Sensory Integration Activities: Treatment That Works Skills That Matter

Sensory Integration Activities are the lifeline to providing and achieving the necessary challenges for your child so they maximize:

  • daily functioning

  • intellectual, social, and emotional development

  • the development of a positive self-esteem

  • a mind and body which is ready for learning

  • positive interactions in the world around him

  • the achievement of normal developmental milestones

The great news is... sensory integration activities are unbelievably fun and a necessary part of development for any child, whether they have a sensory processing disorder or not. Sensory integration activities are activities that should be used with any child if normal sensory development is one of your goals (hint... it should be).

From the womb into adulthood, our neurological systems are developing
and processing an overwhelming amount of sensory information every day.
Our system must then interpret this information and make it ready to be
tolerated and used for specific purposes.

If this normal developmental process is hindered in any way, it can cause detrimental effects. Proper intake and use of sensory input is absolutely critical to a child's maturation process and the building of core, foundational skills. I certainly can not stress this enough... it is that important!

The best part about sensory integration activities is the creative fun
you can have coming up with ideas, playing with your child using sensory
input, or purchasing unique toys and products anyone would love! (I'll be honest, sometimes adults need and love these products as much as, if not more than, the child!)

In fact, because these treatment activities are so fun, creative, and unique, it often doesn't even look like "therapy". That is why we, as Occupational Therapists are a great profession... it is almost like turning work into play.

Children just think they are having fun when they are actually working strenuously at building essential skills with their bodies and better neurological systems.

It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, consistency and persistence, but in the end, you will have a thriving child who can regulate sensory input much more effectively.

The variety of sensory integration activities is endless... only limited by your creativity and imagination!  The good news is... because we, as professionals, treat children with sensory processing disorders, as well as children just trying to meet normal developmental milestones, AND we treat them in a variety of settings, we have found thousands of activities to address sensory integration / sensory processing needs!

I truly wish I could share with you every possible activity.  But, seeing as that would be a daunting and impossible task, I will instead talk about some of the most basic, most popular, most requested, fun and proven to work sensory integration activities. This, in itself, will give you a solid foundation for treatment, an understanding of why they are used, and you will be well on your way to enhancing and maximizing your child's potential!

Bear in mind, each of the following activities are in no particular hierarchy and most of them will have articles, e-books, products or merchants that they will point you to (any not listed will be coming soon!).

Below is just a brief introduction to each of the sensory integration activities. You will find more information throughout this site and through the hundreds of links provided. Well, let's go!

Sensory Integration Activities:

1. Play Doh, Gak, Glop, Funny Foam, etc...

Children need and love play doh and messy play, unless they have tactile defensiveness that is. There are so many versions of play doh, from pre-package to homemade, scented to unscented, textured to non-textured, cooked to uncooked. You name it, I have found a recipe for it. Check out Play Doh Recipes... here you will find dozens of fun recipes which make tactile experiences messy and fun!

Children need to touch a variety of textures and play with them to develop normal tactile processing.  If your child will not play with messy items, it is even more important that you continue to find fun and creative ways to introduce these to them.

Check out
the SPD Symptoms Checklist to find out if your child shows signs of tactile dysfunction.

You will also want to take a look at General Treatment Guidelines for helpful hints on how to introduce these materials to your child
safely and effectively so they can learn how best to process this input.

2. Heavy Work Activities:

These types of activities are imperative for children who have difficulty regulating their arousal levels. They are the crashers, the jumpers, the leg shakers, the ones that can't ever seem to sit still. Boy, can they try your patience as a parent, teacher or even therapist! Regular heavy input into their neurological systems WILL help calm them down.

The premise behind these activities is to help their bodies receive
regular input into their muscles and joints in the most appropriate ways so they can get the input they crave and settle their bodies down.

You will see and hear a lot about heavy work activities. Often these activities will include using weights, weighted products, jumping, bouncing, rocking, pushing, pulling, swinging and being "squished".

