If your child has some sensory processing needs, then you have likely at least considered getting them a sensory toy, but the premise of choosing the “right” one for your child can be a daunting task. You may have browsed some catalogs, or noticed some fun things in the OT room, but there are so many options. As an OT, I can tell you that I love many of these toys and tools, and have used them both with the children I’ve helped and my own kids at home. But, because sensory is unique to each child, it’s worth putting a little effort in to figure out which sensory toys and tools your child will most likely respond to and get the most benefit out of. I’m going to walk you through my OT-Mom thought process, in 5 simple steps that you can replicate.
Plus, our sponsor, Fun and Function has a new special Holiday Gift Guide that will give you lots of specific ideas once you’ve figured out the direction you want to go in. Fun and Function is a mega online sensory store that was not only created by an OT-Mom, but is also an incredible resource for parents and professionals supporting children with sensory differences and special needs.
First, things first…
What’s the Point of a Sensory Toy?
Sensory toys look fun, and they are, but they also promote and encourage development in ways that many ordinary toys don’t. In general, sensory toys are great for any child. But, if you have a child with sensory processing differences, whether that accompanies a diagnosis like Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or not, sensory toys and tools have the potential to change your life. I know that sounds like a big statement, but for a child with sensory differences, the “right” sensory toy could provide them with the sensory input they need for their entire sensory system to become regulated.
Guess what happens when your child’s sensory system is regulated? They are able to focus on the task at hand instead of fighting their sensory needs. That means they may sleep, eat, communicate, behave, and attend to learning better. Really, any sensory activity has the power to do that, if it’s filling a sensory need your child has. These needs can often be met without a specific toy or tool, but having a few key tools can make a huge difference in your child completing an activity independently and having new and different outlets to get those sensory needs met.
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5 Steps to Choose the Right Sensory Toy
These are the steps I want you to think through when you want to invest in a sensory toy for your child. So grab a pen and paper or open up a Google doc to work though this.
1. Evaluate what types of activities your child seeks, avoids, or needs help with
- I’m talking big picture here. Does your child tend to like calming activities like escaping to a quiet space or squeezing behind the couch? Or, do they tend to like jumping off the couch and scaling the furniture? Do they cover their ears a lot during the day because of sounds? Maybe, they have a hard time transitioning between activities in daycare or school?
- List the sensory activities (write down “odd” or unusual activities too, because they’re usually sensory based) you notice your child participating in, avoiding, or having difficulty with on a regular basis.
- Highlight anything on the list that is disruptive or seems to consume them.
2. Pinpoint the main sensory system
- There are 7 sensory systems (find detailed descriptions of each of them here), remember that while they are each independent, there is a lot of overlap and they all work together. When one is affected, it is common for more to be as well. These systems are:
- Proprioception (Knowing where our body is in space, activated through pressure to our muscles and joints)
- Vestibular (Our sense of movement and balance)
- Tactile (Our sense of touch)
- Taste (Oral, which technically combines 3 different systems: taste, tactile, and proprioception. Read more about oral sensory here.)
- For any of the highlighted activities on your list from step 1, choose 1-2 sensory systems that you think are calling for attention (i.e.: If your child pushes into people all the time, then the sensory system that has a need is likely proprioception and possibly tactile/touch).
- Look for any patterns? Do you see one or two sensory systems coming up more frequently? If so, you’ll want to target your search for toys that address that particular sensory system. If you see several systems your child is seeking, prioritize the one that seems to be affecting your child the most.
- If you don’t see a lot of seeking or avoiding activities, and find that your list consists mostly of activities your child needs help with, then proprioception is your go-to. Proprioception activities are widely accepted by most kids and include: jumping, climbing, being squeezed (like when hugging), etc.
3. Identify the timing and environment
- Again, looking at the list you created in step 1, identify if any of these activities tend to happen at certain times of the day or in certain environments. For instance, you may notice that your child only jumps on the furniture first thing in the morning, or maybe they only chew on their pen caps when they are in school. There isn’t always a pattern, but double check to make sure you don’t see any correlations.
- If you did notice that your child is seeking or avoiding certain sensory input at specific times or in certain environments, right that down too! Make a note if you feel your child needs a toy or tool for a particular environment: school, daycare, home, etc. This will help you eliminate some options. For instance, a weighted lap pad or vest might work for seeking out proprioceptive in a school setting and a small indoor trampoline would provide proprioceptive input at home.
4. Set your budget and size
- At this time of year, you may be looking for a bigger, show-stopping item, and there are plenty of incredible sensory toys that will fit the bill. But at the same time, you may be looking for some smaller supports that don’t take up as much room.
- At the end of your list, write down your budget and if you have any space constraints. These are two important factors that will help you narrow down your selections.
5. Pull it all together
- On your list at this point, you should have: sensory activities your child consistently seeks or avoids, which sensory system you think they are trying to target, if there is a time of day or environment that they seek or avoid it, and what your budget and size constraints are, if any.
- Choose a few items that you are looking for. For example, you might be looking for a sensory toy that can be used at school for the oral system because your child chews on their shirt sleeve. Or, maybe you need a high energy proprioceptive and vestibular activity like a scooter board or a swing because your child is dangerously climbing objects in your home and has a hard time paying attention.
Now that you know the 5 steps, I bet you’d like some ideas, right? Well, I have you covered. First, Fun and Function has their free awesome holiday guide, which is loaded with ideas and descriptions to get the right sensory toy (now that you know what your looking for). Plus, you can find more suggestions and details on which sensory system each toy targets in:
- The Sensory Stocking Stuffer Guide – Perfect for small sensory toys
- Sensory Success in the Classroom – Ideas that will work really well in the classroom or daycare setting
- Sensory Strategies for the Wild Child – Find my favorite toys and activities for very active kids (proprioceptive and/or vestibular seekers)
- 10 Affordable Sensory Toys – Great for small budgets
- Everything You Need to Know About Oral Sensory Processing – Ideas for anything related to the oral sensory system (chewing, biting, drooling, picky eating, etc.)
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.