The Sensory Bounce Therapy Blog:
Sensory Processing, Motor and Social Skills Resources
for Parents of Special Needs Children

Building Your Backpack with Therapeutic Activities

Part One: CALMING Activities

boy in lap for web

When might your child need calming?
She had a morning of fun playing with a friend, but it’s time to go and your happy but over-stimulated child has a huge meltdown and can’t calm down. You need to be able to pull out a calming strategy for this, or any, situation from your backpack of tricks.

Where do I start?
Most calming activities are based on proprioceptive and/or vestibular input. And other effective strategies are visual (seeing), aural (hearing), olfactory (smelling), gustatory (tasting), and tactile (touching).

Remember, the proprioceptive system, located in our muscles and joints, assists in controlling responses to sensory stimuli, which is why one swaddles a baby. Proprioceptive input can be provided through resistance activities, weightbearing activities, moving heavy items or deep pressure. It is most effective when the child is actively engaged as opposed to receiving passive input provided by an adult.

And the vestibular system, located in the inner ear, provides feedback as to where our body is in space. Vestibular input, provided through movement, can be a great tool to calm the nervous system, which is why one slowly rocks a baby to calm him or her.

What can I use?
A variety of tactics and tools, including:
• Rockers
• Swings
• Therapy balls
• Trampolines
• Heavy work for the body
• Deep pressure massage, compression
• Breathing
• Mouth comforts
• Tactile bins
• Light-up toys
• Sound machines and music
• Scent
• Retreat spaces

Should I buy a fancy rocking chair?
No! Anything from a child’s rocking chair, to your old nursing rocker, to your lap will work the same way to help your child reach a calm state. All you need is gentle, slow, linear, rhythmic rocking with your child on your lap.
Won’t swinging just rev my child up more?
Similar to rocking, slow, linear, rhythmic swinging can calm down a child. Spinning may be either calming or alerting; you will have to experiment to see what works for your individual child. Every tactic isn’t going to work for your child and that’s okay; you are building an entire repertoire.
How do I use a therapy ball to calm my child?
Again, you will have to experiment with different types of input. Have your child:
• Sit on the ball and bounce gently
• Sit on the ball and rock side to side
• Sit on the ball and move it around in gentle circles
• Lay over the ball on his stomach with hands on the ground and press into the ground
• Lay on the ground while you “squish” her underneath the ball
And, therapy balls come in a range of sizes and colors, so you can involve your child in choosing one — the more invested s/he is in the process, the more likely it is to be successful.

Do I just have my child jump randomly on a trampoline?
Try big jumps. Experiment to see what works. 

What is heavy work for the body?
Another way to give deep, calming input to muscles and joints is by working them. Here are some activities for your child to try, using ordinary household objects:
• Wear a heavy backpack or carry a box/bag filled with toys or books (obviously, within reason — you don’t want to have your child wear or carry anything that is not size and weight appropriate. If you are not sure, please ask your child’s physician for a weight limit.)
• Push a vacuum cleaner or wheelbarrow, play with push and pull toys and games, move furniture, knead dough
• Squeeze a foam ball, clay, play doh, putty, koosh ball, pinky ball, etc.

How can I safely provide deep pressure input?
Massage, deep pressure, compression, and just plain hugging can all be comforting and calming. Note: if your child is hypersensitive to touch, you need to approach this carefully. Please ask your child’s physician or occupational therapist for specifics, including using weighted items such as blankets, lap pads, vests, etc., and/or compression garments and body socks to provide pressure. You can start experimenting by wrapping your child up snugly in a blanket or large beach towel.

How does breathing help calm my child? Isn’t s/he breathing all the time?
Breathing is one of the “power regulators” and is an important factor in the ability to pay attention because enough oxygen needs to be delivered to our brains. A lot of children do not breathe deeply enough to get a lot of oxygen (possibly due to posture, anxiety, etc.). Deep breathing lowers stress in the body, sending a message to the brain to calm down and relax.

Here are some breathing activity ideas to do with your child:
Use straws to blow feathers, pom poms, and ping pong balls. You may want to cut the straws in half to make it easier for the child to aim at the target.

