Sensory Therapy at Home


Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

When my son turned one, his throttle got stuck on full speed ahead. He moved constantly, took off running on the sidewalk and never looked back, and lunged headlong down playground slides. Wheeee! He loved touching things, the sloppier the better. He made soup on the dining room linoleum when we weren’t looking, cracked eggs onto the piano, emptied the bathtub onto the floor a bowlful at a time, and knocked over objects just to hear them crash. Anything sloppy or squishable or fuzzy was irresistible. He was driven by his senses.

Since then, I’ve met other children like him, children who go hog-wild as their bodies and minds crave more, more, more sensation. You’ll know them by the haggard look in their mother’s eyes. If both of them survive the toddler years, they’ll be just fine.

On the other end of the normal spectrum, which incidentally is wide and forgiving, some children find sensory stimulation overwhelming, and shrink back from intense environments or unmanageable opportunities. You’ll find them plugging their ears a lot (too loud), pronouncing certain foods inedible (too crunchy/ too slimy/ too spicy/ too cheesy), melting into tears over clothing textures (too scratchy/ the tag is pinching me), and objecting to strong smells or loud noises (I can’t breathe/ take it away).

You might call the one side “sensory avoiding,” with the world too vibrant and loud, and the other side “sensory seeking,” where the jolt is never quite enough. We’ve had a variety of sensory issues in our home, but as I said, primarily sensory seeking. We needed to discover a lot of “sensing tools” for curbing attitudes, relieving pressure, bringing peace, and creating fun (mostly so that my houseplants could keep a few leaves, and I could stop scrubbing generous swooshes of maple syrup out of my carpet).

Our sensory seeking children lapped up every idea we had. Along the way, we also found that avoidant children who find particular sensory things deeply disturbing typically find others extremely soothing and pleasant. Only the caregiver, or the child himself, can tell which sensations will be pleasing and which will not, but it never hurts to offer or invite. Forcing, surprising, teasing, or insisting will only defeat the purpose. Childish sensitivities are often tangled up in genuine compulsions and fears.

Here’s our list of simple activities and helpful products to create good sensation for a child who needs it.

  • Take him outside as often as possible. Sticks and creeks and grass and mud are God-given sensory tools, nearly always available, low risk, and healthy. Dirty clothes are a small price to pay for hours of happiness.
  • Let him take extra baths – relax, play a lot in the water, have fun with bubbles or good toys. It’s a mostly-confined place to splash, and water is incredible.
  • Where sitting in one place is essential, such as school, family devotions, or quiet time, add good sensory feelings by allowing him to sit on a balance ball or an inflated balance disc, or with a weighted lap pad.
  • Make bedtime more calm and pleasant with a weighted blanket, soft stuffed animals, or a sequined pillow cover.
  • Turn on a sprinkler and let him run through it.
  • Dig up earthworms to hold.
  • Provide a mini trampoline to use up his energy before times of sitting, such as riding in the van or completing his homework. Ten minutes of exercise on a rebounder can help dramatically. Our private school bought one to keep in the first and second grade classroom for their high-energy students.
  • Assign him a corner of the garden or flowerbed to make his own. Give him a trowel and some seed packs, and don’t overmanage his methods. (You may need to transplant a few seedlings there while he’s napping, if his seeds made it halfway to China.) Or just provide pots for growing plants in smaller spaces.
  • Charm his need to fidget in church with an activities pillow or a DIY quiet book. (Find great tutorials, including no-sew versions, on YouTube.)
  • Give him a stress ball, fidget cube, or other small fiddley toy to keep in his pocket.
  • When it’s time to calm down, take ten minutes to run your fingers lightly through his hair, or over the bare skin of his face or arms.
  • Learn to hold your child snugly, with as much body contact as is comfortable, a warm but not panicked enclosure. This is good for snuggling times as well as for calming a meltdown. Learn how to do joint compressions.
  • Do the beach towel wrap: lay a big towel on the floor, have your child lie across the short end, and roll him up tightly like a burrito. It sounds silly but feels amazing, and usually everyone lines up for a turn, amid lots of laughter.
  • Keep big fuzzy blankets and soft cushions in your main living spaces.
  • Box up anything sensory from the outdoors and bring it inside. Toddlers can play for a whole morning on a towel-covered kitchen floor with a stainless steel bowl full of snow, and a few spoons and scoops. Same with sand, if you’re brave. Sans outdoorsy kinds of weather, you can use a cheap bag of dry rice or beans similarly, for measuring and scooping.
  • Let him play with ice cubes.
  • Make slime or Play-Doh. Let him help concoct as well as play with them. Homemade versions last longer and feel nicer.
  • Sign him up for helping with any messy dinner prep. Mixing meatballs with my hands is one of my least favorite cooking chores, and my son’s favorite.
  • Or just bake together – kneading bread dough, shaping homemade tortillas, rolling pie crust, and cutting out cookies. Coach him through making soup. Let him cut all your veggies for dinner, if you can trust him that long with the knife.
  • Find all the hands-on crafts you can. Finger paints and modeling clay and bubbles and sidewalk chalk. Put together lots of puzzles.
  • Maximize a family pet, something cuddly and soft to stroke. If you’re worried about him being unkind, get something small that can be caged up when he starts getting rough, like a hamster or (shhh) a mouse. Playtime with this pet could be a reward for gentleness with humans at other times of the day.
  • Create sniff tests for fun, using spices or baby food jars with the labels removed.
  • Provide musical instruments, real or makeshift. Pots and spoons to bang, shakers made with Tupperware and pebbles. Piano lessons and guitar chording.
  • Shop for clothes together to reduce battles over the feel of fabric. Honor a child’s texture preferences when you can – the warm and wrapped or the loose and cool. Soft or crisp. Cotton or silky. Or just browse through a fabric store fingering textures, and talking together about what you feel.
  • Visit a farm. Cows are great for sensation, calm and stolid and extremely slick at points.
  • Print scavenger hunts from the internet, with items to gather or photograph or touch or taste.
  • Bury tiny treats like M&M’s in dry pasta, and blindfold your child and have him find and eat them. It’s harder than it sounds.
  • Let him take before and after pictures of his room when it’s time to clean up. Seeing the difference helps, and show and tell is fun.
  • Offer a wide variety of music, both recorded and live. Play background tunes of diverse styles, from boisterous foreign language to soothing instrumental. Attend concerts and programs.
  • Exchange foot massages, back rubs, and relaxed times of hair brushing. My daughters love combing my husband’s hair – running a brush through it to make crazy styles, and spraying all over with water till it’s so soggy it drips.
  • Build with wooden blocks.
  • Make your outings sensational. The lakeshore, a children’s museum, the playground, a gravel pit.
  • Encourage the snipping up of the right kinds of paper (as opposed to the family Bible handed down from Grandma). Gather old magazines and newspapers. Let a preschooler scissors-cut to his heart’s content, showering the floor with snowflakes, but encourage an older child to cut out all the {whatever he finds}: animals, capital letter A’s, blue font, pictures of living things – as hard or easy as you’d like.

This list is just a start, but I hope it gets you thinking. Children who receive the sensory input they need will be far more relaxed: anchored by joy, ready to pay attention, and able to interact with others in meaningful ways.

And their moms (I’ve been there) may look a little less ragged.

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