By Kaley Sweeney MOTR/L and Zibby Greenebaum MOTR/L, RYT-200
In occupational therapy we use sensory play to help kids effectively engage with and process the world around them in order to learn and grow. We all (kids AND adults) have our own unique patterns of sensory preferences and needs. When it comes to engaging your child in sensory play, Kaley Sweeney, MOTR/L and Zibby Greenebaum MOTR/L, RYT-200 both recommend, first and foremost, regular daily outdoor play. No matter what your child’s sensory preferences, patterns or needs are, they can nearly always be met by a trip outside! That could mean going for a walk, playing on a swing set, riding a bike, digging for worms, jumping in puddles, and much more!
Here are some other structured sensory play activities that we love and some ways to grade them up and down to meet your needs. The activities listed include sense of: Taste and Smell, Vision and Touch, Sound, Proprioception (awareness), and Vestibular.
The Tastes and Smells of Spring
Since it’s that time of year, let’s go with the smells of Spring. Materials can include: a freshly picked flower, a few blades of grass, dirt, a lemon slice, some hand soap, food fresh out of the oven or microwave, a tea bag, Mom or Dad’s scented lotion; or, items that can be tasted such as: fresh fruit, a piece of chocolate, a pretzel, a leafy green, a carrot, a raisin, a mint, spice containers, you can also use a safe scent or essential oil in a bottle or container stored safely.
If your child is comfortable, have them close their eyes or gently blindfold them. Have them smell and taste items then turn it into a guessing game using only the smell and taste senses. Discuss which smells and tastes are alarming (or alerting) and which ones are calming.
If your child is uncomfortable with their eyes covered then that is fine, too! This activity is great for building language and executive functioning skills. Categorize the tastes into salty, sweet, bitter, sour. If your child struggles with new foods or varied diets, simply have them smell and lick the food without eating it. This can help build comfort while trying new foods. As the adult, try to model the activity first for your child and use lots of vocabulary. For example, when tasting the lemon say, “This tastes sour and smells so fresh, its a little bit wet because of the juice in it”. You can do this again and again with each new item!
Sound – Easter Egg Shaker
Plastic Easter eggs or small containers of some sort. Little Rubbermaid containers, medicine containers that are empty and clean or spice jars are great examples. Filling materials you will need are items like rice, beans, lentils, rocks, pebbles, marbles, sand, legos, beads, small nuts or bolts.
Washi tape, electrical or painters tape works best! You can also use glue, if you have time to let dry.
Fill your leftover Easter eggs or small containers with some of the materials suggested above. Tape or Glue them shut. Listen to the different tones/pitches of sound that the materials make. Incorporate the eggs into a variety of activities.
- Hide egg shakers and go find them then shake them when you do.
- Sort them by sound, color, or size.
- Shake them to a beat or rhythm (you can do this with another person or to a song).
- Shake them using prepositional phrases such as “up high”, “above your head”, “behind your back” “under your legs” and “beside your ear” to build listening skills, a sense for following directions, and vocabulary!
- If it is difficult for your child to grasp the egg you can also tape it to a plastic spoon or fork for easier shaking.
Vision and Touch – Bug Search and Rescue
Bug search and rescue is an activity that engages the senses of vision and touch. When Kaley and Zibby were thinking of activities to share with you, they quickly realized they both had versions of this activity set up in their home for their own children. It’s a big hit for many kids in wide age ranges!
Painters tape or masking tape, small toys (plastic bugs, flowers, birds, or other small toys), an empty Tupperware container and something to fill it (same as above: lentils, beans, dirt, rice, rocks, grass, shredded paper or easter grass).
- Fill your empty Tupperware container with your filling of choice to make a habitat for your toy bugs. Hint: Kaley’s habitat is currently made of lentils and Zibby has a small bin filled with pinto beans.
- Tape your chosen toys to the wall, windows or other surfaces in your home.
- Ask your child to go save the toys and then return them to their habitat!
- Then, let your children play with the toys in their habitat. It keeps your kids occupied and teaches them to care for others.
- Try taping the toys throughout multiple rooms in your home for more active kiddos.
- Encourage your children to stage the taped toys for each other.
- Try taping them to the floor if you have a child working on engaging in tummy time. Caution: closely supervised if toys present a choking hazard.
- Fill your habitat with dirt or another messy filling and have your children wash their toys in soapy water once they’ve found them all! It can be helpful to have a shower curtain or towel under the bin, or to place it on a bathroom floor or in the bath tub to contain messes.
- Add tweezers or other fine motor tools to the habitat to promote fine motor development.
Proprioception: Sidewalk Chalk Obstacle Course
Sidewalk chalk is a wonderful activity to engage your child’s sense of proprioception. Proprioception is your child’s awareness of their body in space. As pediatric therapists, we frequently incorporate proprioceptive or “heavy work” activities into our occupational therapy sessions to improve a child’s ability to self-regulate and coordinate movements.
Chalk, a sidewalk or driveway and puzzle.
- Draw ‘X’, a long line, three circles (the circles in this picture are supposed to be Lilly pads!) and four squares on your chalk surface as shown in the picture below.
- Set up a puzzle that your child likes at one end of your obstacle course then place all of the puzzle pieces at the opposite end.
- Demonstrate to your child what they will do at each part of the course. In the photo of the sidewalk obstacle course pictured below the child did five jumping jacks on the ‘X’, walked on the line like a balance beam, frog jumps between our (beautifully sketched!) Lilly pads, then hopped on one foot to get through the squares. You can think of actions that may be a better fit for your child. The options truly are endless!
- Have your child pick up one puzzle piece (or two, or five, or whatever number you decide) to bring through the obstacle course and they can carry it with them for their first turn; when they get to the end they can put their piece(s) in the puzzle before they return to the beginning!
- Stuck indoors? You can create most of these shapes on a floor with painters tape or masking tape. You can also add couch cushion obstacles, incorporate stuffed animals, indoor slides/trampolines, create textures on the floor to walk on with bubble wrap. Have some fun and get creative with your obstacle courses.
- Too easy? Add more obstacles. In occupational therapy, we often start with 2-4 obstacles but your child may be ready for more!
Vestibular – Home Swing with Yoga
Large blanket, a couch, or floor space – and some parental assistance!
Using a large blanket, parents can make a makeshift swing no matter where they may be! The child is safely inside the blanket and parents hold each end tightly and sway back and forth. Linear motion is calming. You can use the same blanket or a towel to pull your child across the floor for movement based input.
Alternatively you can achieve inversion and movement for the vestibular system by engaging in yoga poses or hanging the body or head.
A long, woven baby wrap or extra long blanket or tablecloth can be tied around the table to make a hammock. The child can sit inverted with feet up on the back of the couch to let their head hang off of the couch cushion. Parents can hold their child in a cradled position and provide spinning or linear rocking with little to no materials needed!
Engage your senses all month long!
Use #OTMonthCORA in your social media posts to continue to show our OTs appreciation during the month of April and beyond. Their passion and dedication to serving children and adults across the lifespan is inspiring in so many ways!