The main categories of sensory diet activities
The fundamental approach to a sensory diet is the same whether the diet is for a toddler, a school-age child, a teenager, or even an adult. You would use the same methods/strategies, with different sensory activities, to alert or calm the senses.
Proprioceptive input (from joints and muscles) can come from carrying, pushing, and pulling heavy objects (including your own weight, like when you hang from a bar).
Vestibular input (the sense of movement) can come from spinning, swinging, and hanging upside down.
Tactile input comes from so many sources: light touch, deep pressure, texture, temperature, vibration, and pain. You receive tactile input through your skin, both on your body and inside your mouth.
Visual input comes from all around you as well. You can add colors and light to intensify the input, and remove visual clutter to reduce the input.
Auditory input also is always all around you. You can add input by playing music or sounds, and reduce input by using noise-canceling headphones or earplugs.
Olfactory input (smell) comes in through the nose and goes straight to the brain. Different odors evoke different effects.
NOTE: Some people (including children) do not tolerate strong scents so you may want to use unscented products. Be aware that many everyday smells that you don’t even notice can affect and distress your sensory child: odor-masking sprays and plug-ins, perfumes/colognes/aftershaves, soaps, shampoos, laundry detergents, dryer sheets, etc.
Sample sensory diet activities for toddlers and preschoolers
– Pressure activities
Make your child into a “Janie burrito” or “Joey sandwich.” For a “burrito” you roll her up in a blanket; for a sandwich you gently but firmly press pillows on his arms, legs and back.
– Pushing and pulling
Have your child push his own stroller. An older/stronger child can push a stroller with groceries in it.
Put toys into your child’s backpack (be careful not to make it too heavy!).
– Active walking
Give your child a wheelbarrow walk or have her act out different animal walks.
Try different types of swinging on playground swings (back and forth as well as side to side).
At home, you can have your child use a toy such as a Sit n’ Spin, or spin in an office chair. In the playground, you can often find merry-go-round type equipment. Parks sometimes have carousels. And you can always simply have your child run in circles, or you can hold her hands/wrists/arms and spin her around and out.
Have your child use a rocking toy or a rocking chair.
– Playing with different (messy) textures
Foamy soap, shaving cream, fingerpaint, and glitter glue are all good for texture play. He can help you mix cookie dough. She can create with play dough or similar child-appropriate modeling materials. They can play in the playground sandbox or you can make a mini sandbox (sensory bin) at home in a container with kinetic sand (less messy!), or dry beans, uncooked rice, etc, with small toys to hide in it. You can keep it (covered) for multiple uses.
NOTE: Never force a child to touch a substance she finds repulsive. Offer him a paintbrush, chopstick, or even a (washable) toy so he can explore the new substance without using his hands.
– Dressing up
Fun costumes get children used to the feel of different types of clothing,
NOTE: For children who are hypersensitive to tactile input, try seamless socks and underwear, and very soft clothing. You can find many retailers online who sell clothing appropriate for sensory children.
– Using chewies (chewable objects)
Chewies come in a variety of forms: chewy tubes, “chewelry,” and many other options. Let your child choose between a few alternatives.
– Eating and drinking
Give your child plain seltzer (or flavor it with a little juice or lemon, lime) to experience the feel of bubbles in her mouth. Have him blow bubbles, use straws, explore different food textures (i.e., dry, wet, smooth, lumpy) and temperatures (warm, cold, frozen (popsicles, frozfruit), mixed temperature and/or texture (berries with ice cream; ice cream with hot fudge) ), or eat a chewy or crunchy snack to provide “heavy work” for the mouth.
Visual activities and modifications
– Alerting additions
Give your child brightly colored objects, and/or objects that make sounds, to engage her attention.
For example, a child who has trouble becoming alert enough to watch a rolling ball, or roll it himself, may be more interested if the ball lights up or makes sounds.
– Calming modifications
Conversely, if your child is over-stimulated, avoid extra visual stimulation by putting clutter into closets or boxes. Cover a filled bookcase with a cloth in a single neutral color. Use solid-color rugs, and keep the walls bare and painted in white, neutral or pastel colors. Keep the lights low and don’t use fluorescent bulbs.
– Looking games
Play ‘spot the difference’ picture games and “I-spy.”
– Listening to music
Of course, music can be either calming and focusing, or energizing, so you can keep a music ‘library’ available for different situations. You may need to experiment a bit since musical preferences are so individual that what you find soothing, your child might find distressing, and vice versa.
– Playing with sound
Even very young children can enjoy simple instruments or toy versions of them. There are many toys on the market that make various sounds, some alerting (suitable for playtime) and some calming (some can even lull your child to sleep).
– Listening to sounds
Create agreeable sounds. A white noise machine often has settings for different types of pleasant instrumental music and natural sounds, such as rainfall, ocean waves, birdsongs, etc., or you can find them online. A tabletop fountain that runs over small rocks, or an aquarium, is calming both to listen to and look at.
– Removing sounds
If your child is being bombarded with auditory stimulation at home, you can go into a quiet, dimly-lit room, or put on a white noise machine to block out sounds. If you’re out, you can give her sound-canceling headphones.
– The Listening Program™
Your child’s OT can devise a plan of daily sessions for The Listening Program™, a music-based therapy program, which your child can follow, with your help. We discussed this program in more detail here
– Smelling scents
Introduce your child to different scents to find ones that work best to either alert or calm him (unless odors are one of his sensory issues, of course). Everyone has individual reactions to scents, but in general, lavender, vanilla and rose scents are calming, while peppermint and citrus are energizing. Once you identify what works for your child, you may choose to use a calming scent for bath time soap, shampoo, and/or body lotion, or put its essential oil into an aromatherapy machine at bedtime.
Of course, the above activities are just a few suggestions. You can find more ideas and information about calming
therapeutic activities for the different senses here.
Although the basic approach to a sensory diet is the same for any age, there are going to be differences in activities tailored for older children and teenagers. In the next post, we will discuss sample sensory diet activities that are appropriate for school-age children.
Have you tried any of these activities before? How did your child respond? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, let me know there or via email what other topics you would like to discuss or hear more about.
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All the best,