Sensory Play

This post was originally titled, “Summer Sensory Play,” as I started writing it back in mid-June. Well, here we are in August so I took the “Summer” part out, edited a few things, and wah-lah! :o) TIME FLIES!!!

As a parent, you probably have heard of sensory play, sensory exploration, or sensory processing. But, what does that mean and does it matter to your child? To answer the second part, YES! Sensory exploration is important for ALL children!

So, what is it? Sensory exploration is related to activities that stimulate your child's senses and it is absolutely crucial to brain development. Our senses go beyond the “five senses” and include two additional senses that are extremely vital to child development. They are proprioception and vestibular. These two inputs are incredibly, incredibly, incredibly important for our children as they are growing their tiny minds and bodies. I will get into these later…..

Everything we do is based on the sensory system, so providing opportunities for your child to build a strong sensory foundation is key in helping them reaching their full potential. Our sensory systems must work together to process inputs correctly in order to produce wanted outputs. Does that make sense? Probably not. This sensory piece can get deep. I’ll try to keep it simple. Here is an example: Three-year-old, Johnny, is sensitive to touch. He tends to tantrum when he feels certain textures, he hates wearing socks, he is a picky eater, and he can not tolerate being next to people on the bus. Mom hasn’t been able to bring him to the same art class that all her girlfriends bring their children because of unwanted textures or proximity to other children. As an infant, Johnny was not allowed to get messy and thus, he has developed a sensitivity to tactile input. He also didn’t leave the house much- you could say mom was a bit over-protective- and as a result Johnny is not comfortable in public places. In this case, Johnny’s sensitivity to touch (tactile input) is causing him to tantrum (unwanted output), therefore, Johnny is not able to access and learn from some age-appropriate activities.

Ok- here is what you need to know. Expose your kiddos to all kinds of different things that provide new and different inputs at an early age!!

Back to proprioception and vestibular. What are they and why are they so important?

Proprioception- this is input received by your muscles, ligaments and joints. Proprioception allows us to know where our body is in space. It helps us know how to automatically raise our hand in class, how to drive a car, or even how to play a board game. It is activated by activities that involve pushing, pulling, jumping, crashing, climbing. Proprioception is helpful when it comes to motor planning.

Vestibular- this input is received through your inner ear and helps your body interpret movement. It can be thought of as our system of balance and it is activated by motion or changes in head position. A “clumsy” child may have a difference in their Vestibular system, or an interruption in how the Vestibular system receives input (causing an unwanted output - clumsiness).

The proprioceptive system, vestibular system, and tactile systems are SO FREAKING IMPORTANT to development!! I’ll do another post that gets a bit more detailed about them, but in the meantime, here are some sensory activities you can easily do with your kiddo:

  • climb! ladders, on chairs, up hills, stairs

  • play with different textures! play-doh, sand, shaving cream, dirt, water beads

  • go on swings!

  • go down slides!

  • somersaults

  • jumping off the couch or or bottom step

  • bounce on a yoga ball

  • play tug-of-war

  • gather leaves and rocks on a nature walk

  • crawl down the hall, under chairs, over a bed of pillows

  • art!!!

  • yoga

  • water play

Happy Playing!

Building Resilience by Bouncing Forward

Resilience doesn’t just mean getting back to normal after facing a difficult situation. It means learning from the process in order to become stronger and better at tackling the next challenge. Facing a challenge and surviving to tell the story is ok!  For our children, this means allowing them to resolve their own conflicts, letting them pick themselves back up after a fall, giving them the space to mess up! For me, the word resilience means more than one’s ability to bounce back (or forward) after hardship.  It is one’s ability to learn something from the process of bouncing back to be able to bounce forward.  Therefore, it is one’s ability to transfer knowledge from one event to a similar event to obtain a more desirable outcome.  If a child falls off their bicycle because they got distracted or hit a rock in the road, they may pay closer attention the next time they are on that bike.  Or, if a child gets into an argument on the playground with another child about who’s turn it was on the slide, they will develop better conflict resolution skills for the next time.  If we are continuously hovering over our children disallowing them to make a mistake, how will they ever truly learn some important life skills? Resilience is a personality trait that can be taught and it is up to the adult to allow our children to face  healthy challenges. We need to act as solid support systems without jumping in to fix the problem that we see arising. That is part of all this, right?  The fact that, as the adult, we can predict certain problems, and we are natural helpers and want to protect our children so the tendency is to jump in.   But, our kids need to learn how to predict problems themselves and experience a bit of frustration in the process. There is a sweet spot for the amount of frustration a child can experience that will result in a positive outcome. Allow it all to happen!


Blah, Blah, Blah- the point is- resilience can be taught and is an important trait to have.  Give your children some space! Your job is not to ride the horse with them, it is to make sure they get back on and try again!