All kids need this! But, our children with under-reactive neurological systems will need it even more.  These activities are truly used for most sensory processing issues and can have an amazing affect on the nervous system for regulation and modulation.

Hint: Always best to precede a sit down task with a heavy work activity.

Check out an extensive list of Heavy Work Activities I have compiled. Have fun trying them all!  These activities should indeed be a big part of your daily sensory diet.

Digging and playing in the sand is also a great way to give your body heavy input (as well as tactile experiences).

3. Sleep Programs / Products:

Children and adults with sensory processing difficulties often have difficulty settling down for sleep and regulating sleep/wake cycles.

Products and activities to try include...

And, check out my article, Helping Babies Sleep for tips and resources for you and your little ones.

4. Sand And Water Play:

Playing in the sand or water provides essential yet fun ways to experience necessary tactile input. Use your creativity, get plenty of towels, and have fun filling these tables with sand, rice, shaving cream, water, or any textured substance you can think of. Of course, put little toys in as well to encourage exploration.

Check out the sand and water tables article and products, beach/sandbox toys, and wooden covered sandboxes.

5. Vestibular Movement:

Children NEED to move! For some it is difficult due to fears, for others they just can't seem to get enough.  Check out the Sensory Processing Disorder Symptom Checklist to find out if your child shows signs of vestibular and/or proprioceptive disorders. Vestibular movement (and proprioceptive input) can rev you up or calm you down. Either way, this input is necessary and will be a critical component to therapy.

Here are some suggestions for movement experiences...

6. Aromatherapy:

Aromatherapy is a wonderfully therapeutic way to address children with
sensory processing disorders (or even without) who seek out certain smells or are hypersensitive to smells.

Through aromatherapy products, including aromatherapy machines, oils, candles, diffusers etc., you can help your child tolerate or drown out smells, or use them to relax and calm.

They are a great relaxing OR stimulating tool, depending how, where, and when they are used and which smells you choose (for example; while
cinnamon might be stimulating, lavender may be soothing).

Hint: For children who are highly sensitive to smells have them carry a bottle of aromatherapy oil in their pocket to smell when intolerance hits (peppermint often works well).

Check out aromatherapy machines for more information and products to use.

7. Massagers, Vibrating Toys And Products:

Vibration is an essential tool when doing sensory integration activities and therapy. You will rarely find an Occupational Therapist working with children who have sensory processing disorders without vibration products and toys. They can be used in many ways to calm or stimulate. Vibration is a critical sensation which, for some, may take months or years to tolerate.

Here are some suggestions/products/ideas...

8. Wilbarger Brushing Protocol:

Warning: This is a widely used but highly specialized treatment used only under the direction of a trained Occupational Therapist.
It requires the use of a surgical brush and very specific instructions on how to brush the child at regular intervals throughout the day.

However, it is one successful method of treating children with tactile
defensiveness and sensory regulation issues
. One of the biggest reasons to use it is to desensitize the skin so touch sensations can be more easily tolerated. It works well if done correctly, consistently and under supervision of a trained professional.

9. Recipes And Hints For Picky Eaters:

Trust me, I KNOW how frustrating a "picky eater" can be... I have one! See my I've Been There Page to see what me and my child have been through!

But, there ARE things we can do to help treat these children and get them tolerating more foods and textures. Nothing pleasant about the old gag reflex is there!

There are treatments available for desensitization and decreasing anxiety. For more on this check out my Oral Sensitivities Article and/or Picky Eater Articles.  Or, click here for a GREAT resource to get you started... The Picky Eating Solution: Work with Your Child's Unique Eating Type to Beat Mealtime Struggles Forever

10. Play Tunnels And Tents:

Both of these have many uses as part of sensory integration activities. Again creativity is key!

The following are just some of the ways to use them...

  • use the tunnels as an active gross motor and bilateral motor
    coordination activity
    just by having the child crawl through them.

  • create a tactile experience by placing different textured objects or
    carpet squares inside the tunnel.

