Children of all ages and abilities – not just those in the care of a speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, school psychologist, or other type of school-based therapist – can benefit from sensory experiences. For those in your therapy classroom or sessions who may be struggling to make sense of the world around them, chances to participate in purposeful and appropriate sensory activities in a safe and supported environment are incredibly important. To help make sounds, sights and sensations a little less scary, there are many techniques you can employ in your school-based therapy job. As always; carefully observe reactions, respect them, and feel free to tailor activities for the individuals you work with. For more verbal/conversational children, try presenting some ideas and allow their preferences to guide you. Then, create a list of favorites to share with parents and caregivers to support progress at home.
1. Bath Time Fun with Dolls
If your classroom allows or as an outdoor activity, turn a small baby tub, pool or water table into a bath for dolls. Grab some gentle soaps, washcloths and sponges with different textures. Have children bathe dolls or plastic animals. While they’re doing this, encourage conversation about what they like or dislike, including soap smells, the way the washcloths feel and the temperature of the water. Relate it to bath time at home to gain a greater understanding of what is comforting and what isn’t.
2. Shaving Cream Art
Fill a plastic tray with shaving cream and encourage children to get creative—and messy. Some will dig right in while others may be hesitant about the feel of the foam. Drawing, writing and simply squishing the cream between fingers delivers great sensory fun for seekers. Those who are hesitant can gradually work up to touching the shaving cream by first moving it around with a spoon or popsicle stick. You can even add a bit of food coloring to create cool and inviting colors. This activity can be done at home, as well—either as a sit-down project or on the walls during real bath time.
3. Set up Shop!
The grocery store is a place of many sights and sounds. Why not recreate aspects of the experience in your classroom or healthcare setting? Consider using real groceries, as long as their safe and non-perishable. Some canned food, a package of toilet paper, shampoo, boxed cake mixes or rice work well. Set them up like a store and guide your students through their shop. Allow them to carry heavy items and help put them away in a designated area. Using a toy shopping cart or wagon that can be pushed or pulled greatly adds to the activity. For kids that enjoy this experience, encourage parents to let them help push a real cart, help carry and put away items at home.
4. Little Cooks in the Kitchen
Real cooking may not be practical at school or during a therapy session, but you can still capture the feeling with a little creativity. Mixing thick ingredients is a great way to work muscles and build strength. There are many “recipes” for dough and moldable sand (cloud dough) that require only a few ingredients. When possible and with supervision, allow children to help by carrying pots, bowls of water or ingredients. Once the medium is created, let them have fun rolling, flattening and squeezing it to their heart’s content. Incorporate tools like plastic knives and spoons, meat tenderizers, rolling pins and more to add to the experience. Invite parents to build on this activity at home by making simple recipes together or having kids help in ways where they can be successful and safe.
5. Get Help with the Chores
Proprioception Sensory Activities, also known as heavy work, can be a grounding for some with extra sensory needs. It can be calming for children to help with vacuuming, moving furniture or carrying laundry. At school or in a healthcare setting, you can assign similar tasks throughout the day. Have students move or stack chairs when appropriate. Carrying bags of books to and from a school library or to another classroom may provide a welcome break during the day. Incorporate vacuuming and sweeping into the daily schedule when appropriate. At home, parents should support the need for proprioceptive activity by giving children the opportunity to perform household chores.
6. Planting Seeds
Gardening offers a wealth of sensory experiences! If your environment allows, take students outdoors where they can dig, poke and plant seeds in the dirt. Children love moving plants or bags of dirt in a wheelbarrow. Sensory seekers will enjoy the chance to be active and get dirty. Have some gardening gloves on hand for those participants who are a little more hesitant. You can also bring the experience indoors with container gardening. At home, children can contribute while fulfilling their sensory needs by pulling weeds, planting flowers and performing other outdoor gardening tasks with family members.
As an SLP, OT, or other type of school-based therapist working with children who likely fluctuate between sensory sensitivity and sensory seeking behaviors, you can never know too many ways to incorporate these needs into safe and fun activities. Just the right opportunity to push, pull, kick, hang, jump or lift may be what some kids need to get calm or stay focused.
What sensory strategies have YOU used in your classroom or healthcare setting? What methods do you use to communicate/share with parents to support progress at home? We want to hear from you.
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