21 Sensory Toys and SPD Exercises for Your Sensitive Child
Children with sensory processing disorder may bristle and bolt at loud noises, pick their skin, and even bump into and fall over things. They may also want to wrestle all the time. Use these sensory-friendly, OT-approved activities and sensory toys to help them manage their senses at home right now.
Children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) may feel things intensely — or not at all. They may be hypersensitive to noise, fluorescent lighting, cafeteria smells, and new movement. Or they may feel their senses are muted and physically seek out stimulation — playing rough, bouncing boundlessly, or touching everything and everyone all the time.
Understandably, these sensory challenges often interfere with learning, especially for students with SPD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who already battle impulsivity. At school, these students may work regularly — and in person — with an occupational therapist (OT). Right now, those services are either canceled, limited, or delivered using an online platform, which is not ideal.
However, during school closures and summer months, parents can make a difference by addressing their kids’ sensory needs at home.1 Use the list below to incorporate sensory input in fun indoor and outdoor activities that will help your child achieve better focus and reduce unwanted sensory behavior.
What Your Child’s OT Wants You to Know About Sensory Challenges
Sensory input allows us to experience the world more intimately through our emotions. Feeling comfort from a strong, reassuring hug or from petting a fluffy cat; crying during a movie with an evocative score; being drawn to the smell of freshly washed sheets.
Most brains have the ability to receive sensory input from the world, process it, and respond. But some brains have trouble organizing and responding to the information they receive from the senses. Children with these challenges may hurt a peer by squeezing them too tightly (stimulant-seeking) or jolt away and cry when a classmate touches their hand (stimulation-avoiding).2
Self-harming in response to a loud or bright environment or requiring extra verbal cues are also common manifestations of SPD, which frequently co-occurs with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and other developmental delays.3
Gauging whether your child’s behavior is sensory-seeking (needing extra squeezes and hugs) or sensory-avoiding (having a meltdown to avoid a handshake) can help you determine what type of activity to use. For example, a child who continually picks at or rips things may benefit from a paper-tearing activity; a texture-filled scavenger hunt can help a child with an aversion to touch by exposing them to how different objects feel. 2,3
Two Unfamiliar Senses and How They Impact Your Child
Sight, sound, hearing, taste, and touch. Everyone knows these five senses, but OTs also use sensory integration techniques to redirect problematic responses associated with the sixth and seventh senses involved with movement and balance: proprioception and the vestibular sense.
Proprioception, the sixth sense, has to do with understanding your body, recognizing your own strength, and knowing where the body parts are. Proprioception allows you to touch your ears when your eyes are closed and stand a safe distance from cars on a busy road. Receptors for this information are in the muscles and joints. Children with proprioceptive challenges misjudge how much force to use when picking up objects and may play too roughly with others. Some enjoy the feeling of pressure (like being squeezed) and may prefer wearing tight clothing.
Clumsiness and bumping into things also cause safety concerns and may be signs of difficulty with balance — the seventh or vestibular sense. Fluid in the inner ear helps the brain detect motion and tells us how fast we’re moving. It can be stimulated by changes in the head’s position.2,3,4 Kids with challenges in this area may rock, spin, or tilt their heads frequently or avoid changes in position and move slowly to keep from getting dizzy.
The ideas below can give your child the sensory input they need to feel more in control of their body. Activities are grouped into three sensory areas. Incorporate as many as you can into your child’s week on a regular basis or use them as needed during times of boredom, low energy, or distress.
Teach Touch Tolerance and Foster Tactile Awareness
If you notice your child obsessively touching objects or picking at their skin or hair, they are seeking tactile sensory stimulation. Offer these activities instead.
#1. Paint with your fingers. Break open the finger paint or use a large baking sheet to “paint” with shaving cream. (Substitute ranch dressing if your child can’t stand the smell of those items.) Use this activity when your child shows sensory-seeking behavior.
#2. Explore sensory bins. Fill containers with rice, dried beans, or water beads (#CommissionsEarned) . Mix in cheap, plastic toys, erasers in various sizes and shapes, or other objects for your child to feel for with the hands. Fill another container with different kinds of fidgets (#CommissionsEarned) — small stretchy tubes, poppers, switches, pieces of fabric, squishy objects (#CommissionsEarned) , or stress balls (#CommissionsEarned) .
#3. Create a texture-filled scavenger hunt. Challenge your child to find three or more objects around the house. In Round One, they can seek soft items. In subsequent rounds, they can find sticky, hard, or rough items.
#6. Play with water. Turn on the sprinkler (#CommissionsEarned) . Break out the water guns or fill spray bottles (you can color the water with food coloring if your child isn’t sensitive to dyes) and have water fights. Or, glide across the backyard on Slip’nSlide (#CommissionsEarned) for classic outdoor fun.
