WHAT IS SENSORY?
OH THAT’S WHAT SENSORY MEANS
When occupational therapists and other professionals talk about sensory or sensory processing, we are referring to how our 7 senses work:
- gustatory (taste)
- olfactory (smell)
- auditory (hear)
- tactile (touch)
- proprioception (deep pressure/body awareness)
- vestibular (balance and movement)
With every one of the 7 sensory systems, kids (and adults) process that information on a range that is unique to each child and can change overtime or throughout the day. However, most kids tend to process the input they are receiving in similar ways.
We see children start to have difficulty interacting, paying attention, behaving, sleeping, and/or eating when they’re processing sensory input at one of the ends of the range. On one end of the range is being sensitive to a particular sensation or an entire sensory system. That would mean your child avoids those types of input.
At the other end of the range kids may under process the input and SEEK that type of input. Still some kids seem not to even register the input, it’s like they don’t even feel it. We call that Low Registration.
Sensory processing may also be called Sensory Integration, but it actually means a little more…
WHAT IS SENSORY INTEGRATION?
- In layman’s terms: Everything we feel or experience, from wind on our face to driving a car is processed in our brain. If a child has an unusual response then their brain isn’t processing what they feel or experience well.
- In layman’s terms: When a kid wants to participate in sensory play (to them it is just play), they adjust how they are playing based on what they are experiencing/feeling.
However, sensory integration focuses on tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive input, which will be described in more detail below.
OT’s often use Sensory Integration therapy to improve a child’s sensory processing. Read more about Sensory Integration Therapy and if your child needs it.
WHAT IS TACTILE, VESTIBULAR AND PROPRIOCEPTIVE INPUT?
- How does a feather feel compared to a piece of sandpaper?
- Our vestibular system is stimulated when riding on a swing, riding in a car, jumping up and down, etc.
- We stimulate our proprioceptive system through the deep pressure input we receive in the joints throughout our body. This occurs when we walk, run, jump, get or give a hug, etc. Most kids enjoy this type of input and it is often used to help calm children down even if one of their other senses is out of balance.
Learn more about proprioception.
Bundy, A.C., Lane, S.J., and Murray, E.A. (2002) Sensory Integration Theory and Practice. Second Edition.
Schaaf, R.C. and Roley S.S. (2006) Sensory Integration: Applying Clinical Reasoning to Practice with Diverse Populations.
GET INSPIRED WITH SENSORY ACTIVITIES
Below is a short list of sensory activities to stimulate a few of the sensory systems. I bet you didn’t know you were doing sensory play when you played leap frog with your kid! There are many more ideas than what is listed here, this is just to get you started! You can also find a huge list of over 100 sensory activities here.
Proprioceptive: Roughhousing, play wrestling, leap frog, tug-of-war, wheelbarrow walking, jumping on a trampoline, crawling under couch cushions, chin-ups, play with weighted balls, jumping and crashing on the bed, pushing another child on the swing, playing in a body sock, foot-to-foot bicycling with friend, firm family hugging, stirring/ rolling/kneading dough, digging, carrying, shoveling, raking, pushing/lifting heavy objects, moving furniture, vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, carrying laundry basket, row row row your boat with partner, rolling up with a blanket to make a hot dog or burrito, rolling a large ball over the child, playing tug-of-war, vibrating toys, and crawling into a stretchy pillow case or tunnel.
Get a huge list of powerful proprioceptive activities!
Vestibular: Sitting in a rocking chair, sitting on a ball to watch TV, playing on a slide, swing, seesaw, trapeze, running, skipping, ladder, monkey bars, glider, suspended bridge, and roughhousing. Riding a bike, scooter, skateboard, rollerblades, and roller coasters, too.
Discover more calming and stimulating vestibular activities.
Oral: Healthy, chewy foods (e.g., celery, carrots, apples, nuts, fruit leather, beef jerky), thick liquids requiring straw (e.g., milkshakes, smoothies, gelatin, pudding), teethers (especially those that vibrate), whistles, blowing bubbles, feathers, balloons, or anything lightweight. See a lot more on oral sensory processing ideas here.
Tactile: Texture bins (rice, cotton balls, bird seed, dry macaroni noodles, sand, rice, dry beans), shaving cream, soap foam, play do, finger paint (also try with pudding, peanut butter, and other purees), lotion/non-lotion massages, fidget toys (koosh balls, stress balls, etc.)
Find more details and ideas over at incredible tactile activities.
And, if you’re looking for the whole gamut of sensory activities then get inspired with ultimate sensory diet activities.
SOME IMPORTANT TIPS
- Generally speaking, it is better to avoid light touch and provide firm touch, especially if your kid is sensitive to touch.
- Take into consideration light, odor, and noise in the environment. it may be helpful to play soft music, eliminate strong smells, or dim the lights. Conversely, some children may need fast paced music, strong smells, or bright lights to focus.
- A child’s sensory needs may change from day to day. They may respond well to being wrapped up in a blanket during one session and run from it the next. Always respect a child’s boundaries in relation to sensory activities (i.e. never force a child’s hand into finger paint if they are tactile defensive, even if you are tricking them).
WHAT IS A SENSORY DIET?
Your child’s sensory needs aren’t written in stone. Remember that they may change, and by providing them with the support they need through various sensory activities you will see the behaviors diminish, as their sensory systems will be more regulated and organized. I like to use sensory diet cards, which show kids different sensory activities, and have them choose what will be the most helpful.
You can also find how to use a calming sensory tent and how to choose the best sensory toy for your child. And, if you’re looking for strategies to use in school check out 13 Sensory Strategies for the Classroom.