originally written for and published on Harkla.co
“Sensory seeking” - it’s an increasingly common phrase that you’ll hear some preschool teachers, parents, and pediatricians use when describing a very active child. But what makes one child more “sensory seeking” over another? What is typical sensory exploration and what sensory behaviors make adults stop and take notice? When does “sensory seeking” warrant sensory integration therapy and how can you help at home?
Children actively explore the world around them - moving, touching, and mouthing - it’s how we learn as developing humans! The sensory stimulation that surrounds us informs how we respond. Infants, toddlers, and young developing children are all seeking sensory information because they are constantly learning through movement and sensory exploration.
Think back to your experiences with your own kids in daycare, preschool, and kindergarten. The hallmark of a great lesson plan is its multisensory design. Kids are encouraged to taste, smell, see, hear, touch, and move their bodies or objects to better understand what they are learning! You learned about PlayDoh by squeezing, pushing, smelling, and sometimes tasting it. You explored textures by glueing, finger painting, and sandbox digging! Those sensory interactions help students take in information about what they are learning, make sense of it, and respond appropriately.
Sensory processing helps with new learning. If there is a breakdown in this process, a child may not respond appropriately to the information they are receiving. Sometimes these inappropriate responses to sensory input affect a child’s ability to participate typically in play, social situations, or new learning. This is when a sensory behavior makes an adult take notice.
Sensory Modulation Disorder: Sensory Craving Type
In our Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), we talked about the three subtypes of SPD in line with the STAR Institute’s research. “Sensory seeking,” when it falls outside of typical child development, is a subtype of Sensory Modulation Disorder and is referred to as “Sensory Craving Type.”
Sensory Craving is described as when one is “driven to obtain sensory stimulation, but getting the stimulation results in disorganization and does not satisfy the drive for more” (STAR). This can be observed as seeking sensory input in the form of excessive licking, biting, mouthing non-food objects, jumping, crashing, climbing, moving, touching.
It is important to note the difference between what is typical sensory exploration or activity and what rises to the level of significance. Some of this difference is accounted for by age - what is normal toddler sensory development is not typical in a seven year old, for example. When clinically significant sensory craving behaviors exist, they often interfere with a child’s ability to appropriately function, attend, and interact/engage.
Also, unlike some other sensory processing disorder diagnoses, when the child receives the sensory stimulation that he seeks, it does not resolve the processing issues - in fact, it will create more disorganization.
If your child falls into this sensory craving subtype, it is best to consult your sensory integration-trained occupational therapist on an individualized sensory diet plan.
Sensorimotor Activities to Support Active Toddlers
Toddlers are at a fun age of sensory exploration. This is a play stage that emphasizes basic interactions with people and toys. Because your child’s skills are so new, they often can’t multi-task too well and keep their balance! It’s important to remember this because they’re going to want to try it all “by myself” and you want them to be set up for success.
These activities are hands-on fun with your toddler so expect to get active with them!
Crawling through a tunnel -
Crawling offers great proprioceptive input that is calming and organizing for active little bodies. Choose a regular tunnel or a lycra tunnel for hide-and-seek activities in a multisensory way! Add pieces of a simple puzzle and crawl through to put them in the board one at a time to add some movement to simple games. Make a simple obstacle course to challenge sequencing skills.
Animal Walks -
Grab a jump rope and turn it into a limbo rope to imitate basic animal walks under it - bring on your best “bear walk” or “slithering snake” - your child will be developing motor skills and learning how to move her body in new ways just like Mom! If you’ve got an active toddler, try shaking the rope low to the ground and see if she can jump, step, or walk over it without touching the “snake!”
Finger painting -
“Finger painting” with sand, rice, actual finger paints, and even chocolate pudding make for hands-on fun to draw shapes, explore textures, and develop early visual motor skills. These activities are great for kids who like to touch and seek out tactile sensory input. Add a smell or taste component to the finger painting to offer additional sensory stimulation.
Toddlers haven’t yet mastered jumping with 2 feet by themselves, but take ahold of their hands and practice on a bouncy mattress, soft couch, or mini trampoline. Put on some music and do the freeze dance - jumping style! Try and jump for a whole song - a nursery rhyme or kids’ song will challenge their endurance for longer lasting vestibular input.
Balloon Tapping -
Whether they’re hitting a balloon with their hands or a styrofoam paddle, kids are challenging their vestibular, balance, and visual motor skills to keep the balloons from hitting the ground. Every time he bends down to pick up the balloon or looks up at the balloon in the air, your child is changing his head position - which means an extra dose of vestibular stimulation! Try batting the balloon with an adult or give kids a paddle for an extra challenge or two!