By: Lindsey Murphy, OTR/L
When the weather outside is frightful, indoor sensory activities can be very delightful. By finding the ideal sensory activities for each child, kids can beat cabin fever and remain well-regulated throughout the day. Because every nervous system is unique, working with your child’s occupational therapist to create a customized sensory diet is recommended.
An essential part of an individual’s sensory diet involves vestibular motions. Vestibular input is a critical part of helping the nervous system to wake up or calm down depending on the type of activity. It involves the movement of a person’s eyes, head and body and has a strong impact on emotional regulation. Calming vestibular activities for many children include rocking back and forth, yoga, lying prone over an exercise ball, swaying slowly to music, or linear swinging on an indoor swing. Conversely, spinning or fast movements of the head in space can be very alerting. If a child is feeling sluggish, activities such as bouncing on an exercise ball or a trampoline, dancing in circles, spinning on an indoor swing, crab walking across the room, hopping on one foot, or jumping onto pillows may help a child to regulate. Also, changing the speed or visual input during vestibular activities will increase a child’s engine speed as well. For instance, having a child jump on an indoor trampoline with closed eyes or pulling him/her on a scooter while frequently varying the speed will provide alerting input.
While vestibular input is either alerting or calming to the nervous system, proprioception (or heavy work activities and the awareness of one’s body in space) is essential to sustaining regulation throughout the day. Although parks, playgrounds, and swimming pools are excellent methods of achieving the desired amount of heavy work, a variety of indoor activities also provide excellent proprioceptive input. Creating obstacle courses with tunnels, pillows, scooter boards, animal walks, or other household items can promote regulation while allowing the child to use creativity and executive functioning skills. Encouraging assistance with household chores such as carrying laundry baskets, vacuuming, washing windows, putting away dishes, or picking up toys can provide this input as well. Playing charades, doing yoga, doing jumping jacks, climbing the stairs, Twister, and weighted ball tosses are excellent indoor heavy work activities.
Vestibular and heavy work activities often require movement to promote regulation. While movement is highly beneficial and encouraged on a daily basis, deep pressure as a form of proprioception can also be very calming for some children. Deep pressure is the provision of firm tactile sensory input and is often particularly useful before or after over stimulating sensory situations. Rolling a child in blankets “burrito style,” moving a therapy ball over the back or legs, providing bear hugs, weighted blankets or animals, or giving firm-pressure massages can be very regulating. Light pressure, such as tickling with a feather or using too gentle of touch, is very alerting and should often be avoided when trying to promote self-regulation.
In addition to movement and deep pressure activities, providing a variety of sensory opportunities can be calming as well depending on each child’s specific sensory needs. Tactile bins, Play-Doh, shaving cream, and putty provide input to the hands. Varying textures of foods and encouraging chewy or hard munchable foods such as gum, celery, raw carrots apple slices, beef jerky, bagels, pizza, soft pretzels, etc. provides proprioceptive input to the jaw. Sound soothers, soft music, or relaxation apps may impact a child’s auditory system in a positive manner. Depending on the scent and a child’s unique olfactory system, scented lip balms, essential oils, and air fresheners can provide calming input as well.
When the weather outside is less than inviting, finding the “just right” indoor sensory activities for your child is a journey well worth taking.