19 Easy Sensory Play Suggestions during COVID-19
Welcome to day 36 of quarantine.
Wow, that number just shocked me a little bit! While we have been adjusting the “new normal,” your new roles may include serving as your kiddo’s teacher, therapist, and all-around entertainer.
Another part of our “new normal” is an altered sensory landscape. Since we are safer at home, many of us are missing the outdoors (I know I am!), the parks and playgrounds, and the other sensory-rich environments your kids may have been used to, like classrooms, therapy gyms, and kids’ gyms.
So let’s share a little inspo to transform your pantry into your playroom and your office supplies into your sensory toolbelt!
Why is Sensory Play Important?
Sensory play helps enrich children’s minds by developing neural pathways that help connect their bodies to the world. It may include exposure in a single sensory system, or simultaneously target multiple systems--that’s the sensory sweet spot!
Each time a sensory experience occurs, the central nervous system is activated, which means the brain and body are working behind-the-scenes to make sense of the world. The greater the variety of sensation the brain experiences, the more comfortable the body becomes with the sensory world. For the kiddos with over-reactive sensory processing, exposure to sensations coupled with calming and organizing strategies can begin to teach the body what is safe versus alarming.
By feeling different textures, kiddos begin to map their hands, which allows them to figure out how to develop fine motor skills. Just like looking at the world around us helps to map the environment, feeling objects and materials helps us learn how to handle different items, configure the fine muscles of our extremities, and how much pressure to exert on certain objects.
Let’s Dive In!
These sensory suggestions have been tailored to be simple, accessible, and inexpensive, while we’re all safer at home. Feel free to take them and make them your own - using whatever materials you have available, with whatever time you find in your schedule!
Use those dry pantry materials you have on-hand: rice, beans, popcorn kernels, pasta, sprinkles, quinoa, or whatever else you can think of
Sensory bags: Place the dry material in a plastic bag. Seal it tightly with duct or masking tape. This is a great starter activity for kiddos who are not quite ready to touch new materials directly, as the plastic bag can provide a protective barrier.
Sensory mats: Tape down a sensory bag onto the floor. This is a great activity to add to tummy time, so your little one can work on postural control and upper extremity strengthening while building those sensory connections!
Sensory shakers: Put any desired material in a water bottle or between two paper plates, close them up, and shake away! This can add some auditory fun to a mid-day dance break, jump-starting the vestibular and proprioceptive systems at the same time. Bonus: the above ideas are sealed off, so you could use the food items for consumption later.
Sensory bins: Grab any storage container you have lying around. Toss in the dry material of your choice along with any tongs, measuring scoops, and kitchen tools to add in a fine motor component. Sensory bins are a super fun way to have kids experience direct contact with novel textures - usually to their hands, but with a big enough container, maybe their feet could pop in too!
Prepare for messes: Getting messy means you’re doing sensory play right! To make clean-up easier afterwards, set up activities on top of a tablecloth, shower curtain, blanket/bed sheet, garbage bags, or newspaper. That way everything can be contained and emptied out at the end.
Get outside! The outdoors are chock-full of sensory experiences, even while social distancing! Dig up some dirt, pick flowers or leaves for an art project at home, collect rocks to paint, run through the sprinklers.
Sidewalk chalk: There has been a recent BOOM for sidewalk chalk. Chalk feels different than other writing utensils, but can start to work on similar grasping skills. It can be used indoors on a chalkboard or washable mat. Bonus: using chalk on the ground requires leaning on knees and the non-dominant hand, which further contributes to mapping the body.
Spray bottles: As it heats up, use spray bottles to cool off, water plants, or wash away the sidewalk chalk creations. This is a great way to introduce light touch with water mist as well as strengthen the hands for fine motor tasks.
Cook up some play dough:
Smell / Taste
Make a mystery box: Use an empty tissue box or any opaque container (or wear a blindfold) to hide a variety of foods. Try to identify them using only smell or taste--or touch, for some extra sensory hints.
I Spy/Smell/Feel: A classic game! Give hints that use different sensory systems--beyond just sight. This may be perfect to play during a neighborhood walk.
Involve kids in the kitchen: Meal preparation is a sensory wonderland; it involves sight, smells, touch, and ultimately, taste! Have the whole family come up with a recipe and take turns mixing the ingredients together. Here’s one of my favorites to make with pantry staples:
Discovery bottles: Add a uniformly-colored dry material (such as rice or beans) to a clear water bottle. Mix in small objects, such as magnet letters, beads, dice, game pieces, or mini toys. Challenge your child’s visual system by having them rotate the bottle to uncover the objects or search for a specific object based on your description.
Target practice: Tossing items to a target engages the visual system and helps to develop hand-eye coordination. Up the sensory experience by using different textured items to toss to a target, such as bean bags, balloons stuffed with play dough or dry pantry materials, balled-up fuzzy socks, crumpled paper, or rubber band balls. This targets the tactile system and requires appropriate grading of force.
Sort objects by color, size, texture, or type: Target the visual sense by having kids sort objects based on how they look or pinpoint the tactile sense by having them sort with their eyes closed! Use tongs, tweezers, or chopsticks to add in a fine motor component.
Animal walk races: Walk like a bear, hop like a bunny, crawl like a crab, jump like a kangaroo, slither like a snake, and slo-mo step like a sloth!
Couch cushion crashing: Have your kiddos work their muscles by rearranging the living room. Remove the couch cushions and use them as a landing pad for some stellar couch jumps! Bonus: squish them with another big pillow to deliver extra deep pressure to calm the little bodies.
Create a new family sensory activity together! Let your imaginations shine! Sometimes creativity is spurred by a challenge. Choose 5 items from around the house and see what sensory activity (involving sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, movement, or any combination of these) your family can design.