In this week’s show, we’re continuing our series for selecting therapy activities for toddlers and preschoolers who are late talkers. Today we’re discussing Sensory Activities.
Sensory activities are fantastic for children because they provide an opportunity for a child to engage in multiple avenues of learning. During sensory activities kids use all of their senses – seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, moving, and even tasting – to explore the materials. These activities also promote problem solving by teaching children to experiment and try new options or solutions.
Some therapists introduce sensory activities earlier than this developmental level, but I don’t until I know that a child is safe and can attend to me and the activity. Sensory activities are calming and regulating for many young children, but NOT a great choice for toddlers who still like to mouth or throw toys because then the activity becomes about keeping them safe rather than learning language and your other goals. I also don’t introduce an activity with a child that might detract or minimize the opportunities for communicating. If a child is going to become so engrossed in the water or sand that he forgets about interacting with me, I won’t do it during a therapy session! That would be an activity I’d recommend for solitary play time.
Other Benefits of Sensory Activities:
- Add variety to therapy time (and play time outside therapy!)
- Build attention to task
- Address sensory needs of child – give him what he needs and help him learn to like, tolerate, and explore things that are challenging. Busy kids may calm significantly with sensory play and low arousal kids may get an energy boost.
- Improve fine motor skills with new tools for play
- CAN be used to teach joint attention AND social skills. Initially this may mean that a child learns to tolerate peers during play, even if it just means co-existing initially. Remember, parallel play comes before cooperative play! Ways to promote interaction with peers during sensory activities include seating kids across from each other and encouraging contact while minimizing aggressiveness. (Examples – Provide enough tools for everyone to minimize “sharing wars”, yet consider ways you could gently introduce cooperation and sharing.)
- Teach other cognitive concepts such as sorting, matching, and comparing.
Some moms don’t like sensory play because it’s inherently messy, but don’t let that keep you from trying it. Here are my best tips for managing the mess:
- Get kids ready – not their best clothes or strip down to diaper or cover up with smock – big t shirt
- Go outside! Play on the porch or drive way or in garage
- If inside – Protect area – contain mess – vinyl/plastic table cloth or shower curtain liner (defines space for child) – sheet or blanket – gather it up and shake it outside or in garbage when you’re finished
- Disposable – washable materials
- Limit access to the messy materials
- Teach cleaning up as part of the play
Google or search Pinterest for “sensory play for toddlers” for ideas. There are HUNDREDS of activities out there. Check out teachmetotalk’s Pinterest boards!
Below I’m sharing my favorite sensory activities. We discussed them in detail on the show:
- Water Play in the…
- Bathtub – Play splashing games to get joint attention and imitation going with a child. Add tools and toys for exploring. Model simple actions for the child to imitate like pouring from a cup or bucket, stirring with a spoon, and throwing toys in the water to see the big splash. Water IS the most popular and universally accepted sensory material!
- Kitchen Sink – Pour in in extra dish soap to make mounds of foamy bubbles! Squeeze the bubbles in your hands. Play other games such as hiding your hands under the bubbles and quickly lifting them out. Older toddlers and preschoolers love the idea of washing dishes and this is a nice bridge to pretend play. Add a few plastic dishes, some dish rags and brushes, and then go to town washing those dishes!
- Plastic Box/Bin – I love water play when it’s a little more controlled. Get a Rubbermaid or another kind of plastic square container at least 6 inches deep. My favorite is a long rectangular under the bed shallow box, especially if there’s more than one child. (More ideas for this kind of play are below.)
- Accessories – Gather “tools” for a child to use during water play. Tool use is an important skill for toddlers (which means learning how to use an object for an intended function to solve a problem) and leads to using everyday life tools like utensils for eating, brushing hair and teeth, coloring/drawing/writing, etc… Raid the kitchen for familiar tools. Try plastic measuring cups, soup ladles, spatulas, and large spoons with holes. Don’t underestimate the power of SIMPLE play. Stirring with giant spoons is loads of fun for toddlers!
- Water Tables – Super option if you have the room on a porch or even inside. (See picture below in links.)
