Use sensory seeking activities to calm and organize sensory seeking behaviors in your “wild” child or toddler that seems to never stop moving.
Would you describe your child as wild, rough, or dangerous?? If so, those could be signs of sensory seeking behavior.
Although there are a variety of reasons a child may consistently seem to have a lot of energy or participate in extreme behaviors, sensory seeking activities can be used to help calm and focus kids who can’t seem to stop moving.
If sensory issues, or needs as I’d prefer to call them, are the cause then giving your child opportunities to get the sensory input they’re seeking can may even decrease their need drive to keep excessively seeking out sensations.
That is pretty cool, right? As a pediatric occupational therapist, I have some tried and true sensory seeking strategies that are effective for a wide variety of kids. Of course, each child is unique, and how your child responds to particular sensory strategies will be unique, too.
Signs of Sensory Seeking Behavior
One of the most common ways that parents describe their sensory seeking child is: WILD.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a families house for the first time to hear them say, “You’ve never seen a kid like mine, they climb the furniture, run constantly, plow through other kids, and then, you would think they’d be exhausted, but they have trouble getting to sleep.”
Of course, the truth is I HAVE seen many kids like this! You aren’t alone.
Sensory seeking kids are often in constant motion and sometimes have a hard time playing with other kids because they are so rough or preoccupied with seeking sensory input. They also may have a hard time sitting down to focus on activities. Those activities can be anything from homework to eating dinner.
Kids that are always seeking sensory input may even be unaware of dangers other kids seem to notice. They may run into the street or a parking lot without a second thought or participate in some really scary behaviors like trying to climb the refrigerator.
Here are some more signs of sensory seeking behavior:
- Jumping, running, and crashing into other people or furniture.
- Hanging upside down all the time.
- Spinning around constantly.
- Climbing furniture and other high points in their environment unsafely.
- Licking inappropriate objects like the window, their hand, or blocks they’re playing with.
- Touching everything and everyone
- Loves getting messy and will enjoy putting mud, fingerpaint, or lotion all over their body
- Smells people and miscellaneous things in their environment
- Makes or enjoys loud noises
- Stares at spinning objects or brightly colored and flashing lights
Why Is Your Child a Sensory Seeker?
Why are some kids big sensory seekers? It’s all related to their using sensory processing, that’s the process in the brain that interprets all the sensations it receives. However, some kids have trouble focusing or sitting still for other reasons such as ADHD, food sensitivities, or other neurological difficulties.
From a sensory standpoint, sensory seeking if often closely linked to the sense of proprioception, or body awareness, and the vestibular sense, or movement. These senses allows our body to move through the environment effectively and stay balanced.
Sensory seeking kids are often not processing the normal sensations they receive to stimulate those sensory systems throughout the day and as a result, seek it out more. Meaning, they want activities that give them lots of proprioceptive and/or vestibular input.
Of course they can also do so for the other senses: vision, hearing, tasting, smelling, and hearing.
When a child has sensory processing difficulties that affect their daily life they may qualify for a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) diagnosis. It’s common for kids with Autism, ADHD, and anxiety to also have SPD or sensory needs. Many kids have some sensory processing issues though and don’t need a diagnosis.
How to Help Kids with Sensory Seeking Behavior
The good news is that you can help your child with their sensory seeking behavior and improve their attention, focus, and ability to calm down with opportunities to participate in sensory seeking activities.
For kids seeking sensory input that tend to need a chance to move their bodies. A targeted sensory activity can then be a productive or safe outlet at challenging times of the day, whether that’s mealtime, homework, or bedtime, for example.
Setting up sensory activities somewhat routinely (otherwise known as a sensory diet), may be helpful. Other sensory seekers may not want or benefit from a set schedule. What’s important is that you offer sensory activities when they need them, and watch to make sure those activities have helped them.
You can grab our free printable list of 25 Powerful Sensory Activities to have them handy!
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Powerful Sensory Seeking Activities
Most parents of sensory seekers are overwhelmed by and feel the constant movement interferes the most with their concentration, learning, and socialization.
Focusing on activities that provide vestibular and proprioceptive input will likely be the most helpful for these kids.
Proprioceptive activities involve anything with pressure to the muscles and joints, so actions like squeezing, hanging, climbing, and jumping give input to this sense. You can learn more about this powerhouse sense and find dozens of proprioceptive activities here, as well as on our Intro to Sensory page.
Vestibular activities involve anything with movement, and kids tend to seek that out by spinning, swinging, or climbing something high.
