We all have them, but every one’s is different. A tight hug from a loved one might comfort you in an anxious moment or guiding colored pencils across paper might help calm your mind. Maybe it’s lighting a candle with your favorite scent or cranking up music and singing that works best for you. Whatever it is, these are all sensory activities that help us self-regulate.
Just as important as it is for adults and parents to explore and practice healthy sensory activities for themselves, it is also vital for children to learn what types of sensory activities uniquely help them maintain positive mental health. Children learn what sensory activities are most soothing by co-regulating, or learning from their caregivers and other trusted adults in their lives.
In a therapy setting, we work with the child to assess their sensory needs and explore what types of activities will help them self-regulate. Once the specific sensory activities are identified that uniquely benefit that child, we invite the caregiver into session so that they can participate in the activity and learn how to encourage their child to make those activities a part of their daily routine.
For example, we may find that a child benefits from tactile activities that particularly involve pressure, like squeezing a stress ball. We’ll work with their caregiver to help incorporate tactile activities at home as well as their teacher so that they too can have a stress ball available for the child if they need it in the classroom.
How you feel sensory wise directly relates to how you feel inside and how you relate to the world around you. If you’re dysregulated, the world feels chaotic and out of control. Practicing sensory activities can help manage those feelings and maintain positive mental health.
At home, you can encourage your child to explore their unique sensory needs by doing safe and creative sensory play activities together. There are so many sensory activities, it’s impossible to list them all, but here’s a list to get you started:
Water – hands playing with toys and splashing in the sink or tub
Sand – hands sifting and shaping dry and wet sand in a sand tray
Lotion – applying lotion to hands, fingers, arms, legs and feet/toes
Finger/Face Painting – finger paint or use shaving cream to draw with fingers or toes
Brushes – brushing hair and gently stroking hands and forearms (only with child’s permission)
Clay – hands and fingers shaping clay and play dough
Dress Up – costumes, caregiver’s shirts, sweatshirts, hats, gloves and shoes
Sleeping Bags – wrapping up, hiding, swinging and rolling around
Nature Walks – safely walk barefoot on grass and sand, wet and dry
Animals – petting, stroking and brushing animals like kittens, puppies or bunnies
Playing Catch – rolling and tossing a large soft ball or beanbag
Drawing/Painting – use crayons, color markers or brushes
Stacking Game – large soft blocks, Legos, cups, boxes
Collage – cutting and pasting pictures and shapes from magazines
Flashlight Fun – two flashlights follow the leader, tracing shapes on walls
Dot to Dot – maze paper, graph paper, connect the dots
Crawling and Climbing – tents, tunnels, pillows, stairs and chairs
Rolling and Curling – in blankets or sleeping bags on the floor
Pushing and Pulling – boxes, grocery bags, pillows, beanbags or wagons
Bouncing – safely on pillows and a mattress on the floor or on a large ball
Walking and Running – skipping, hopping and balancing on one foot
Swings and Slides – swinging and sliding, rocking and riding
Balloon Fun – throw, bounce, hit and catch with two hands
Back Rubs – gently or firmly apply pressure (only with child’s permission)
Smell and Taste
Food – smelling and tasting, mixing and cooking
Fruit and Juices – colors, shapes, smells and tastes
Smell/Taste and Tell – taste and smell then name the food
Scratch and Sniff Books/Cards – scratch with fingers and smell
Music – listening and making music with objects and instruments
Singing – sing favorite songs together; make some up as you go
Whistling and Making Sounds – take turns whispering and making sounds
Reading Books – read with animation, vary pitch and tone (sit close)
Dancing and Singing – make noises with your feet as you move and sing
If you’re finding that your child requires a more extensive, formal assessment of their sensory needs, contact your child’s school as most schools offer these types of services through Individualized Education Programs or an occupational therapist.
Aseye A. Allah, LCSW, RPT-S, is the Program Manager of the Long Beach Outpatient Program at The Guidance Center. For almost 10 years, Allah has guided children and their families struggling with mental health conditions or abuse toward positive and productive futures through mental health treatment. Allah is a Licensed Social Worker and Registered Play Therapist.