With school closings and the events surrounding COVID-19, families are finding themselves out of routine and quickly trying to adapt to a different way of doing things. Parents are wondering how to meet their kids’ unique sensory needs during this unexpected time. If your child is a sensory seeker, it’s important to continue with lots of gross motor movement and exercises and to provide as much sensory stimulation as possible. If you live in a rural area or have a yard, getting some fresh air and playing outside is a great option. However, if you do not have the ability to get outside or are looking for ways to incorporate more of a sensory friendly environment in your own home, read on!
A sensory room or sensory space can help with a child’s development. A sensory gym in a setting such as a pediatric therapy clinic may have various kinds of therapy swings, trampolines, ball pits, crash pads, barrels, tunnels, mats, etc. A sensory room (also known as Snoezelen rooms) can have high tech lighting and fiber optics, projectors, water beds, bubble tubes and wall panels. The purpose of these rooms is to provide a relaxed atmosphere where the person is surrounded by pleasant sensations (unique tactile experiences, relaxing aromas, interesting light effects).
While all these things are absolutely wonderful and therapeutic, do not feel like you can’t provide an appropriate sensory space with sensory stimulation for your child right in your own home. You don’t need a “space”- instead focus on the space you do have and work from there. Small spaces can be just as effective and there are ways you can make it work. Simple and cost effective options are available and can help your child self- regulate, de-stress, and provide necessary sensory input. Read below for some helpful ideas!
Make your own CRASH PAD! A simple DIY solution is to take a large zip-up duvet cover and stuff it with pillows, blankets, large stuffed animals, etc. Zip it up and let your child jump and crash into it. Crawling over it on hands and knees is also just as effective.
*Note: Crashing into a crash pad, jumping, climbing, crawling, pushing, pulling, lifting objects or any sort of weight bearing activity is great for providing proprioceptive input. What’s proprioception? The sensations from our joints and muscles that underly body awareness. When we give our body this type of sensory input, it can help improve body awareness and is very organizing and calming for the body.
Bounce on an exercise ball, sit in a rocking chair, jump on mini trampoline to receive vestibular stimulation in place of a therapy swing.
Don’t forget lighting! You don’t need high tech lighting equipment. You can add a relaxing glow to your sensory space by using some christmas lights, net lights, string lights, battery powered candles, glow sticks or lava lamps. Lighting is such a powerful thing. It influences us in subtle ways and can change the way we feel. For example, fluorescent overhead lights that emit a cool tone can make us feel uncomfortable. Warm, soft lighting can make us feel relaxed. Don’t be afraid to unpack your Christmas lights to create a relaxing and comfy ambience.
Create your own DIY light table. Check out this post on how to make an inexpensive light table with a plastic storage container and Christmas lights.
Have a bin available in your sensory space of different textured or squeezable fidgets. I recommend dividing the toys up into little bins or individual storage containers. If you have too many items laying around, it can be visually over-stimulating and your child may become uninterested. Instead, keep the unused toy bins out of sight and introduce select toys into your child’s sensory space. Rotate the bins as needed.
Aromatherapy. If your child is not sensitive to scents, try putting a drop or two of essential oil on a cotton ball and let your child smell it. Making your own play dough and adding a couple drops of essential oil, such as lavender is also another great way to incorporate relaxing scents into play.
Create a “snuggle space.” Stuff a play tent (or a blow up kiddie pool) with lots of blankets, pillows, stuffed animals and let your child burrow into all the fluff to help with self regulation and to provide deep pressure. Another option is to roll your child up into a blanket (like a little burrito) or let him/ her crawl under comforters and heavy blankets. Don’t have a play tent? Make your own by covering a small table with blankets and letting your child crawl under.
Tactile wall. You can create your own textured wall or board using household items such as differently textured sponges, feathers, pom poms, etc. Have old CDs lying around that you will never use again? Use them to create a visual sensory wall (smooth, shiny side up) which makes for interesting visual stimulation. Check out Pinterest for more DIY tactile wall ideas
Music! Keep a speaker/ music player in your child’s sensory space for some background noise. Music can change the way we feel. Songs with a steady beat have shown to be calming and effective in lowering anxiety. Our bodies respond and “sync up” to the music. Native American, Celtic, Indian stringed- instruments, drums, and flutes are excellent at relaxing the mind. Nature sounds, and sounds of rain, light jazz, classical and easy listening music are very calming as well.
Vibration. Instead of an expensive massage mat, a simple hand-held massager can provide your child with vibration sensations. A vibration massage can be very organizing and alerting for child with a low arousal level. Vibration gives a child that extra sensory information to “wake up” their muscles. It can be very therapeutic and calming for a child who is a “seeker” and gives them the sensory input they crave. You can give your child a vibration massage by turning it on and rolling it up and down their back, arms and legs. If your child does not like the sensation of the vibrations, never force it. Instead, you can try keeping it powered “OFF” and just use it to give a gentle rolling massage. Homedics makes wonderful massager.
Best of luck to everyone incorporating sensory activities and items into your homes to create a sensory friendly space. As you introduce different sensory items, you will learn more about what your child’s sensory preferences are by observing what they gravitate to and enjoy. Many times, seeing what helps a child self regulate is a matter of trial and error and pure exploration.
Author: Christina Kozlowski, Occupational Therapist, OTR/L and founder of Sensory TheraPLAY Box