A Very Sensory Spring

by FS&TS

By Jennafer Young, MS, OTR/L

Spring is here! And with it come many advantages to outdoor sensory play.

The outdoors is the perfect place for your child to encounter rich, meaningful, fun, and challenging sensory experiences! Think about it: playing outside provides some of the greatest variety in sensory experiences. You naturally have many sounds (birds, cars driving by, children down the street)...many smells (grass, pine needles, rain)...many sights (various colors, sizes, distances, and patterns)...and many textures (light breeze on your face, sticky mud on your hands, soft grass on your feet).

On top of all this input, you have plenty of movement input (vestibular and proprioceptive) from the play children naturally participate in when they are outside: running, swinging, puddle jumping, rolling, digging, sliding, climbing...the list goes on!

When children are playing outside, they get to learn about challenging and wonderful sensory input in a natural, non-threatening way. They get to learn about the world that will always be around them, rather than a contrived world of sensory bins and structured play. Don’t get me wrong - I love these too. But these activities imitate rather than replace the sensory-rich experiences found in nature. So let’s set aside our grown-up and all-too-practical ideas of uber cleanliness, hyper-safety patrol, and total control. Let’s encourage our kids to get outside, get sweaty, and get dirty! Here are a few ideas:

Instead of staying inside to create home-made play dough for a texture experience, why not go dig in the sandbox or make mud pies?

Rather than having animal races down the hallway, why not have your races outside where the whole body is engaged in a sensory experience?

Instead of playing in a water basin or bathtub, why not put on old clothes and go puddle jumping?

Rather than host a dance party to get the wiggles out, why not climb trees or have rolling races down the hill in the backyard?

And don’t forget to invite the neighbor kids! You may be amazed at the sensory input your child will accept when they have a friend laughing and playing right along with them.


Happy Spring!

Everyday Sensory: Making Sense of the Vestibular System

by FS&TS

By Jennafer Young, MS, OTR/L

“All this talk about vestibular input is making my head spin!”

Did you catch the pun? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. In a previous post I’ve talked about how easy it is for OTs to get caught up in confusing jargon as we describe your child’s sensory needs. Today I want to remove some of the dizzying terminology by jumping into a concrete explanation of the vestibular system. Ok, enough with the cheesy vestibular-puns. Let’s make some sense of this unusual term.

What is the vestibular sense?

The “vestibular sense” is just another one of your senses. In everyday life we talk about 5 senses, but in actuality we have at least 7 senses: sight, taste, sound, touch, smell, proprioception, and vestibular. (For more on proprioception, see the blog post titled Everyday Sensory: Making Sense of Proprioception.)

Basically, the vestibular sense is your sense of balance...movement...speed...where your head is located in relation to gravity. If you bend down to pick something up off the floor, you know you are upside-down because of your vestibular system. When you spin on a tire swing, that feeling of dizziness is sensed by your vestibular system. When you change your speed from fast to slow, keep your balance on a rocking boat, or even feel carsick, those sensations come from your vestibular system telling your brain about your body’s movement in relation to gravity. This awareness of your movement, speed, and balance is sensed by receptors in your inner ear, and then relayed to your brain through the same nerve that carries auditory (sound) input from your ear.

Why does the vestibular sense matter?

The vestibular sense is what lets you sort out the difference between up and down, spinning and stationary, fast and slow. These sensations are necessary for keeping yourself upright in a moving world and for coordinating safe and controlled movements. Because of the pathways in the brain where vestibular information travels, the vestibular system is also a key player in keeping you alert, controlling posture, and even regulating emotions.

Why does my child seek or avoid vestibular input?  

People have different levels of sensitivity to each type of sensory input. Just like one person may perceive a food to taste spicy while another finds it bland, so some people are more or less sensitive to vestibular input. Some kids are highly sensitive to vestibular input and may become carsick easily or be afraid to let their feet leave the ground. Other kids can’t seem to get enough movement because they have a low sensitivity to vestibular input. To make up for it, they are constantly spinning on the tire swing, jumping into the pool, and rolling down the hill. This more intense movement helps them experience the input they are craving. Others may feel that same level input from less intense movement (like a rocking chair or a slow bike ride).

What activities provide vestibular input?

Any movement-based activity triggers the vestibular system to send messages to the brain about where we are in relation to gravity. But activities that include spinning, head movement, and changes in speed are especially rich in vestibular input.

Here are some activities that provide a lot of vestibular input:

  • -Running, skipping, jumping

  • -Swinging on a playground swing or tire swing

  • -Riding the Merry-Go-Round or See-Saw

  • -Riding a bike

  • -Rolling down the hill

  • -Rocking in a chair or hammock

  • -Jumping on the trampoline

  • -Bouncing on a hippity hop ball

Holiday Food Exploration

by FS&TS

By Jessica Naiberg, OTR/L

Holidays and changing seasons are natural times to explore new foods due to the changing seasonal produce and meals.

 

For our children, this change can be exciting AND scary. Playing with food is one way we can encourage our kids to explore new or non preferred food items.  

Activities to encourage Food Exploration

  • Flying food like an airplane

  • Playing peek-a-boo with food placed under a napkin

  • Making art with food.

  • “Painting” with applesauce using a pretzel stick or creating “food art” by making pictures on a plate is a great way to increase exposure through sight, touch and maybe even taste.

Encouraging Flexibility by Changing Shapes

To enhance flexibility around food and encourage adventurous eating, one of the first steps is to alter the appearance of already preferred food items. This strategy can be as basic as cutting a sandwich diagonally, instead of vertically, or as complex as creating food art with familiar food.

Thanksgiving and other holidays are great times to borrow food art ideas from Pinterest or blog posts.

