Keeping Me Well - Cardiff and Vale University Hospital

Supporting my child with sensory play

Introducing a variety of sensory play into your child’s day to day life will help their sensory system develop and mature. Our Occupational Therapists have put together this information to help you support your child to enjoy the benefits of sensory play.

Someone playing with water beads

Why do children require sensory input?

We recommend you firstly watch our video workshop on ‘How Children Use Their Senses To Regulate For Learning And Play’ to give more information on sensory play.

Children require a varied ‘sensory diet’ (lots of different sensations) for their sensory systems to develop and mature. We recommend using a play-based approach as this naturally fits with children’s experiences, including things like rough and tumble, messy and explorative play. Providing a wide variety of sensory activities will help prevent sensory aversions in the future.

Here are some activities to develop your sensory play. This is not an exhaustive list, but provides you with some ideas to get started. You should be guided by what your child enjoys. As you try the different activities you may find that some are more successful than others and you can alter the “sensory diet” accordingly.

Please refer back to the sensory video workshop as often as possible to refresh or gather additional strategies and techniques that can support you.

Activity ideas for each of the senses

Have a ‘tactile box’ with a range of different textures to feel and play with.

Some ideas for the tactile box include:

  • Different fabric squares or scarves (silk, velvet, cord, fur fabric)
  • Different textured fidget toys (hard, soft, rough, smooth)
  • Squeezy and stretchy toys
  • Dish scourers, paint brushes, loofahs, feathers, sheepskin, bubble wrap
  • Tubs of ‘slime’, lentils, sand, kinetic sand
  • Cans of shaving foam or moisturising mousse
  • Offering them safe materials to manipulate, like textured toys or blocks or items that allow them to push, pull, squeeze etc.
  • Vibrating toy

Make bath time an interactive experience by including a variety of different toys (ones that are soft and hard, sink or float) and bubbles to provide a variety of sensory stimuli.

‘Dry’ messy play – play in dry sand, pasta, rice or Styrofoam initially and then add water to feel how the texture changes. Have toys buried to encourage play and exploration.

Hand and feet painting

  • Use everyday objects such as pots, plastic buckets or cardboard boxes, to practice tapping hands or ‘sticks’ to make a noise.
  • Have your hands over your child’s to adjust the amount of pressure they are making to make the sounds softer and louder.
  • Sing songs or nursery rhymes and have different rhythms.
  • Use different tones and volumes when reading to your child
  • Fill a bottle with rice or dried pasta or beans to create an instrument
  • Noisy toys i.e. rattles
  • Offer where possible different tastes and textures during mealtimes and model to your child how you would eat the food
  • Prepare a snack plate and ask your child to wear a blindfold and guess the food
  • Edible painting using yogurt or smooth puree
  • Have a tasting party – set out small nibbles asking your child to try each one, discuss the taste, texture and colour etc..
  • Encourage your child to notice and be around different cooking smells
  • Have scented pens, playdough and soaps
  • Go on ‘nature walks’ and smelling different plants and flowers
  • Try alerting smells like citrus and peppermint
  • Try soothing and calming scents like vanilla, floral and chamomile.
  • Play games of peek-a-boo
  • Hide toys under blankets and encourage your child to seek them out
  • Look at books together noticing details on the page and describing these
  • Have fun with Where’s Wally books
  • Play with light up toys
  • Play with liquid motion toys
  • Enjoy torch play in the dark or under a blanket
  • Play with spinning toys

What is the vestibular sense?

Vestibular input is sensory information that is obtained when our head moves. Activities that provide head rotation are particularly alerting, as are fast and unpredictable movements.

Vestibular activities that are more linear – that is forwards and backwards or side to side – are also alerting, but less so than rotational movements.

Vestibular over-stimulation

Thinking about the “cup analogy” (from our video workshop on ‘How Children Use Their Senses To Regulate For Learning And Play’ ) we need to be mindful that vestibular input can have a very strong effect on our nervous system and depending on the “size of your cup” we need to be mindful that too much of the arousing / alerting kind could cause the cup to “overflow”. This looks different for every child, but you may see your child become very silly, giddy, “hyper”, unable to slow down, not listening, unable to be calm.

If you see this, then your child has had too much vestibular input – you can manage this by then offering proprioceptive input as this is very calming and regulating. Be mindful of this as you would not want to offer as much of the vestibular input next time – or you would want to include this with proprioceptive input.

To prevent over-arousal, you can add “pauses” to the activities below. For example, play musical statues with a five second pause when dancing or ask your child if he can do ten jumps on the trampette and then stand still as a statue for ten seconds.

Suggested activities

  • Jump on a trampette
  • Play jumping games on the floor such as hopscotch
  • Jump onto targets or stepping stones
  • Jumping jacks
  • Do a “workout session”
    • 10 jumping jacks
    • crawl to the other side of the room
    • 2 roly-polys, etc
  • Spinning on roundabouts
  • Playing “ring a roses”
  • Dancing in circles;
  • Okie Cokie
  • Rough and tumble play such as wrestling or obstacle courses

Proprioceptive input has a calming effect on our bodies.

We get proprioceptive information through our muscles and joints when we do activities that involve pushing, pulling, lifting or resisting.

Regular linear movements of the head (e.g. back and forth rather than rotational) can also be calming.

Suggested activities

  • Bike or scooter riding
  • Wall push ups (push on wall with both hands as if to push the wall away)
  • Chair push ups (place hands on the side of seat and lift self away from the seat)
  • Boxing
  • Simple yoga, Pilates or martial art videos online – Cosmic Kids have really nice yoga videos
  • Park play- swing, slides, climbing frames, monkey bars
  • Crawl on all fours and copy animal poses or walks (e.g. slither like a snake, stomp like an elephant, jump like a frog)
  • Squash and play fun with play-dough, putty and slime
  • Play with fiddle toys and stress balls
  • Have your child pull themselves along a rope while lying on their stomach
  • Play tug of war
  • Go for a wheelbarrow walk or play wheelbarrow races
  • Push and pull games such as ‘row the boat’
  • Rough and tumble play
  • Sport or physical activities such as swimming, trampolining, climbing or gymnastics
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