If your child is completely “typical” can you use sensory tips and tricks to make your day go better? Yes, you can! While a sensory diet is essential for kids with Sensory Processing Disorder (or SPD), it is actually helpful for everyone. As an OT, I talk about sensory diets a lot, but today I’m going to try to steer away from too much jargon.
Today’s world is full of easy access to visual and auditory stimuli, like videos and computer games. Our eyes and ears take in a huge amount of information each day. What we don’t get as much is the inputs that affect our muscles, nerves, and bones inside our bodies. But we need those to feel good, too.
Helping your child get a variety of sensory inputs each day, can make them stronger, more alert, and happier. But, where should you start?
A child in motion is getting stimulation to their vestibular system that controls balance and coordination. Swinging is my favorite, but rocking, sliding, rolling and jumping are all great, too.
I wish that every child could start their day by doing things that get this system going. A trip out to play is ideal, but you can have your child bounce on an indoor trampoline or rock in a rocking chair for just a few minutes to help their brain get this type of food.
Kids need this kind of stimulation at other times during the day, as well, so that they can sit still when it comes time to read or write. If your child starts to get squirmy during lessons, take a break and get moving!
Once upon a time, most of us would have started our days with some farm chores. Carrying wood for a fire or water to cook with would have gotten our bodies a ton of the type of deep muscle input that helps us learn to control our bodies.
This type of input necessarily wakes up the brain and body so that we don’t spill the water or drop the wood on our toes. In small doses, heavy work can help a child’s brain wake back up to stay on task or start a new lesson.
You can have your child do chores, like taking out the trash, to get this input. You can have them do weight-bearing exercises like push-ups. But you can also engage some of the hardest working muscles of the body and have your child use their jaws. Chewing gum or eating crunchy snacks wakes up the brain. I recommend experimenting to see what works, and finding several different ways to get some heavy work into your child’s day.
Hugs, massages and rough play give kids another level of sensory input that makes them aware of where their body is in space. This kind of input is usually soothing and can help a kid who is anxious to calm down.
I like to start every school day with a good long, firm hug with each child, and I repeat these several times a day. We also keep a weighted stuffed toy nearby for lessons that are stressful. It can lay on the child’s shoulder or lap to provide some soothing deep pressure. For some kids, a shoulder rub or rolling around on the floor can also help them regroup.
Putting it All together
Feeding your child’s brain every kind of sensory stimuli every day is as important as feeding them from every food group. The human brain and body are designed to work together to explore the world and create learning. Choosing learning activities that engage not only the brain, but the body too, is best. This type of learning is often called multi-sensory. When your child not only hears a story and sees the pictures, but also acts it out, and uses play dough to recreate the scene, they are engaging several more parts of their brain. This means the lessons are more likely to be understood and remembered.
While you can take breaks from learning to do sensory activities, it is even better if you can find ways to make them part of the lesson. Learn to subtract by eating crunchy carrot sticks or pretzels. Build the Great Wall of China with blocks. Engage your child’s whole body, and you will be engaging their whole brain, too.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.