Sensory Integration Activities:
Treatment That Works
Skills That Matter
Sensory Integration Activities are the lifeline to providing and achieving the necessary challenges for your child so they maximize:
intellectual, social, and emotional development
the development of a positive self-esteem
a mind and body which is ready for learning
positive interactions in the world around him
the achievement of normal developmental milestones
The great news is… sensory integration activities are unbelievably fun and a necessary part of development for any child, whether they have a sensory processing disorder or not. Sensory integration activities are activities that should be used with any child if normal sensory development is one of your goals (hint… it should be).
From the womb into adulthood, our neurological systems are developing and processing an overwhelming amount of sensory information every day.
Our system must then interpret this information and make it ready to be tolerated and used for specific purposes.
If this normal developmental process is hindered in any way, it can cause detrimental effects. Proper intake and use of sensory input is absolutely critical to a child’s maturation process and the building of core, foundational skills. I certainly can not stress this enough… it is that important!
The best part about sensory integration activities is the creative fun you can have coming up with ideas, playing with your child using sensory input, or purchasing unique toys and products anyone would love! (I’ll be honest, sometimes adults need and love these products as much as, if not more than, the child!)
In fact, because these treatment activities are so fun, creative, and unique, it often doesn’t even look like “therapy”. That is why we, as Occupational Therapists are a great profession… it is almost like turning work into play.
Children just think they are having fun when they are actually working strenuously at building essential skills with their bodies and better neurological systems.
It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, consistency and persistence, but in the end, you will have a thriving child who can regulate sensory input much more effectively.
The variety of sensory integration activities is endless… only limited by your creativity and imagination! The good news is… because we, as professionals, treat children with sensory processing disorders, as well as children just trying to meet normal developmental milestones, AND we treat them in a variety of settings, we have found thousands of activities to address sensory integration / sensory processing needs!
I truly wish I could share with you every possible activity. But, seeing as that would be a daunting and impossible task, I will instead talk about some of the most basic, most popular, most requested, fun and proven to work sensory integration activities. This, in itself, will give you a solid foundation for treatment, an understanding of why they are used, and you will be well on your way to enhancing and maximizing your child’s potential!
Bear in mind, each of the following activities are in no particular hierarchy and most of them will have articles, e-books, products or merchants that they will point you to (any not listed will be coming soon!).
Below is just a brief introduction to each of the sensory integration activities. You will find more information throughout this site and through the hundreds of links provided. Well, let’s go!
For An Indispensable activity guide for kids with SPD check out The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, Revised Edition: Activities for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder … Highly Recommended!
Sensory Integration Activities:
1. Play Doh, Gak, Glop, Funny Foam, etc…
Children need and love play doh and messy play, unless they have tactile defensiveness that is. There are so many versions of play doh, from pre-package to homemade, scented to unscented, textured to non-textured, cooked to uncooked. You name it, I have found a recipe for it. Check out Play Doh Recipes… here you will find dozens of fun recipes which make tactile experiences messy and fun!
Children need to touch a variety of textures and play with them to develop normal tactile processing. If your child will not play with messy items, it is even more important that you continue to find fun and creative ways to introduce these to them.
Check out the SPD Symptoms Checklist to find out if your child shows signs of tactile dysfunction.
You will also want to take a look at General Treatment Guidelines for helpful hints on how to introduce these materials to your child safely and effectively so they can learn how best to process this input.
Need modeling dough or accessories to use with it? Visit The Crayola Store for additional fun products to use!
2. Heavy Work Activities:
These types of activities are imperative for children who have difficulty regulating their arousal levels. They are the crashers, the jumpers, the leg shakers, the ones that can’t ever seem to sit still. Boy, can they try your patience as a parent, teacher or even therapist! Regular heavy input into their neurological systems WILL help calm them down.
The premise behind these activities is to help their bodies receive
regular input into their muscles and joints in the most appropriate ways so they can get the input they crave and settle their bodies down.
You will see and hear a lot about heavy work activities. Often these activities will include using weights, weighted products, jumping, bouncing, rocking, pushing, pulling, swinging and being “squished”.
All kids need this! But, our children with under-reactive neurological systems will need it even more. These activities are truly used for most sensory processing issues and can have an amazing affect on the nervous system for regulation and modulation.
Hint: Always best to precede a sit down task with a heavy work activity.
Check out an extensive list of Heavy Work Activities I have compiled. Have fun trying them all! These activities should indeed be a big part of your daily sensory diet. Also, check out my Heavy Work Equipment And Activities Store for jumping, bouncing, moving and rocking products, as well as books for great game ideas!
Digging and playing in the sand is also a great way to give your body heavy input (as well as tactile experiences).
3. Sleep Programs / Products:
Children and adults with sensory processing difficulties often have difficulty settling down for sleep and regulating sleep/wake cycles.
Products and activities to try include…
heavy work activities prior to bed
or helpful hints for getting infants to sleep, with The Baby Sleep Solution
And, check out my article, Helping Babies Sleep for tips and resources for you and your little ones.
