Sensory Activities on the Go

Deanna Macioce, MS, OTR/L

As Sensory Processing Awareness (SPD) Month is coming to a close, I hope that everyone has had the opportunity to take the time to learn something you did not already know, try a new treatment activity, and educate those who work or know these children to better understand the difficulties they have.  This diagnosis is often seen in conjunction with other diagnoses, so therefore it is hard to always separate and learn the specifications of it. This means that sensory processing is a characteristic to a diagnosis such as Autism, but it can stand alone, and when it does it appears harder to understand. Regardless, Sensory Processing Disorder is real and it can truly make the day-to-day life difficult for individuals and their caregivers. Children with SPD demonstrate difficulty taking in the information from the environment the same way a child with regulated sensory system can.  As a result, these children may exhibit behavioral issues, withdraw from social settings with peers, or struggle with learning in school.

Children with SPD benefit from participating in occupational therapy services to help their bodies and sensory systems better tolerate the sensory input to produce a well-regulated purposeful action.  So, to close out the month, I am going to take the time to share one of my favorite and easy to do almost anywhere therapy activities for each system.   Most of these will overlap with other skills and sensory areas, but they can be tweaked and used however best fit your needs.

Tactile - Children who struggle with tactile issues often dislike playing in various media such as sand and finger paint.  In addition, these children do not like the feel their clothes on their bodies, demonstrated by them refusing to wear jeans or certain shirts.  Using the Wilbarger Deep Pressure Protocol Technique (often known as the Brushing Program) is typically very successful for these children.  I love to use shaving cream, as most therapists do, but setting up a car wash or animal wash is always fun, and brings in a variety of components to the activity versus just writing and drawing in it.  Children use plastic cars (Tyco™ Chunky Cars are my favorite) or animals and cover them with shaving cream, scrubbing them up like in a bathtub.  They then dunk the items into a large bucket of water to remove the shaving cream and use a towel to dry them.  This helps them to get more into the shaving cream, have fun, and increase tolerance without knowing it! (Also a great sequencing task!)

Auditory - Many young children struggle with loud sounds such as the vacuum cleaner, fire trucks, or the lawn mower.  However it becomes distracting when they do not outgrow this discomfort, making it difficult for them to participate in many community activities.  I have found that this is a difficult area to specifically treat, therefore, I have found increasing vestibular input especially with activities that require the head to be in a variety of positions helps to strengthen the inner ear which in turns improves the auditory system.  Using music during sessions is beneficial, and I have had success in utilizing therapeutic listening programs, however these require specific training.

Proprioceptive - This area is the hardest to explain to parents, but it is one of the most fun areas to build activities around.  Children who demonstrate difficulties with proprioception often require 'heavy work' activities.   So, I could write an entire article about these activities, but scooter boards are my favorite.   Using them to obtain puzzle pieces, be part of an obstacle course, or complete a scavenger hunt are just a few ways they can be integrated into your sessions. I have found most children love to do "hunts"; so setting up a scavenger hunt is my favorite. Children enjoy riding the scooter board on their tummies to designated colored markers where they get off and perform another task, such as jumping jacks, and then continue to the next marker.  This an excellent activity because you can customize it to children based on their individual needs. To improve this all-in-one activity, you could have them earn items such as puzzle pieces at each stop and then have to put the puzzle together at the end. As a bonus, if your space allows, have the child push you on the scooter board to finish out their session...they always think that is so much fun!

Vestibular - When looking at vestibular input, children could either love it or hate it.  Suspended equipment is a great way to achieve good vestibular input and my favorite is the net swing.  Again, I could give a ton of ideas, but the one that keeps children engaged while working on a variety skills is having the swing raised high enough to get good movement, have them pull themselves up a rope that you are holding, and release...they are flying through the air.  With higher level children, I throw in the component of knocking down targets or having to catch a ball that is tossed to them.  With this activity, you are sure to hear a lot of giggles!

Visual - Based on the individual's visual needs the focus of treatment varies.  Again, I see the visual, auditory, and vestibular systems work so closely together, so incorporating movement with visual activities can be very beneficial.  Having children log roll from one point to another and then have to find a letter or word on a chart that you are holding up.  Children love to go on any type of a hunt...even a letter one!

Oral - Working on oral motor inputs, straws are my favorite and can be used in a variety of ways.  Children have fun blowing an item through a maze made out of tape on the ground or tabletop.  I like to use rewarding items such as fish crackers, popcorn, or Swedish fish, so that they can earn a prize at the end.  It can easily be graded based on needs.  I like to add in the suck component, so I will have the child suck up the item through the straw, maintain the hold and release it into a container.  

Just a few ideas that are quick and easy, requiring very little equipment that touches each area of sensory input.  Have fun, be creative, and play on!