#7. “Cook” with your hands. Make dough from flour, water, and salt. Knead it, roll it or form round “cookies” with it.
Use Muscles and Joints to Build Body Awareness
If your child is showing signs of irritation, low energy while playing with others, seeking hand or body squeezes, or bumping into things, they are looking for proprioceptive input — sensations from joints and muscles. These lifting, pushing, and pulling activities can help.
#8. Build an obstacle course indoors and/or out. Use a variety of furniture, mats, boxes, chairs, and other objects to create a dynamic course that requires running, jumping, moving, and lifting objects, using the body’s weight, rolling, and balancing. Set time limits and goals, and get involved yourself to increase motivation.
#9. Exercise using their own body’s weight 15 minutes at a time. Begin with a 5-minute warm-up, then complete a minimum of three sets, 10 reps of five or more exercises such as push-ups, planks, sit-ups, and wall squats. End with a few minutes of slower-paced moves to cool down. Encourage your child to do these workouts twice a day several times each week.
#10. Drop down to the floor and play. If floor mats aren’t available, play using soft items such as pillows, mattresses, blankets, or soft furniture. Encourage coordination through climbing, jumping, moving, pushing, and rolling on, around, or through these items.
#11. Crawl like a spider. Imitating how animals move can be a great motivator during transition times. Challenge your child to climb like a cat. Move like a monkey. Or call out different animals and have your child show you how they move.
#12. Play with pillows. Have an old-fashioned pillow fight or get inside the pillowcase and have a sack race across your playroom. Body socks (#CommissionsEarned) are another form of sensory-stimulating fun.
#13. Give body massages at least once a day. Focus on the arms, legs, and back and use different levels of pressure to foster greater awareness of body parts.
#14. Use heavy products. Gravity blankets (#CommissionsEarned) , vests, or shoulder straps (#CommissionsEarned) can be useful during stationary tasks or when making transitions. You can also fill a backpack or fanny pack with toys to add heft.
Improve Balance and Coordination to Strengthen the Vestibular Sense
Any type of movement can stimulate the vestibular receptors — centered in the fluid found in the inner ear. Use these activities during transitions between activities or prior to starting a new, challenging task. You can also offer them when a child is spinning, running, or jumping excessively.
#15. Use sensory swings (#CommissionsEarned) . I recommend purchasing a swing set online. They can be pricey but worth the money. Regular swings are an acceptable — though somewhat limited — substitute. Tire swings or a Sit n’ Spin (#CommissionsEarned) are great, but you can also take your child for a spin on the grass or carpet using an old sheet. *Important Note: To avoid overstimulation, do not permit spinning for more than 15 minutes at a time and be sure there are 30-minute breaks in between spin sessions.
#16. Jump for joy. When your child appears dysregulated, take movement breaks on a mini trampoline (#CommissionsEarned) or the one outside in your backyard. You can also have them jump in place. Be sure to set limits on how much they should jump and explain when jumping is socially appropriate.
#17. Have a daily dance party. Dancing to music or playing dance video games is a great social and stimulating activity. Encourage dancing several times each day for at least five minutes at a time.
#18. Scoot around on scooters. Your child will have a lot more fun getting where they need to go on a scooter. The best ones are flat and can accommodate both sitting or reclining positions.
#19. Practice gymnastics. Gymnastics forces the brain to work in coordination with the body and helps with motor skill development. Rope swings and backyard rings are good options. A vinyl balance beam is another great way to build awareness about the body while balancing.
1Schaaf, R., Benevides, T., Mailloux, Z., Faller, P., Hunt, J., Hooydonk, E., … Kelly, D. (2013). An Intervention for Sensory Difficulties in Children with Autism: A Randomized Trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi: 10.1007/s10803-013-1983-8
2 Case-Smith, J. & O’Brien, J. C. (2015). Occupational Therapy for Children and Adolescents (7th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier https://www.elsevier.com/books/case-smiths-occupational-therapy-for-children-and-adolescents/obrien/978-0-323-51263-3
3Schoen, S., Lane, S., Mailloux, Z., May‐Benson, T., Parham, L., Roley, S., & Schaaf, R. (2018). A Systematic Review of Ayres Sensory Integration Intervention for Children with Autism. Autism Research. doi: 10.1002/aur.2046
4Thompson-Hodgetts, S. & Magill-Evans, J. (2018). Sensory-Based Approaches in Intervention for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Influences on Occupational Therapists’ Recommendations and Perceived Benefits. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 72(3). doi: 10.5014/ajot.2018.024729
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