Sensory tools for kids
Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, our lives have been altered in many different ways. Disruptions of daily life and routines can cause our body undue stress. Stressful experiences or the presence of sustained stresses, such as during these unprecedented times, can wreak havoc on the nervous system. Amid school and extracurricular activities closure, children are deprived of their needs for sensory input. Rather, they are stuck at home, with less than optimal sensory stimulation they were used to prior to this pandemic. Children react to stress differently than adults. They tend to somatocize their stress within their body and give meaning to emotions and feelings through their bodily sensations. It makes sense then to utilize their body and senses as vessels to alleviate any accumulating stress or discord in their body. As such, their bodies and senses can be utilized to mitigate the effect of stress which subsequently fine-tune and regulate the nervous system. Engaging in sensory experiences can also activate and strengthen the vagal nerve by calming the autonomic nervous system through stimulation of the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system.
To glean upon the intricate interplay between sensory input and our capacity to regulate stress, it is useful to have some understanding of what sensory processing is and how our senses function. Sensory processing is the ability to take in sensory information, process that information, and then produce an output response to function efficiently and effectively in the environment. Efficient sensory processing allows the central nervous system to regulate such things as attention and activity level by enabling one to attend to salient stimuli, filter out irrelevant stimuli, and modify the amount of stimulation one is exposed to. Stress can have a direct impact on sensory processing capacity. During stressful situations, your child’s ability to process sensory input can be different from when they are in a calm/restful state. Deep tactile input, deep pressures as well as proprioceptive input are especially pivotal to restore balance to the nervous system. Deep breaths, humming, and singing is known to stimulate the vagus system, which can improve arousal state.
We all know the five basic senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. These five systems are important to everyday well-being in everyone, two other senses that are less talked about, but are just as important. These are the vestibular and proprioceptive systems. The tactile or touch (skin) sensory system has many vital functions, including providing us with the ability to know what an object is without looking (tactile discrimination) and identifying temperature and pain. Deep tactile input is calming and organizing for the body. It releases dopamine, which combats the effect of adrenaline and cortisol that is released when the child is in a high stress/fight or flight state. Movement or the vestibular system consists of parts of the inner ear and related central nervous system structures that perceive and interpret changes in head position. It automatically coordinates movements of one's eyes, head, and body. Activities that provide vestibular input are activities that changes the position of the head in relationship to gravity. The vestibular system is the first sensory system to develop and is therefore the foundation for all other sensory systems. For children that are over-reactive to vestibular input, linear vestibular activation is the first type of movement provided as it is the least intense type of movement. It is important to follow all vestibular input with heavy work as this can help reduce any dysregulation that may occur as a result of vestibular input. The proprioceptive system provides information related to the muscular and skeletal systems and, therefore, the position of one's body. Proprioceptive input, or "heavy work" activities, are activities that challenge a child to move against resistance. These include pushing, pulling, climbing, carrying, log rolling, etc. Proprioceptive input provides organizing stimuli to the nervous system which can help with motor planning and body awareness, improve attention, and increase muscle tone. This calming and organizing input can also combat an aroused state. The regulating effects of 15 minutes of proprioceptive input can lasts 2- 4 hours depending on the child and the intensity of the input. Vision consists of both the motor function of the eye as well as perception of visual information. It is also a protective sense which offers information about what is happening around us. The auditory system consists of hearing, speech, and language, the child's response to sound, and their ability to perceive the spoken word and follow directions.
Included in this blog are some simple sensory tools you can try to help regulate and decrease stress to the child’s nervous system. It is crucial to engage in multiple sensory systems' activities every 3 hours to notice their positive effects on the child's nervous system. Finding the most appropriate sensory experience at the right amount is the key. Examples of selected daily activities are included at the end of this blog.
Sensory regulation tools
Visual schedule as organization
· Have a visual schedule. Visual schedules are an effective way to help children manage challenges with focus, task execution and transitions. A visual schedule would be helpful for the child to outline daily events and also to break down daily routines such as the morning and bedtime routines. A visual schedule can be an important component in regulation so the child can know what is expected and when, it brings a sense of order and predictability into the home. A good companion to a visual schedule is a tool to track time.
· Provides a daily schedule to organize the child’s day. Start with one part of the day and make a list of 3-5 tasks that the child is required to do.
· Adding pictures to be more specific about the task can improve accuracy and follow through.
· Different tools for executive function tasks can be found here: http://efpractice.com/shop
Other strategies for the home
· Try to schedule calming activities in between more demanding activities to maintain the nervous system at a calm state.
· Prepare auditory and visual materials ahead of time to assist in transitions. Timers, clocks with alarms, watches with a timer and concrete transitional objects may be helpful during transitions.
· Modeling self-care and attunement to your own needs for sensory activities.
· Keep a “sensory backpack” to use during “sensory emergency”. Fill the backpack with items such as massagers, different essential oils, headphones and regulating music, a soft weighted toy animal with different textures, a book with different textures, play dough, pipe cleaners, chewy toys, and pop beads.
· Have an area in a house designated for a calming, quiet sensory oasis. Have it be a darker corner in the house filled with tactile activities (such as water beads, kinetic sand, theraputty, and weighted blanket).
· Provide daily access to dry sensory play materials (make a bin filled with different tactile items).
In cooperating sensory tools into self-care routine
· Listen to calm music (ex: light classical music, piano covers of Disney songs)
· Play with a fidget
· Eat crunchy snacks
· Sit with weighted blanket and/or weighted toy
· Carry a Sensory backpack during trips: massager, a soft toy animal with different textures, balloon, scratchy stickers, lavender, lemon and minty smell, silly putty or play dough, headphone and music, fidget stuffs: rubber coiled key chains, pipe cleaners, wiki sticks, chewy toys, stretchy band, coil shoe string, plastic pop bead, and koosh ball)
Example of daily sensory activities
- Animal walks
- A magic carpet ride
- Push something heavy
- Play in the water or swimming or extended bath
Moore, K.M (2008). The Sensory Connection. Self-regulation workbook. Learning to use sensory activities to manage stress, anxiety and emotional crisis. Franconia, NH: The Sensory Connection Program.
Yack, E., Aquilla, P., Sutton, S (2015). Building bridges through sensory integration (3rd edition). Arlington, TX: Sensory world.