the confused look on his face to tell me what he was thinking, namely, “Why in the actual eff am I sitting in dinner?!” #PinterestFail
If the thought of spending lots of time or money on sensory play activities leaves you feeling as uninspired as my son clearly was by our noodle adventure, then I have a list for you.
Here are 5 sensory activities that won’t let you down:
1. Vestibular play. Our vestibular system is responsible for the awareness of our body in relation to gravity, movement, and balance. Located in the inner ear, this sensory system helps develop equilibrium, postural control, muscle tone, bilateral coordination (using both sides of the body at the same time), and other skills to help children learn, rest, and play.
- Ways to alert our vestibular system:
- Bounce and jump. Short spells (20-30 seconds) of up and down movement helps regulate the brain (and bonus, it also uses the proprioceptive system, which tells us where our body is in space). Bounce on a therapy ball, or jump up and down using the floor or a mini-trampoline.
- Spin. Help your child spin 7-10 times in one direction, stop briefly, and then spin in the other direction. Spin while standing in place or use a swivel chair, scooter board, or a sit 'n spin.
- Swing. Research says that 15 minutes of swinging can have a 6-8 hour effect on the brain. Use a hammock, egg chair, platform swing, saddle swing, a pod swing, tire swing, or another swing of your choosing.
- Invert. Poses such as Downward-Facing Dog can help stimulate this system (and is another great way for proprioceptive input). Other ways to include inversion are to lay backward over a therapy ball, hang your head off of the bed or couch, hang upside down on the monkey bars or do a hand/headstand.
- Ways to calm our vestibular system:
- Slow movements.
- Rhythmic, linear swinging.
- Rocking and/or gentle spinning in one direction.
2. Create a sensory bin. I love these because (if you commit to never boiling anything) they are easy to assemble, kids love them, and they offer so many creative ways to help kids explore.
Keep it simple and your child will have fun as they work on important developmental skills like playing with different textures, fine motor skills, communication, and more.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Fill a bin (any large, durable container will do) with rice, sand, cornmeal, flour, or cereal... anything where boiling is not required. Encourage your child to explore the different textures.
- Keep your eyes on your children when using a sensory bin to prevent little ones from putting things in their mouths.
- Hide toys and other objects in the bin and have your child practice their verbal skills by telling you what they found as they pull each hidden object from the bin.
- To incorporate fine motor skills, use a pair of tweezers or even salad tongs for younger kids, to pull items from the bin. We once used fruit loops and my toddler used tweezers to pick out the loops and sort them by color. The fact that he could snack as he went was a win for him.
- Promote matching skills, shape recognition, or literacy by hiding pairs of shapes, numbers, or letters in the bin and, once retrieved, find the match.
3. Play with shaving cream. This is another quick and easy sensory experience that you will enjoy as much as your kids. Buy 3 to 5 containers of the foamy white kind of shaving cream, preferably from the Dollar Store, and word to the wise, do not buy the gel kind. Here are a few easy to execute ideas for hours of sensory fun:
- Head to your bathtub (no water needed) and draw shapes, write letters and words, etc. on the sides of the tub. Added bonus, easy clean-up!
- Hide a laminated design under the foam and have your kiddo wipe it away to reveal the hidden picture.
- Connect the dots. Add a few dots of shaving cream in the form of shapes or letters and have your kiddo connect the dots to complete the shape or letter.
4. Sensory walk. There are so many amazing ways to offer your children a sensory walk. Not only are these fun, but they engage many of the senses at once, promote gross motor skills, and encourage problem-solving. Here are a few examples:
- Take old cutting boards or plywood and glue different textures on it. Some ideas are pom poms, bubble wrap, rocks, sponges, a ziplock bag filled with colored water, and so forth.
- Fill a bin with paint and lay a long piece of paper down on the floor. Invite your child to walk in the paint and then walk on the paper. Add bubble wrap to the bottom of their feet for extra sensory input.
- Use masking tape or chalk to create a sensory path. Offer areas where they spin in a circle, hop like a frog, bear crawl, climb over obstacles, jump up and down, walk while balancing a ball on a spoon, whatever you can think of. You can also incorporate zigzag lines. Have your child walk the line, roll a ball down the line, or scooter board on the line.
5. Get outdoors. Mother Earth is abundant in sensory experiences and each season offers something new. Not only is this free, but it takes little to no planning or set-up.
- Walk barefoot. Invite your child to explore different textures by walking in mud, water, grass, on soft rocks, and so forth.
- Get handsy. Invite your child to touch different objects and note how they feel. This may include tree bark, flowers, grass, rocks, pinecones, and snow.
- Dig in the dirt, garden, hold worms, make mud pies, or write your name in the mud.
The Sensory Loop
Why offer sensory activities at all? Simply put, we rely on our senses daily to help us understand the world around us.
Our sense receptors detect sensations and send them to the brain via nerves. The brain interprets those sensations and sends orders to different parts of our body through the nervous system. Ever touch a hot stove? It is this sensory loop that tells us to remove our hand quickly to avoid getting burned!
The Sensory Continuum
Everyone has different thresholds for sensory stimulation. Some people react when just a little stimulus is given and some people need a lot of stimuli to react.
Children with a high threshold tend to be hypo-sensitive or under-responsive, which means it takes more stimuli for them to react. These children may be sensory seeking, benefiting from many sensory experiences on a daily basis to help them regulate their body.
Children with a low threshold tend to be hypersensitive or overly responsive, which means it takes less stimulus for their body to react. These children may be sensory avoidant and may be unwilling or slow to try new things and/or to participate in unpredictable situations.
While there are polarities of the spectrum, it is important to note that we are all on a neurological continuum. We all have sensory needs and benefit from sensory experiences throughout our day!
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