  • shake the tunnel up (as in an earthquake) while the children are in
    it for increased proprioceptive input and vestibular reactions.

  • use play tents as a safe haven for children who are overwhelmed by sensory stimuli or as a sensory controlled environment for napping, resting or reading. (You can place soft pillows, blankets, headphones with relaxing music, relax/stress balls, lava lamps, rope lights etc. inside for a relaxing environment)

    Click here for more information on, and a selection of, play tunnels and tents.

11. Proprioceptive Activities:

These activities are almost endless in choices. Proprioception refers to input to the muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons and connective  tissue. It refers to motor control and planning, body awareness, grading of movement (knowing how "hard" or "soft" to perform a task), and postural stability.

If the proprioceptive sense is not working well, it will be difficult to move in smooth, coordinated, and properly graded movements.

These children will have difficulty with both gross and fine motor tasks such as riding a bike, writing, walking, crawling, or playing sports. Some children also require additional proprioceptive input just to keep their bodies calm, organized, and arousal levels regulated.

The proprioceptive sense is a HUGE area to evaluate and treat in children with sensory processing difficulties. It is an extremely common area for children to show signs of dysfunction in, and is often one of the earliest warning signs of a problem. Don't ignore it please!

Click here for the Sensory Processing Disorder Symptom Checklist to see if your child has a disorder of the proprioceptive sense.  And/or check out my article on Proprioceptive Dysfunction.

If your child has difficulty riding a bike, this will get you started... Bicycles For Special Needs Article and/or the book Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle

12. Sensory Rooms:

AAAAH, this is my favorite one!

Whether you have a sensory processing disorder or not, I firmly believe every house, clinic, school, rehab facility, nursing home etc. should have a sensory room!

Couldn't we all use a little more help and time to relax and unwind every day??? Once you learn about these rooms and the AWESOME products you could surround yourself with, you might just be longing for one too!

I must admit, one of my "dreams" is to have my bedroom (or a special room in the house) be a sensory room of pure delight and relaxation!

Now for the fun... what can you put in a sensory room? It definitely will depend for what and whom you are using it. It will also depend how much money and space you have available (bummer, I know).

Here are a few ideas...

For Pure Relaxation:

  • nature sound machines
  • aromatherapy machines and aromatherapy diffusers
  • soft pillows and blankets
  • rope lights
  • bubble tubes
  • table fountains and wall fountains
  • bean bag chairs
  • massage chairs and massage mats
  • relaxing music and relaxation cd's
  • guided imagery cd's
  • light and sound machines
  • lava lamps
  • metronomes... need I go on? The list is endless!

    For Sensory Experiences With Individuals Who Fear Or Need More...

  • tactile mats
  • tactile balls
  • hammocks, suspended relax and/or swing chairs, etc.
  • vibrating recliners, pillows, chairs, toys and pads
  • interactive bubble columns and tubes
  • Fiberoptics
  • Liquid light projector
  • bubble machines
  • weighted blankets and animals
  • tactile toys
  • whistles/blow toys
  • oral motor activities/products
  • Somatron* mats, ball pools, cushions or chairs (vibration and music!)
  • suspended equipment, swings , ladders, bouncers, twirlers, Airwalker, zip lines and trolley rider etc.
  • rock walls

    And More!!!

    Truthfully I could write for hours on this, help you develop a personalized room, and give you hundreds of ideas and suggestions... now THAT is fun! If I could be your private consultant I would, but for now, I can lead you to some general information, ideas and products...

    Click Here For More On Sensory Rooms

    13. Sensory Diet: 

    No, it's not Atkins, South Beach or Slim Fast... Despite what you may have thought, this actually has nothing to do with food, fat, sugar, carbs or counting calories!

    A sensory diet is, rather, a "diet" of activities and sensory input for your body and neurological system.

    You may already have heard of it, had it recommended for your child, or be saying, HUH? For the latter group, let me briefly explain...

    Just the same way your body needs food evenly spaced throughout the day, so does your body need activities to keep it's arousal level optimal.