Here are powerful sensory seeking activities:
#1. Sensory Seeking Activity: Jumping
Any jumping activity is great for sensory seekers because it is loaded with tons of proprioceptive and vestibular input. You can let your child jump on the couch, bed, or a trampoline, which is one of my favorite sensory toys. It’s almost always my first recommendation for kids that are super active, rough, or climbing the walls.
Fun and Function gave me the Fold and Go Trampoline to try out, and we love it! All of my kids love it, especially my wild child. He initiates using it a lot on his own and if he seems antsy before bed or meals, I’ll have him jump on it for a few minutes before hand.
#2. Sensory Seeking Activity: Climbing
Climbing also stimulates proprioception and vestibular input! Using jungle gyms, monkey bars, and stairs in the home are great activities. I also love the fabric tunnel, which requires some adult help (or another child) to hold one end of the tunnel open. There’s a DIY version here, or you can purchase one ready to go here. A lot of deep pressure is also happening with the tunnel, which is very calming.
#3. Sensory Seeking Activity: Vibrating toys
Vibration gives a lot of proprioceptive input and some vestibular too, believe it or not. Not all kids like vibration, so you might want to try a small bug like this first (as a therapist, I’d always keep one in my bag), or if you know your kid responds well to vibration using this vibrating seat is perfect for meals, homework, story time, etc.
#4. Sensory Seeking Activity: Pressure
Squeezing into tight spaces like a designated cool down spot or behind the couch can achieve this, as well as big bear hugs. A body sock is a another simple tool you can use to help your child get pressure as they climb into a stretch sack and stretch out their arms and legs against the tight fabric. See my pics for the best body sock, and how to use them.
There will be times when a really active child won’t want to sit still for this, they may need to jump on the trampoline first or crawl through a tunnel a few times. If I were using the body sock, I would read bedtime stories in it or even put homework on a clipboard and let them complete in there.
Joint compressions is a cheap and quick way to give your child pressure too. Make sure you head to our joint compressions tutorial for a video demonstration, if you aren’t familiar with how to use them.
#5. Sensory Seeking Activity: Get Messy in a Sensory Bin
If your child loves to touch everything you can stimulate their tactile sense by giving them a large bin of a texture to play in. This could be in an empty bath tub, a baby pool, or an empty plastic container. Tactile sensory seekers often love shaving cream, slime, or dry rice. Get inspired with dozens of more sensory bin ideas.
You can also think outside of the sensory bin and focus on messy play in general. Some messy play ideas for seekers are making mud pies in the back yard, finger painting, or sculpting with kid friendly clay. Get more messy play ideas.
#6. Sensory Seeking Activity: Bouncing
An exercise ball is an inexpensive and indispensable sensory toy for sensory seekers. They can roll on it over their bellies, they can bounce up and down, and you can roll them on top and bounce them on top with their feet totally off the ground – they often LOVE THIS.
If you want to diversify your bouncing you can also check out a peanut shaped ball that makes it easy for kids of any age, but especially toddlers and preschoolers to sit on it while they sit at a table or in circle time.
Learn more about 7 sensory activities with an exercise ball.
#7. Sensory Seeking Activity: Scooter Board
Scooter boards are a simple toy and easy to store away, but they give powerful sensory input when a child rides one, especially on their belly! It’s often used in occupational therapy, but works great at home too. On a hard floor surface encourage them to push themselves around using the palms of their hands or while you pull them back and forth with a rope.
Anytime you give your child sensory input always make sure you’re watching their reaction and stop anytime they seem uncomfortable or have had enough.
#8. Sensory Seeking Activity: Obstacle Course
Want to keep your sensory seeker occupied while they their sensory system is getting what they need, combine all of these sensory seeking activities above into one. Here’s one example but there are countless options:
- Jump on the trampoline
- Grab some bean bags and put them on the scooter board as they follow the path you’ve indicated to…
- Bounce on the yoga ball 10 times
- Look for 3 hidden objects in a sensory bin full of dry rice
- Crawl through a tunnel
- Use a vibrating toy on their arms and legs
- Start over
You’d arrange these items in a loop or some sort of circuit and show your child how to go through it!
These sensory activities are do-able right? Try implementing some of these sensory seeking activities and see how your wild child responds to them, truly it can make all the difference for you and them!
If you want to learn how to leverage sensory activities to calm and focus your child get a free seat in my sensory workshop, (free workbook included)!
More About Sensory Activities
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 18 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.