Q-tip art and fine motor skills

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I love using common, household items for developmental activities. There really is no need to spend a bunch of money on stuff! Q-tips are one of those items that I always have on hand. They are GREAT for developing finger strength, finger isolation, and the pincer grasp. In this activity, the kiddos were asked to trace the number or letter using a q-tip as a paint brush. In addition to fine motor development, this particular activity also works on number/letter recognition, pre-writing, and bilateral coordination (by using the helper hand to stabilize the paper). Another way you can grade this activity is to have the written numbers and letters in different colors and have the child match the paint. Make sure to draw the numbers/letters appropriately for the child’s age. A 3-year-old should probably only be tracing lines and curves. A 4-year-old can start doing numbers and letters, but make them a bit on the larger size. And, a 5-year-old should be able to handle smaller writing.

Rip Some Paper!!

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This post talks about a project we did back in October. There was so much going on in such a simple that despite being long past ghosts and goblins, I wanted to share….

I love October!  Between Fall coming into full swing and Halloween capping off the month, it leaves plenty of space for themed activities! On this day, we were creating pumpkins by ripping pieces of orange paper and pasting it within a pumpkin outline. Want an incredibly easy way to work on so much goodness? RIP SOME PAPER!! Ripping paper is a great way to build finger strength and bilateral coordination. Finger strength, especially the pincer grasp (the grasp between the thumb and pointer finger- you know, to do things like pick up Cheerios!), is targeted when ripping paper. This grasp is an important fine motor skill that should be developed between 9-11 months.  Ripping paper also works on bilateral coordination, or the use of both hands together. We need Bilateral Coordination for things like holding a ball, stabilizing toys, and ripping paper! The development of both these skills is important for several age-appropriate activities such as handwriting, building blocks, self-feeding, getting dressed and so much more! Take a minute to see how often you use the pincer grasp and both hands together to complete a task!

On this particular day, I had the kids lay on their stomachs, propped up on their elbows. This was for two reasons: 1) this position helps strengthen the proximal shoulder muscles (which also aide in the development of grasp and bilateral coordination) and 2) one of our friends was feeling wiggly while sitting in “criss-cross” during circle time, so I decided we should all change our position to a less wiggly one! Our kiddos in the 3-5 year age range should be offered position changes often to increase their attention and therefore, availability to learn!


Tactile Input- sometimes YUCK, sometimes YAY, but always DEVELOPMENT!

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Our art teacher, Miss Amy, is GREAT!  She comes to us from the San Francisco Children’s Art Center in Fort Mason and the children (and myself) just couldn’t be any  happier with her! On this day, she brought our littles (mostly age 2) some fun textures to explore. Play-doh is one of my favorite materials to use.  Yes, it gets a little messy, but development can only happen during exploration! Our kids NEED to get messy! Some kids really shy away from the feeling of play-doh or other textures.  When they do, it is okay! Don’t force it. Allow them to explore when they are ready. Give them a tool to use that intercepts the feeling of touch on their hand, like a rolling pin or a plastic pizza cutter (disclaimer: this child actually has not problem touching the play-doh with his hands, BUT if he did, this is what it may look like!)

GRADUAL EXPOSURE is so important when it comes to sensory input especially when a child is showing signs of sensitivity. Allow them to get close to the material without having to actually feel it. Let them use their other senses.  See it, smell it, hear it. Watch their peers play with it. Talk about it when it isn’t in front of them. We see this so often with foods, right? We call them, “Picky Eaters,” but really so many of our kiddos just don’t love the feeling of what is inside their mouth.  Or, maybe they don’t like the smell, or sound. Or, in my daughter’s case, it’s really just about control. Whatever it is! Don’t force a child to touch or taste something. Let them play, smell, look, talk about it. Use gradual exposure as a way to help your child learn to like certain textures and be better explorers!


What are Pre-Writing Skills?

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At Enrich Play Learn, we are all about building on foundational skills through developmentally appropriate activities within a small, structured, group setting. As a pediatric OT, I am always incorporating activities into our daily routine to work on developmental skills.  These kiddos are old 3 and young 4 and are just learning how to identify and write letters. Our current theme is COLORS. So, I had them each reach into the “magic bag” to pick out a laminated color dot, match that color to a colored marker, and trace their letter by connecting dashes. The color part of this is easy peasy for them (though I still get the occasional 3-year-old who get some colors wrong).  Tracing the letters is a bit more difficult. Can they draw a straight line and remain on the dashes? Can they hold the marker okay? Are they falling over when they are kneeling at the vertical surface? Did they even find the correct letter?! This requires a lot of different skills! Especially when the tracing is happening on a vertical surface! You need core strength, proximal strength, visual-motor coordination, appropriate grasp patterns, letter recognition, ability to color match, and probably more I am not touching on!