    Sensory diets are usually developed for individuals who need a large amount of sensory input throughout the day, however, they can be used in other ways as well. Perhaps the lethargic, disengaged, or fearful individual needs to be "woken" up throughout the day and exposed to input they may not normally receive. Then a sensory diet may be appropriate for them too.

    Doctors have to figure out one's metabolism, amount of food, calories, type of food, and frequency to eat based on an individual's needs and body to keep the body functioning at it's optimal level. Someone trying to keep blood sugar levels regulated and 100 lbs overweight will eat differently than someone weighing 90 lbs who is dealing with anorexia.

    Similarly, Occupational Therapists also need to figure out the amount, type, and frequency of activities one needs to function at their optimal level. Same idea, just different "food".

    Warning: Just as any diet should be prescribed and followed under the care and supervision of a doctor, so also the sensory diet needs to be "prescribed" and followed under the care and supervision of an Occupational Therapist. It requires skill, art, knowledge, and experience.

    Click Here For Information On Creating Sensory Diet For YOUR Child

    Or, you may want to check out information on the best "Sensory Diet program" - The Alert Program: How Does Your Engine Run?

    14. Oral Motor Toys / Products / Games:

    Occupational Therapists and Speech Therapists treat hundreds of children every day who have difficulties with oral motor control and difficulty regulating sensory input in the mouth (hypo- or hyper- sensitive).

    These are the children who have difficulties with speech, eating, are constantly putting things in their mouth, drooling, or never eating anything besides applesauce and yogurt.

    Click here for the Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist to see if your child has signs of sensory dysfunction regarding oral input.

    It is rare you will find either therapist walking around without a bag full of oral motor toys.

    Toys we love include...

  • whistles
  • blow toys
  • blo pens
  • straws (ie. playing hockey by blowing cotton balls or splatter painting by blowing on paint using a straw etc.)
  • sweet and sour candies and gum
  • weird and different foods
  • making food into toys or animals
  • oral massagers
  • textured teething rings or spoons
  • bubbles
  • chewy tubing
  • and edible play doh

    Again, creativity is key!

    There is an endless list of activities that children can do to improve their oral motor control and give their mouths more, or the right type of input.

    This is often one of the parts of sensory integration activities and therapy children look forward to most... we put a lot of fun and sometimes bizarre creativity into it, but it works!

    15. Sensory Toys:

    Well, you talk about a list of endless possibilities, this would be it! Sensory toys are everywhere. We can also find ways to turn any toy into a sensory toy, just by using it differently.

    Just know this, the toys I will be showing you and discussing are going to be more "unique" toys you may not see everyday, or, toys you do but I will suggest a different way to use them.

    This is the easiest way to perform sensory integration activities... using toys already made and targeted for sensory input. Luckily, many toy companies have recognized the need for multiple types of sensory input in infants and children. It is HUGELY important for proper development.

    A taste of some of the MANY different sensory toys...

  • play gyms with sound and lights
  • tons of tactile toys
  • play mats with unique sensory experiences
  • vibrating toys
  • textured puzzles
  • unique balls to sit on, play with or touch
  • fun balance boards and games
  • slimy, squishy, squeezy toys
  • toys to sit on, spin on, ride on, climb on, twirl on...

    Just think of all your senses. Now think of all the toys that could address any one or combination of these senses! Almost overwhelming isn't it?

    16. Deep Pressure Activities:

    These are extremely therapeutic activities for children with sensory processing difficulties. They calm, they regulate, they relax! For kids who have difficulty regulating their arousal level and calming their bodies down, it is all about the "squishing"! These kids absolutely love to be flattened and steamrolled, sat on, laid on and pressed on.

    Believe it or not, they need it, crave it and will beg for it once they have been introduced to some fun ways of achieving this deep pressure input.

    The key is giving and showing them appropriate ways to get this input and helping them realize not everyone likes to be "flattened like a pancake". This, in turn, can improve social relationships significantly, as you could well imagine!

