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Sensory processing activities and top tips for families and schools

Here are a few top tips and some cost-free, or very cheap sensory-based activity ideas. Children must be supervised at all times

If you are at all concerned about the needs of a child or young person, please seek advice from a suitably qualified professional 

There are more free resources and links to information in this list of Speech and language, occupational therapy and SEND resources

Before you get started, here is some information on sensory processing that might be useful: by, Kim Griffin, Occupational Therapist

Tactile - Activity ideas involving touch

Fill a shoebox with rice, pasta, flour, etc.

  • Perhaps you could cover some small objects in the rice/pasta/flour and make a 'lucky dip'

Finger painting is great fun and also good for fine motor skills!

Make homemade play-dough.

Shaving foam fun!

  • You can buy this very cheaply in supermarkets, but make sure it's shaving foam rather than shaving gel
  • You could try hiding small toys or objects under the pile of shaving foam for them to find
  • Or, try putting some shaving foam on the palm of your hand, then clap your hands together to 'make it snow!'

Playing with ice

  • Mix a few drops of food colouring with water before freezing in ice-cube trays
  • Try using the coloured ice cubes to make pictures
  • You could put a few different coloured ice-cubes on kitchen roll and watch the colours spread and mix together as they melt.
But...be prepared to make a mess!

      Food sensitivity ideas 

      Indoor or outdoor picnics 

      • Have a small amount of a range of food on plates and have a relaxed picnic with the family, or with toys
      • Try not to put any pressure on the child to try any new foods, sometimes even licking, or touching the food can be a huge step
      • Perhaps they could feed you, or feed a toy. This might remove any concerns they have around pressure to taste the item themselves

      Creative play

      • Try using sauces as paint
      • Make a collage using different cereals
      • Threading with pasta tubes

        Auditory - Sound-based activity ideas

        The following ideas can also be fun methods to develop attention and listening skills

        Play a loud and quiet game

        • Prepare them in advance by explaining what the game involves and tell them you will play the sounds at different, but quiet levels and that the sounds won't get any louder
        • Ask the child to rate the levels of noise using a visual 1-10 scale. Move the source of the sound and (depending on their language ability) see if they can say if the sound is near or far

        Homemade musical instruments 

        • Make a few, simple, homemade instruments, one set for you, and one set for the child
        • Place a barrier up so that the child cannot see which instrument you are using, and ask them to make the same sound using an instrument from their set. Here are some ideas of how to make homemade instruments 
        • You could try asking them to identify if the sounds are long or short, loud or quiet, etc
        • You could take turns to say 'stop' and 'go' using the instruments

        Allow control over sounds by playing a listening game

        • Allow the child or young person to control the volume and/or switch the sounds on/off. Animal sounds might be a fun idea to try. Here's an app for Android devices and here's an app for Apple devices/IOS. Or, here's a video of vehicle sounds you could use instead
        • Or, you could try recording sounds in the environment together, and then finding images to match the sounds to make a listening/sounds bingo
        • Another idea might be to try using a bottle top as a pretend volume control button and ask the child or young person to adjust the volume of your voice by twisting it back and forth. This might be a fun way to teach them about voice volume control. Here's a free Apple/IOS app and here's a free Android app that might also be fun to use

        Olfactory - Smell-based activity ideas 

        Explore with smells
        • Try exploring with natural/nature smells before moving onto other smells such as perfume or air freshner sprays, as these can be overwhelming for those with smell-sensitivities, and they might result in negative reactions

         Make a smell-bingo game

        • Or, perhaps you could make one involving food smells to play whilst you are cooking

          Movement-based activity ideas 

          These can be helpful for children with proprioception (body awareness), vestibular, and coordination difficulties

          • Playing tug-of-war
          • 'Wheelbarrow' races, hopscotch or jumping-jacks

          • Musical bumps - using jumping/hoping etc whilst the music plays

          • Rolling races - Maybe they could roll towards an item to retrieve and roll back to place it in a pot

          • Ready-steady-go games that involve spinning, jumping, sitting down and standing up, etc

          More ideas for movement activities:

            Fine motor activities 

            Calming activities

            • Fill a shoebox with rice, beans, or sand for the child to run their fingertips or hands through

            • Do some structured movement. Here's a video that might help
            • Ask the child to lie down and roll a therapy ball over their arms and legs - remember to keep asking the child if they need more or less pressure and avoid the face and chest area 

            • Sensory massage. Here's a Facebook page offering massage stories
            • Self joint compressions such as: lifting themselves up from a chair whilst seated, Wall push-ups, pushing palms of their hands together as hard as they can and repeat x5. Here are some more ideas

            • Play calming music

            • Provide structure. This could be as simple as using countdowns, timers or having something pre-planned for the child to smoothly transition into

            PLEASE NOTE: There has been a great deal of concern around the safety of weighted blankets, and ideas such as tightly fitted bed covers. Please do not use these without individualised guidance from an occupational therapist. 

