As adults, we intuitively use sensory input with infants or children. We swaddle or rock a baby to sleep, we hug a crying child, and we play active games outdoors knowing this will help our children distribute their energy. Similarly, integrating simple daily sensory experiences can help toddlers, older children, and our own selves become more alert or more calm.
A regulated, as opposed to dis-regulated, nervous system allows a person to better manage their emotions regardless of age, bringing play, learning, and connection to the world around them.
In order to fully understand our surroundings and experiences, we need the ability to integrate the information we receive from our senses. Sensory processing is what makes it possible for a child to use the input he/she is receiving from their body and environment in a functional, adaptive manner.
Everyone has different thresholds for sensory stimulation. Picture a continuum --- some people react when just a little stimulus is given, some people need a lot of stimuli to respond, and others fall somewhere in between the two polarities.
Sensory diets are one way to incorporate alerting or calming sensory activities to regulate the nervous system, and because every child is unique, so too is every sensory diet. Here are 9 things to consider when designing a sensory diet:
- Times of day that are especially challenging for your child
- Response to transitions between settings and tasks
- Activities and routines that your child over-reacts to or avoids
- Activities that your child engages in for extended periods
- How your child reacts to clothing (fabric, sleeve length, tags, etc.)
- How your child reacts to food texture, tastes, smells, sound, temperature
- How your child moves through space and his/her body awareness
- Relationships with peers and adults
- Desired or favored activities
As your child changes and adapts, chosen activities and strategies may, too. If you feel your child falls on one end of the sensory spectrum and is either hypo- or hypersensitive to stimuli, an occupational and physical therapist can help evaluate and give an individualized sensory diet.
Here are examples of activities that alert and calm each sense:
Alerting activities for each sense
These activities wake up our nervous system and get our “engine” going.
- Offer fast-moving, bright, and unpredictable visuals such as spinning objects or blinking lights.
- Provide visual aids such as using a finger or ruler to mark where reading, or use a clean lollipop stick to help with spaces between words when writing.
- Play music. Lower frequencies such as drums will elicit movement, while higher frequencies such as flutes, singing or cymbals can engage attention.
- Try sour, spicy, or bold flavors such as grapefruit, cranberry, or mints.
- Incorporate cold food temperatures such as popsicles or frozen grapes or blueberries.
- Alert the mouth with crunchy foods such as pretzels, carrots, apples, or granola.
- To stimulate deeper breathing, offer drinking through a long, thin straw, or a regular straw with thick liquids.
- Incorporate cold temperatures such as an ice block scavenger hunt.
- Offer light brushing.
- Use invigorating scents such as citrus, mint, or cinnamon.
- Use rapidly changing/irregular inputs in a monitored and controlled setting such as swinging quickly on a swing, especially with sudden changes of direction or rolling down a hill, or spinning in a circle.
- Incorporate quick tempos: Rock quickly in a rocking chair; run, skip, or gallop for 1-2 minutes; or jump in place (trampoline, jumping jacks, jumping rope).
- Offer safe crashing by jumping or falling into a pile of pillows or mats.
- Use muscles for “heavy work” of pushing and pulling against resistance. This tends to be both alerting and organizing for the body. Examples include:
- Push on the wall as if to move the wall.
- Do a chair push-up: Lift your bottom off of a chair base by pushing through your arms.
- Weight-bear through your arms via a wheelbarrow walk, crabwalk, or bearwalk.
- Take motor breaks to stand and stretch.
- Ride a bike uphill (pedal against resistance).
- Climb on playground equipment such as crossing monkey bars.
- Carry a stack of books, laundry, groceries, or something else approx. 5% of body weight, or try a weighted vest.
Calming activities for each sense
These activities calm our nervous system and slow down our engines.
- Set spaces free of clutter using “cool” colors and dim lighting.
- Offer calming visual stimuli such as a fish tank, snow globe, lava lamp, campfire, or other slow-moving visuals.
- Play slow and rhythmic music such as classical music, steady drums, or nature sounds (water, birds, waves).
- Try bland or sweet-tasting flavors.
- Comfort the mouth by sucking on a sports bottle, drinking through a straw, or incorporating Chewy Tubes or Chewelry.
- Eat chewy foods such as fruit roll-ups, bagels, dried fruit, and cheese, or chewing gum.
- Incorporate warming temperatures.
- Try sensory bins with beans or rice.
- Feel different textures such as grass, rocks, shaving cream, or furry stuffed animals.
- Squeeze a stress ball or other resistive “fidget toys” such as putty, beeswax, art erasers.
- Use calming scents such as vanilla and lavender via bath bombs, lotion, essential oils, scented playdoh, candles or scented weighted bags.
- Use slow, steady, rhythmic, repeated, and predictable input.
- Bounce on a therapy ball.
- Rock in a chair.
- Use a see-saw or swing in a slow, linear motion.
- Use firm, steady, pressure such as a weighted blanket or rolling up in a rug like a burrito.
- Use muscles for “heavy work” (as above).
- Try isometrics such as pushing your hands together, hooking your hands and pulling them apart, or pushing your knee against your hand.
- Wear spandex clothing, like bike shorts or long underwear under regular clothes for compression.
Using a Time-In For The Senses
When you hear “Calming Corner,” what comes to mind? For me, my thought bubble looked a lot like my child sitting quietly to manage his body. And while it may be that for some kids, it may not look like that for others.
A time-in space offers children a safe outlet to notice and feel their bodily sensations and to give them the tools to either calm or alert their nervous system.
As a child’s nervous system is satiated by calming or alerting input, they begin to feel safe (and regulated) and transition away from the reactive brain stem and into the learning parts of their brain.
So, a child may notice that they are seeking touch, and choose to do a safe crashing into pillows. Or, a child may notice that they feel overwhelmed and choose to lay with a weighted blanket. This creates new neurological pathways to form new habits to manage emotions and behaviors.
There are layers to each and every one of us. As we teach our children to peel back their layers to notice and nourish their sensory needs, they are better able to learn important life skills such as personal insight, empathy, problem-solving, and relationship management. And, just as priceless, our children begin to befriend and love themselves, honoring who they are and the way they feel.