- Outside options for water play are fantastic when it’s warm. You can carry over these same ideas in the pool – even the plastic baby pool. Imitation games are really fun here – try splashing and kicking games. Add toys and model simple actions for the child to imitate like the suggestions form the bathtub section – pouring from a cup or bucket, stirring with a spoon, and throwing toys in the water to see a big splash.
For kids who need more movement, don’t forget about playing in the sprinkler or with a water hose on trickle for TONS of fun!
- Make Sensory Boxes initially for play together in order to teach new language skills moving on to independent play once a child won’t put these things in their mouths –
- Container – As discussed in the previous section, a durable plastic container is a great way to set up sensory play activities.
- Filler – Add sand, beans, rice, pasta, corn meal, dried corn/seeds,– rocks, birdseed, wrapping paper /filler like shredded paper, Easter grass, pom poms, cotton balls, yarn, or Styrofoam peanuts – so many possibilities!
- Accessories – Options include objects for digging, filling, and dumping such as shovels, spoons, buckets, bowls, scoopers, measuring cup sets, tongs, or smaller containers like spice jars or parmesan cheese jars with holes in top.
- Toys – Hide the toys in the filler for finding. Include objects you know will appeal to a child’s sensory preferences. If she’s a visual kid, pick cool things for her to look at and explore. If she’s a kid who likes to pinch and pull, add squishy fidget toys. If he loves trucks and seems limited in his options for what he’ll do with a truck, add them to sensory play to expand his play skills.
- Language “themes” are a fantastic way to switch up your materials in a sensory box and for introducing new vocabulary. Try seasonal materials. There are HUNDREDS of blog posts devoted to these ideas. If you’d like to see how to assemble a language themed box, watch this Therapy Tip of the Week video about Valentine’s Day. I also have a couple of one-hour online videos to teach you how to adapt sensory boxes for Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
- Even Messier Sensory Play is a fun and fantastic to help normalize a child’s reactions to new textures or tactile input on their hands. To make this kind of play easier for kids who are “icked out,” add a tool OR start with something that won’t make hands dirty. Ideas that have worked for a wide variety of children –
- Shaving cream on a table, high chair tray, or in the tub/shower
- “Goop” – Google for homemade recipes safe for young children who may taste your concoction!
- Foods such as cooked spaghetti, pudding, jello, or even dry snacks. I’ve used crumbled Oreos to make “dirt” for small trucks, tractors, bulldozers, and other digger vehicles and goldfish to hide other plastic sea creatures.
- More structured options include play-doh or paint.
***Remember to add your accessories/tools so that a child who has tactile defensiveness can play initially to provide exposure and then over time, begin to use his hands as his sensations are normalized.***
Reminders for your language strategies:
- Teach a child to understand new words. Begin with labeling the nouns/names of objects, but go beyond that! Target new comprehension targets with prepositions (in, out, on, off, under), new verbs (pat, squeeze, squish, scoop, dig, dump, pour, shake, hide, etc…), and new descriptive words (BEYOND COLOR WORDS!). Try shiny, pretty, size words big/little, yucky, squishy, etc.
- Teach a child to say new words. Don’t forget your exclamatory words such as: whee, wow, whoa, and boo (as you find hidden objects).
- Create verbal routines to build automatic speech so kids learn to fill in the blank with your cute routines such as “Scoop. In. Scoop. In. Scoop. ____.”
- Target holistic phrases such as: I did it, I got it, Where (did) it go, There it is!
- Work on simple phrase patterns such as “My + ____” as you teasingly take an object a child wants or “Bye bye + _____ as you hide the objects.”
**Need more help with language strategies? If you’re a parent, try Teach Me To Talk the DVD. If you’re a therapist (or a parent who’s ready for more detailed “how to” information, get yourself a copy of Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual.
Links for super toys for sensory play if you want to branch out beyond more “homemade” options:
This Barbie Pool is toy-sized and a great way to move toward pretend play. We’ll talk about this in next week’s show too! SO FUN!!!