Sensory Integration is the process your central nervous system goes through when it takes in information from your body’s senses, processes that information, and then responds accordingly. Our bodies take information in through eight different sensory systems: auditory (sound/hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), tactile (touch), vestibular (movement), proprioception (input from muscles and joints), and interoception (internal sensors indicating physiological conditions).
When we look at how to support children with sensory processing dysfunction, it is important to assess your home environment and offer sensory “tools” that provide your child with the necessary sensory activities/input to help keep them regulated throughout the day. These sensory tools can be used as part of a “sensory diet” of activities done proactively, and reactively.
WHAT IS A SENSORY TOOL BOX?
A sensory tool box is a collection of sensory strategies that will be your go-to source for sensory activities at home or at school to help your child with sensory regulation. The contents of the sensory tool box will vary depending on your child’s needs, but it’s important that whatever you choose targets some of the major sensory systems: vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile, auditory, olfactory, visual, gustatory, interoception. Multi-purpose sensory tools will allow for more flexibility of the activities you can do while still containing them all in one “box!”
Spinning - You’ll notice I didn’t tell you what to buy for this activity -- there are many options that are perfect for your sensory box, but it honestly depends on what works best in your home. If you’re lucky enough to have a free doorway or ceiling bolt to hang a swing, that’s ideal. Check out Harkla's indoor hanging pod swing! But if have to rely on smaller options for your sensory tool kit, look into a sit-n-spin, dizzy disc, or a Bilibo. Spinning provides rotational vestibular input that a lot of kids need to reorganize! It’s usually best to keep the rhythm and speed of the spinning predictable, and remember to change directions (good rule of thumb is 10 revolutions in each direction). Follow up all of this movement with our next go-to sensory tool!
Scooter Board - A four-wheeled scooter board can be used in a multitude of ways. By including this tool in your sensory break box, you are allowing for proprioceptive and vestibular sensory input opportunities while building core strength and challenging balance skills. For some great scooter board activities, check out this great Therapy Fun Zone list!
Body sock - A body sock is a lycra pillowcase that serves a few sensory purposes when your child crawls inside. When your child is overstimulated, the body sock can provide a sensory deprivation or quiet personal space to help him calm down. Because the lycra fabric is super stretchy, kids can push and pull the fabric with resistance in any direction, which provides added proprioceptive input to their muscles and joints! You can use a body sock in more active ways as well - check out this link for more fun ideas.
Vibration - Deep vibration provides deep touch proprioceptive input to the entire body. The heavier or larger the massager, the more the sensory input! This is a great way for a child to self-administer deep touch input if they are at the age where they like to be in control! Use the vibration massager on a pillow or crash pad for some secondary input when your child is underneath.
Exercise Ball - One of the versatile favorites (but requires adult supervision) is an exercise ball. Bounce them on it and sing a song, roll them over it on their bellies to put together a puzzle, roll upside-down to pick up blocks, squish them underneath to make a kid sandwich, or pushing it through a tunnel! If you have a hippity hop, kids can jump themselves too! The possibilities for proprioceptive and vestibular activities are endless.
Weighted Object - For times when your child needs extra proprioceptive input to calm down, have a weighted blanket or lap pad in your tool box. Check out the weighted blankets on Harkla.
Fidget - Tactile fidgets have been all the craze lately but if you have attention or sensory issues, they aren’t just a passing fad. Fidgets keep the hands occupied in repetitive motor movements that can involve spinning, squeezing, pushing, pulling, clicking (you get the point!). The repetition of these small movements has a calming effect so they’re great to add to your sensory box for seated meal times, on-the-go trips, or anxiety producing outings like the dentist/haircut/doctor.
Oral input - Many sensory-based occupational therapists can attest to the importance of oral sensory input. There are many professional courses and books dedicated to the integration of the mouth and the suck, swallow, breathe sequence with children who have sensory processing dysfunction. Chewing, sucking, and blowing are all motor movements that, especially when used safely in conjunction with other sensory activities, can play a key role in regulation. Consider adding chewy toys, whistles, thick straws, crunchy or chewy foods, and/or bubbles to your sensory box. For some great ideas and more information on oral sensory input, check out this link.
Music - While there are therapeutic listening programs out there that serve their own purposes, we’re talking about music of another kind for your sensory tool box. Sometimes just hearing some tunes with a good beat are enough to get you up and moving! Jump, clap, run, twirl, or bounce to the beat of a song that makes your child happy. Use the duration of an entire song as a way to keep track of how often you are engaging in activity: jump for a whole song - you’ll be working on sustained endurance and sensory input! For a calming effect, try headphones with predictable, softer music. If you don’t have an iPod or CD player handy, you can always sing your way through!
Visuals - The ultimate goal of a sensory tool box is to empower kids to develop a repertoire of activities that they can do independently in order to self-regulate. Be sure to include visuals of your child’s favorite yoga poses, core exercises, or sensory activity ideas to take some of the guesswork out of what to do!GETTING STARTED
Now that you’ve got your sensory tool box assembled and ready to go, consult your child’s occupational therapist for a sensory diet schedule so you can be proactive in meeting his sensory needs. The more consistently you include these sensory tools in your home environment, the more likely it is that you will get ahead of any sensory meltdowns and your child will become increasingly independent in seeking out what he needs in the moment!