What are mouth comforts?
Like breathing, the mouth is another power regulator. Sucking and chewing input gives strong deep pressure input to the mouth and brain, and relaxes your child. Older children can use age-appropriate objects, such a sports bottle, straw, gum, sucking candies, etc. — think of chewing gum or chewing on a straw as heavy work for the mouth. Sweet or bland foods are calming, too.

What is a tactile bin and where can I get one?
Scooping, pouring, and sifting sand-like materials is calming and soothing. You can make your own tactile bin by filling an ordinary plastic bin with dried rice, beans, waterbeads, salt, sand, smooth pebbles, etc., and have your child use cups, funnels, ladles, etc. to scoop, pour and sift.

Tell me more about light up toys.
Simple light toys in muted colors can provide a soothing atmosphere, especially when you pair them with soft music.

What kind of music, or other sounds, can help my child relax?
Again, this is an area where you will have to experiment, since different types of music and sounds can affect people differently in terms of being either calming or alerting. If there is already a lot of other auditory input, music might just be an added stressor. In other situations, adding a steady, rhythmic beat could be very relaxing. Sound machines can add soothing ‘white noise’ or be distracting and overwhelming. You will have to figure out what works through trial and error.

What sorts of scents are calming and how do I use them?
Another area for trial and error. Start with traditionally calming scents like lavender, rose, and vanilla. You can use (unlit) scented candles or potpourri in a child-safe container, and/or place scented oils or extracts on a cotton ball in a small container with holes in the lid. Try to pair calming scents with calming activities, like bath or winding down for bed.

What constitutes a retreat space?
A cozy, quiet and comfortable child-size nook. Perhaps a small playhouse or play tent with pillows, blankets, a beanbag chair, to be used only for quiet activities such as reading or regaining composure/control when feeling overwhelmed.

Warding off a meltdown before it happens
If you build regular calming times into the day where you provide proprioceptive activities and help your child to slow down and relax, you should be able to prevent sensory overload before your child becomes overwhelmed. Remember, activities do not need to take much time at all; short, frequent activity breaks are often more helpful in maintaining optimum balance.

In general, think of activities which will offer your child’s muscles and joints “heavy work,” and provide them in a calm, soothing atmosphere. Speak softly, and make all input slow, steady, linear, and predictable. Play rhythmic music with a steady beat; use firm, steady, pressure touch; big hugs; offer snacks that are bland or sweet; dim the lights; surround your child with deep colors.

Looking ahead:
Many activities for calming also help for alerting. And many will have different effects on different children at different times, or even on the same child at different times, since responses will vary depending on if your child is tired or not; in a good or bad mood; what his/her blood sugar levels are at that moment; as well as other factors of the immediate situation (noise, lights, crowds, etc.). In the next post, we will discuss alerting activities to add to your backpack of tools. You will most likely need both calming and alerting strategies to keep your child regulated.

What strategies have you used that work to calm your over-stimulated sensory child? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, let me know there or via email what topics you would like to discuss or hear more about.

Feel free to share or quote from this blog (with attribution, please, and if possible, a link), and to repost on social media.

I look forward to hearing from you!


All the best,

About Miriam:
Miriam Skydell MS, OTR/L is a pediatric OT with 30 years experience and a strong commitment to empowering every child and every family with the skills, confidence and emotional stability necessary for a meaningful, independent life. In addition to her Masters degree from NYU (1986) and membership in the AOTA (American Occupational Therapy Association), Miriam is a licensed Interactive Metronome®,  HWT (Handwriting Without Tears®), and TLP (The Listening Program®) provider.

Miriam performs preschool screenings, contracts experienced OTs, PTs and STs to schools, helped implement the HWT curriculum, and lectures extensively for parent and support groups and at teacher conferences for public and private schools throughout New Jersey. Through her private practice in Fair Lawn, Miriam Skydell and Associates, established in 1995, Miriam has helped countless children with a wide range of diagnoses improve functional living skills, manage the impact of sensory processing dysfunction, and meet their individual potentials.