4. Sand And Water Play:
Playing in the sand or water provides essential yet fun ways to experience necessary tactile input. Use your creativity, get plenty of towels, and have fun filling these tables with sand, rice, shaving cream, water, or any textured substance you can think of. Of course, put little toys in as well to encourage exploration.
5. Vestibular Movement:
Children NEED to move! For some it is difficult due to fears, for others they just can’t seem to get enough. Check out the Sensory Processing Disorder Symptom Checklist to find out if your child shows signs of vestibular and/or proprioceptive disorders. Vestibular movement (and proprioceptive input) can rev you up or calm you down. Either way, this input is necessary and will be a critical component to therapy.
Here are some suggestions for movement experiences…
therapy balls (bouncing or lying on them with someone helping you)
Aromatherapy is a wonderfully therapeutic way to address children with
sensory processing disorders (or even without) who seek out certain smells or are hypersensitive to smells.
Through aromatherapy products, including aromatherapy machines, oils, candles, diffusers etc., you can help your child tolerate or drown out smells, or use them to relax and calm.
They are a great relaxing OR stimulating tool, depending how, where, and when they are used and which smells you choose (for example; while
cinnamon might be stimulating, lavender may be soothing).
Hint: For children who are highly sensitive to smells have them carry a bottle of aromatherapy oil in their pocket to smell when intolerance hits (peppermint often works well).
Check out aromatherapy machines for more information and products to use.
7. Massagers, Vibrating Toys And Products:
Vibration is an essential tool when doing sensory integration activities and therapy. You will rarely find an Occupational Therapist working with children who have sensory processing disorders without vibration products and toys. They can be used in many ways to calm or stimulate. Vibration is a critical sensation which, for some, may take months or years to tolerate.
Here are some suggestions/products/ideas…
handheld fun animal massagers to use on whole body (except stomach!)
vibrating baby seats (at The Baby Store )
8. Wilbarger Brushing Protocol:
Warning: This is a widely used but highly specialized treatment used only under the direction of a trained Occupational Therapist.
It requires the use of a surgical brush and very specific instructions on how to brush the child at regular intervals throughout the day.
However, it is one successful method of treating children with tactile
defensiveness and sensory regulation issues. One of the biggest reasons to use it is to desensitize the skin so touch sensations can be more easily tolerated. It works well if done correctly, consistently and under supervision of a trained professional.
9. Recipes And Hints For Picky Eaters:
Trust me, I KNOW how frustrating a “picky eater” can be… I have one! See my I’ve Been There Page to see what me and my child have been through!
But, there ARE things we can do to help treat these children and get them tolerating more foods and textures. Nothing pleasant about the old gag reflex is there!
There are treatments available for desensitization and decreasing anxiety. For more on this check out my Oral Sensitivities Article and/or Picky Eater Articles. Or, click here for a GREAT resource to get you started… Munchkin Menus For Picky Eaters!
10. Play Tunnels And Tents:
Both of these have many uses as part of sensory integration activities. Again creativity is key!
The following are just some of the ways to use them…
use the tunnels as an active gross motor and bilateral motor
coordination activity just by having the child crawl through them.
create a tactile experience by placing different textured objects or
carpet squares inside the tunnel.
shake the tunnel up (as in an earthquake) while the children are in
it for increased proprioceptive input and vestibular reactions.
use play tents as a safe haven for children who are overwhelmed by
sensory stimuli or as a sensory controlled environment for napping,
resting or reading. (You can place soft pillows, blankets, headphones with relaxing music, relax/stress balls, lava lamps, rope lights etc. inside for a relaxing environment)
Click here for more information on, and a selection of, play tunnels and tents.
11. Proprioceptive Activities:
These activities are almost endless in choices. Proprioception refers to input to the muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons and connective tissue. It refers to motor control and planning, body awareness, grading of movement (knowing how “hard” or “soft” to perform a task), and postural stability.
If the proprioceptive sense is not working well, it will be difficult to move in smooth, coordinated, and properly graded movements.
These children will have difficulty with both gross and fine motor tasks such as riding a bike, writing, walking, crawling, or playing sports. Some children also require additional proprioceptive input just to keep their bodies calm, organized, and arousal levels regulated.
The proprioceptive sense is a HUGE area to evaluate and treat in children with sensory processing difficulties. It is an extremely common area for children to show signs of dysfunction in, and is often one of the earliest warning signs of a problem. Don’t ignore it please!
Click Here For Fun Proprioceptive Games And Activities
12. Sensory Rooms:
AAAAH, this is my favorite one!
Whether you have a sensory processing disorder or not, I firmly believe every house, clinic, school, rehab facility, nursing home etc. should have a sensory room!
Couldn’t we all use a little more help and time to relax and unwind every day??? Once you learn about these rooms and the AWESOME products you could surround yourself with, you might just be longing for one too!
I must admit, one of my “dreams” is to have my bedroom (or a special room in the house) be a sensory room of pure delight and relaxation!
Now for the fun… what can you put in a sensory room? It definitely will depend for what and whom you are using it. It will also depend how much money and space you have available (bummer, I know).
Here are a few ideas…
For Pure Relaxation:
Recommended SPD Resources