            Maze activity ideas involving a range of senses

            Lego maze

            If the child or young person enjoys playing with Lego, making a Lego maze could be a great way to keep them engaged

            • Once complete, place a marble at the start and see if you can guide it all the way through the maze to the exit by tilting/tipping the board. This is trickier than you might think!
            • Alternatively, you could try making a ball by screwing up some paper. Place the paper ball at the start of the maze and using a straw, see if the child can blow it around the corners and all the way to the exit

             

             

            • After placing the hands, feet, and special instructions at different stages of the maze, make sure you demonstrate what to do at each point. For example, when they should switch from jumping to hoping
            • Using a straw, you could try blowing paper balls through the maze. Or perhaps have a race to see who can roll balls through the maze in the quickest time

              Shoebox maze

              • Using the lid of an old shoebox, cut out some wide rectangular shapes which are approximately two-thirds of the width of the box in length.

              • Score along both of the long edges on each rectangle making them easier to fold upwards.

              • Then glue or tape a fold on each rectangle to the back of the shoebox, taking care to position them so they overhang the next one on a downwards slope.

              • Use small toy cars, lightweight balls or marbles, etc. to roll down the slopes until they reach the bottom.

              • It might help to reinforce the outside fold on each slope.

              • You could do this by threading some string through the fold and then threading this through the top of the shoebox to keep it upright.

              Paper-magnet Mazes

              • We used card rather than paper to make our paper maze as it made it more sturdy, but drawing it was tricky! If you don't have any card, you could use a paper plate instead
              • Once complete, hold a small magnet underneath the start of the maze and place a small magnetic item on top
              • Explain and demonstrate to the child how to use the magnet to guide the object through the maze
              • Initially, we added some 'dead-ends' to make it trickier, but we decided that might make it a bit too difficult, so we covered a few up. However, you could add dead-ends too and cover or reveal them depending on whether the maze is too easy or too tricky.

              Lining paper Maze

              • We've often used lining paper in sensory play, mainly for feet and finger painting but a roll of lining paper and some paint can result in a lot of fun! You will need some space to roll the paper out and it might be a good idea to try this one outside for a few (very messy) reasons!
              • Once you have your maze drawn onto the lining paper, you could try gently attaching some bubble wrap to the child's feet, then encourage the child to walk through the paint before going through the maze

              Paper Plate Mazes

              • Using a paper plate and some strips of paper, make a maze to roll a marble or small ball through
              • To add a bit of fun, each coloured hoop could represent a different number of points, which are scored when the marble runs through them. Or perhaps one of the colours could be a 'no-go' hoop which must be avoided!

              What to do with those leftovers?

              We had a lot of paper leftover and we don't like waste! So, we decided to cut the paper into small pieces to make a lucky dip

              • When you hide things beneath the coloured paper, see if the items can be identified by touch only. No peeking!

               

              Whilst some of the tubes were left whole, we cut others in half - joining them back together lengthways to make longer sections

               

              • You could make the ball run longer (and prettier!) by painting or colouring the cardboard tubes before attaching them to a door
              • Or perhaps glue some of the chopped up lucky dip paper to the outside of the tubes to make a mosaic pattern

              The hand and feet cut-outs also seemed far too good to waste.

              • You could try attaching the handprints to a door or a wall and encourage the child to do some 'wall push-ups' (which are a great way to encourage self-joint compressions)
              • Or, position the footprints on the floor to practice side-stepping
              • Perhaps you could use the cut-outs to guide the child through a treasure hunt maze - The possibilities are endless!

              We hope you all have a lot of fun!

              Top tips for sensory processing 

              • It is normal for sensory processing difficulties to morph and change over time. However, just when you think you have it nailed, the child or young person no longer benefits from a strategy that used to work like a dream! Therefore, it's often not a good idea to invest in specialist equipment, unless of course you have been advised to do so by an Occupational Therapist
              • Identifying individual needs and individualising support is always key, so if you use any sensory-based equipment, keep in mind that an item that worked well with one child, won't necessarily help another. In fact, in some cases, it might have the opposite effect. For example, vibrating cushions can help some children to focus better, but they can distract, or upset others
              • Sensory processing is closely linked to emotions. It's how we make sense of the world around us. It's how we learn. Therefore, if a child is struggling with processing the sensory information that is all around us, it is likely they will demonstrate this in ways that might appear to be behavior-based issues. For example, they might become upset, anxious, or angry. Or, they might react by withdrawing and 'shutting down'. However, the right support can really help
              • Children with sensory processing difficulties might not be able to recognise when they have reached a point of "too much" input, but providing structure can really help. This might be in the form of a visual timetable or a written/verbal list
              • Try to always provide an obvious end to activities, perhaps by using a countdown. However, keep in mind that if the activity is exciting for them, and therefore, 'alerting', they might need help to calm afterward
              • Pre-plan any activities, explain how the activity will progress, how long it will last, and monitor their responses carefully. Perhaps you could note down what they achieved, liked and disliked so you will have some information to adapt and to plan next time
              • Try to provide the child with control during sensory-based activities.  It can be frustrating if you have spent a long time setting something up for them to refuse to take part, but even watching you complete the task might provide them with a learning opportunity and an improved sense of confidence

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