Tantrums. Meltdowns. Aversions. Oversensitivity. Clumsiness. Moodiness. Destructiveness.
All of those manifestations can be mistaken as children’s misbehavior or defiance. Often, though, they are actually symptoms of sensory integration issues. Children who have difficulty processing what they see, hear, smell, taste and touch can find the world a distressing and overwhelming place. They often lag behind their peers when it comes to fine motor skills and communication, and become overstimulated by things that seem normal to other kids. One way to help them overcome these hurdles is through sensory play.
The benefits of sensory play
Sensory play is important for children of all ages, but especially so for those with sensory integration issues. Squishing play dough through their fingers, digging in a sandbox, swinging, and making music might seem like nothing more than fun; but it also helps kids develop fine and gross motor skills, as well as communication skills. Experiencing new noises, textures and sensations in a safe and fun way can help them make connections and become more comfortable with the world around them.
If you ever have heard a grandparent say “you need to let kids get messy,” there’s a reason. Some of the best sensory play activities do involve a little bit of mess, but there also are activities that don’t require a cleaning crew afterward. Here are some fun, affordable ways to spend quality time with your kids and give them valuable sensory experiences.
Sensory play activities you can do at home
- Pop bubble wrap:Playing with bubble wrap is not only a good idea for getting your kids used to louder noises, but it also helps their coordination. Play with the bubble wrap you’ve saved from packaging and have your kiddos use it as a runway. Tape long sections of the bubble wrap to your carpet and let your kids run up and down the length of the bubble wrap, popping the plastic bubbles as they go. See how fast they can pop all the bubbles. After most have been popped, don’t forget to have the children sit down and find the ones they missed.
- Finger paint:Finger painting is a fun, basic sensory activity that kids of all ages will enjoy. Make sure, especially if your little one is younger, that you purchase nontoxic finger paints; or if you’re willing to take things a step further, consider using pudding or making your own edible finger paints. Making your own paint can be another fun activity to do with your child. They’ll be able to mix their own coloring into the paint base, so they can customize their own color palette.
- Start a vegetable garden: Starting and maintaining a gardencan be hard work, but italso can be a lot of fun. Have your kids help make homemade mulch for the garden, label pots, plant the seeds, and tend to the garden throughout the growing process. At the end of the growing season, they’ll be able to eat the fruits and veggies they’ve grown.
- Play pretend ER: Grab some stuffed animals and play pretend Emergency Room with your little one. Go to the store ahead of time for first aid supplies like bandages, gauze, some elastic bandage wraps, and a thermometer. Be your child’s assistant and help them take care of all their stuffed animal patients. If your kids like playing ER, think about taking aCPR class with your child, as well.
- Make homemade instruments: This activity is definitely on the noisier side, but it can be a lot of fun for kids and it is a good way for them to express themselves. There are a lot of different ways to make instruments, and you probably can find most or even all of the materials in your home. For instance, many homemade instrumentsare constructed with items like string, rubber bands, tin cans and popsicle sticks.
- Make ice cream: Making ice cream at home can be a fun and tasty activity, perfect for days at home during the summer. It’s also a workout. All you need to get started are the ingredients for your ice cream, rock salt, ice and zip-top bags (pint and gallon sizes). After your ice cream ingredients are combined, put them into a small zip-top bag, then place that bag inside a larger one filled halfway with salt and ice. Fill the larger bag with more ice and salt, seal the bag, and shake. And shake and shake and shake. After a few minutes, open your bags. You should have a frozen treat waiting inside.
- Play withwater beads: Water beads, made from water-absorbing polymer, are tiny spheres which drastically increase in size when submerged in water. Watching and feeling the way the beads change, soften and expand is a fun activity on its own, but after the 8 or so hours it takes for the beads to grow, the real fun begins. There are a ton of things your kids can do with water beads. Sorting them based on color into glasses or containers and then using them to make pictures in shaving foam (meant to hold the beads in place) is one great idea. The beads even bounce. But be careful: they sometimes can be easy to lose.
- Paint in the bathtub: The first thing to be aware of when it comes to bath paints is that things are going to get messy. That’s what makes the location of this activity so convenient. Consider making your paints in small plastic storage containers with lids so you can store them between uses. Using child-friendly liquid soap as the base of your paint is a good idea, as it’s likely your kiddos will end up painting themselves as well as the bathtub or tile wall. Add cornstarch to the soap and mix until the “paint” becomes thick enough, then add food coloring to make different colors.
- Make slime:Making slime is easy and fun. Online, there are many different slime recipes which create different textures. Some recipes call for food coloring, glitter, tiny styrofoam balls or other items to add to your slime. Slime is fairly easy to clean up — just make sure it’s kept away from the carpet. On tile, your kids can play with slime by stepping on it and feeling it between their toes. Playing with slime can also be a good way to calm down a child. Feeling the cold slime on their hands and being able to stretch and squeeze it between their palms helps some children feel relaxed.
Wrapping It Up
Sensory play is important for all children to take part in. While on the surface these activities may be just a lot of fun, at their core they’re designed to help children improve their motor skills and communication skills. Sensory integration issues can interfere with a child’s ability to perform self-care tasks like bathing, dressing and brushing teeth. They can prevent a child from enjoying different foods, going to movies, attending birthday parties, and being in public places. Weak fine motor skills can interfere with progress at school.
However, all of those things get better when children have positive sensory experiences that get them more comfortable with different types of stimuli. Through sensory play, you can have fun and help your child enjoy life’s experiences at the same time.
Jackie Nunes is a blogger at WonderMoms.org. She is a former pediatric nurse and now a full-time homeschool educator. She and her husband have three children. Their middle child suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was 4. Now 11 years old, she is hearing impaired and uses a wheelchair. Jackie and two other moms created Wonder Moms as a project to share real talk, helpful information, and practical advice with parents of kids who have intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, autism, language and speech delays, deafness, chronic illness, and traumatic brain injury.