Everyday Sensory: Making Sense of Proprioception

by FS&TS

By Jennafer Young, MS, OTR/L

I’ll be the first to admit that we occupational therapists like to throw around a lot of “sensory jargon.” You may nod and smile and think it all makes sense while we chatter about your child’s vestibular system, oral-seeking behaviors, proprioceptive calming strategies, and sensory diet. But when you try to explain your child’s needs and strategies to teachers, PCAs, or other family members, you realize it’s not quite as clear as you thought in the clinic. Let’s hit pause and try to break down one of these terms into real language - language you can feel comfortable using to teach grandparents or daycare providers how to best support your child. Today we’ll start with the longest word: proprioception.

What is proprioception?

“Proprioception” is just another one of your senses. Usually we talk about 5 senses - sight, taste, touch, sound, and smell. Well in the OT world, there are 7 senses, and proprioception is number 6. (Vestibular sense is number 7, but that’s a topic for another day.)

In a nutshell, the sense of proprioception is the sense of where your body is. Close your eyes and think about your body - do you still know where your left arm is, even though you can’t see it? Can you reach up and touch your ear with your eyes closed? That’s because of your sense of proprioception. This awareness of your body is picked up by receptors located in your muscles and joints. Whenever you move (and amazingly, even when you stand still!), these receptors send messages to the brain to let you know where each part of your body is positioned and how it is moving.

Why does proprioception matter?

By giving you a sense of body awareness, proprioception prepares you to move in a smooth and coordinated fashion. After all, if you’re not sure where your body is, it would sure be tough to coordinate your arms, legs, and trunk to complete movements like running, jumping rope, or climbing on the jungle gym! Having a good sense of proprioception also helps with safety awareness because you know where you are in relation to your surroundings. This helps keep you from bumping into people and objects around you.

Why does my child “seek proprioception”?

In regard to the other senses, we might say someone has “keen eyesight” or is “not very sensitive to smells.” Similarly, some kids are highly aware of their bodies (high proprioceptive sense), and some have low awareness (low proprioceptive sense). For those with low awareness, it takes a more powerful proprioceptive input for them to feel it. This more intense input could seem painful to us, but it is “just right” for the child with a lower sensitivity to proprioception. Does your child love to jump, roll, crash, or purposefully fall? He or she is probably trying to naturally get the proprioceptive input needed to sense the position of his/her body.

What activities provide proprioceptive input?

Activities that require your the muscles to work hard or add pressure to the joints are rich proprioceptive activities. By loading your joints or muscles with weight (“heavy work”), you can cause the receptors there to send lots of strong messages to the brain about where your body is!

Here are some activities that provide a lot of proprioceptive input:

  • -Animal walks (bear walk, crab walk, wheelbarrow walk, etc.)

  • -Tug-of-war

  • -Crawling through a mountain of heavy pillows/blankets

  • -Pulling a sled loaded with snow or sand or another child

  • -Wearing ankle weights or wrist weights while playing

  • -Monkey bars or climbing on the jungle gym

  • -Pushing the grocery cart

  • -Swimming

  • -Making snow angels

  • -Kneading or stirring thick foods

  • -Laying on the belly while propped up on elbows or hands (e.g. while watching TV, coloring, etc.)

Managing Sensory Challenges at Halloween

by FS&TS

By Brenna Patterson, OTR/L

Halloween can be an exciting, anticipated event for many kids. Some kids love to pretend to be their favorite superhero or princess, or get to dress up for a whole day. For some kids, though, this may be an overwhelming and challenging experience with new sounds (sometimes spooky!), people looking different than normal, and having to tolerate a lot of textures over the course of the holiday (pumpkin “guts,” rough costumes, masks, etc.).

There are some ways that you can prepare your child with sensory challenges for this holiday so it’s an enjoyable experience for everyone! Some preparatory planning can go a long way to support everyone’s experience on the special day.

Costumes:

Sometimes a mask may be overwhelming, especially for a child who cannot tolerate tactile textures on their face for extended periods of time. The same goes for face paint! If the child’s preferred costume requires either of these options, perhaps ease them into this experience by role playing or allowing the child to wear them for brief amounts of time, increasing the amount of time leading up to the trick or treat day. There are a variety of costumes that don’t require a mask, or maybe just requires a hat. For example, a train conductor (perhaps Sir TopHam Hat), a pumpkin, a princess, a doctor, or a fireman. Children with sensory processing challenges may have difficulty with certain fabric textures touching their skin. One strategy is putting a soft cotton shirt on underneath (and if going outside, this will help stay warm as well!).

Children may also have difficulty with the increases in noise with a lot of peers, adults, or music used during parties and trick or treating. You could get creative with their costume choice, selecting a costume that may use headphones that you could incorporate noise-cancelling headphones into. For example, a DJ, a pilot, or a race car driver.

There are now many events for trick-or-treating around communities that occur in daylight, which may be a good alternative to trick-or-treating at night for a child that does not respond well to darker lighting. Trick-or-treating in the dark may be extra intense when approaching unfamiliar homes in your neighborhood. Some strategies for creating a positive trick-or-treating experience for a child sensitive to lighting would be attending the earlier trick-or-treating events in the community, trick-or-treating early at familiar homes (family or friends), or participating in trick-or-treat for the first half hour. You can always gauge how your child is responding to the event and extend or limit the amount of homes you go to as well! You know your child best.

Finally, for the child attending a party or having a classroom event with costumes and lots of kiddos and fun activities, make sure that there is an area that your child can go to for some quieter alone time if they get overwhelmed. Having this area in mind ahead of time will help you feel prepared and make your child feel at ease if they need to take a break. Maybe include some halloween books, puzzles, or coloring sheets for them to complete in this area so they feel included in the festivities as well.