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. Kids are encouraged to taste, smell, see, hear, touch, and move their bodies or objects to better understand what they are learning!
Activities like gluing, finger painting, PlayDoh squishing, and sandbox digging help kids understand different textures. Jumping, crashing, swinging, sliding, and spinning help them understand movement and where their bodies are in space.
When hands and bodies are busy learning through play, a child’s central nervous system is taking in sensory information, make sense of it, and responding appropriately. This is referred to as “sensory processing.”
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 difficulties with sensory processing affect a child’s ability to play, socialize, acquire language, or learn new motor skills.
Infants, toddlers, and young developing children are all seeking sensory information because they are constantly learning through movement and sensory exploration.That being said, there is a difference between what is typical sensory exploration or activity and what rises to the level of significance (Sensory Processing Disorder).
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. You wouldn’t expect your first grader to be putting toys in his mouth, but it’s expected of a two-year old. When a child seeks sensory input excessively or outside of what is ‘typical’ development, however, it can be disruptive to families and classrooms. This sensory seeking is also referred to as a “sensory craving” and can be observed as seeking sensory input in the form of excessive licking, biting, mouthing non-food objects, jumping, crashing, climbing, moving, touching.
Top 5 Tools to Support Active Toddlers and Preschoolers
Try these 5 tips for how to use sensory tools to meet your child’s sensory seeking or sensory craving needs!
Whether you are indoors or out at the park, sustained swinging can be a great way to provide your child with vestibular input (movement). The way you swing changes the intensity of the movement, so keep it simple and rhythmic as your child swings. Try to keep the activity going for the duration of a familiar song or nursery rhyme. Sustained swinging will promote regulation more so than starting/stopping and chaotic spinning! If you’re indoors, there are a number of great sensory swing options that can turn a doorway or ceiling hook into vestibular fun.
These ride-on toys offer kids an opportunity to strengthen core muscles, develop gross motor coordination, and challenge balance skills, all while offering combined vestibular and proprioceptive sensory input! Since toddlers are still developing their basic gross motor skills, choose something with a bit more support like a three-wheeled tricycle or this Sit-and-Ride from Radio Flyer. Preschoolers won’t want your help moving about, so choose a balance bike or tricycle that they can be independent with. The goal is to keep active kids scooting, balancing, and riding about long enough to use some of their excess energy!
Sometimes, sensory seekers explore through their sense of touch...to the point of touching everything in sight! Keep little hands busy by creating a ‘grab bag’ of tactile toys when you’re needing a way to redirect what can otherwise be a frustrating behavior. Different textures, fidgets, and manipulative toys can challenge fine motor skills while satisfying tactile sensory needs.
It’s another way of saying “proprioceptive” sensory input - deep touch is calming and helps with regulation. Whether your sensory tool box contains compression clothing, weighted vests, weighted blankets, or soft plushy pillows to crash and squish your sensory seeker, activities that provide deep touch pressure are a must-do!