    Here are some ideas...

  • a "steamroller machine" (product you can buy that literally steam rolls their whole body
  • putting bean bag chairs, squishy mats, pillows on them and applying even pressure on their whole body (for some, the weight of an adult is not even too much or enough!)
  • weighted blankets, toys, vests, wraps etc. Check out these two articles; weighted blankets and weighted vests for more information and great weighted products to choose from.
  • sitting in bean bag chairs that envelop the body and provide even pressure
  • co-oper blanket
  • resistance tunnels to crawl through
  • massage products
  • ball pits and ball pools
  • Body Sox (tm)
  • infant massage or deep pressure massage
  • rolling children up and unrolling them in mats and blankets

  • 17. Handwriting Help:

    We see SO MANY children with sensory processing difficulties who have significant handwriting problems. Their writing is messy, labored, they press to hard or too light, it is illegible, takes them too long, their hands are tired and sore, they write letters backwards etc. Messages are not being received or perceived correctly and handwriting becomes a dreaded task. This too is one of the earliest signs of problems and often picked up by parents or teachers. You may notice these children have awkward and inefficient grips on their writing utensils and difficulty cutting as well.

    Fine motor coordination becomes difficult and labored. Consequently, the children avoid these tasks and become very frustrated. There are hundreds of fine motor activities we use with these children to improve their skills. And, of course, we always try to make them fun!

    Here are a few ideas...

  • mazes
  • Handwriting Without Tears Program
  • using wikki sticks
  • tabletop easels, chalkboards, and any upright surface
  • making letters with fingers on table or easel in funny foam, shaving cream or pudding
  • using raised lined paper for tactile feedback on proper lettering heights
  • puzzles
  • stringing beads
  • playing games using play "tweezers" or "chopsticks"
  • handwriting programs to music
  • using pencil grips, weighted pens, and other adaptive equipment
  • theraputty manipulation and games

    Handwriting and fine motor skills are absolutely essential skills which kids must develop to maximize potential at school and home.

    It is a foundational skill which will negatively affect many aspects of functioning if not achieved... from dressing to handwriting, shoe tying to typing, strength and endurance, putting items together to manipulating small objects.

    It must not be ignored!! Click here for a comprehensive article on fine motor skills and a large selection of great games and toys to use!

    18. Social Skill Development:

    Children with sensory processing disorders face many challenges in developing appropriate and rewarding relationships with their peers. There can be so many obstacles which hinder this development and will become another contributing factor to low self-esteem and isolation.

    We often treat children with such diagnoses as; Aspergers, ADD, ADHD, Autism, and PDD (among others of course). A major "symptom" of these disabilities is difficulty relating to and developing appropriate social relationships, as they tend to miss "social cues". Couple this with sensory processing difficulties which ALSO affect children's abilities to develop relationships. That's right, DOUBLE WHAMMY!

    Consequently, these children become either too energetic, too rough, can't sit still, impulsive, fearful, withdrawn, aggressive, suffer learning difficulties, or are just plain old misunderstood and negatively labeled by their peers. Therefore, other children tend to avoid them because they are "difficult" to play with.

    Some of these children are extremely challenging and they need our help as early in life as possible before a lack of appropriate social skills impedes their development to an extreme.

    When working with children on sensory integration activities, we often work in groups which is one of the best ways to address and treat any social skill problem.

    Part of treatment is helping them learn to read social cues, respond to their peers, wait, take turns, win or lose appropriately, and share similar experiences. Often, peer treatment is good too if one brings another out of their shell and gets them to try new things, or calms the other one down purely by watching, encouraging, or modeling behavior.

    There are many social skills games and activities that can be played with monitoring and guidance from a therapist, teacher or parent. Social skills are incredibly important and developing these skills is an inherent part of sensory integration activities and therapy.

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    Further Reading

    Click Here For MORE Sensory Integration Products

    Click Here For Specific Sensory Activities For Infants

    Click Here For Gross Motor Activity Ideas For Your Toddler

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