The POWER of PLAY is truly amazing! Kids learn so much by playing with even the simplest of toys. Building off of the Regulation 101 Webinar, this post details which specific toys may be helpful to fill your kiddo’s sensory cup.
Disclosure: We only recommend products we would use ourselves as part of our therapeutic practices and all opinions expressed here are our own. This post may contain affiliate links that, at no additional cost to you, may provide a small commission.
What is the Sensory Cup?
Toys to Fill the Proprioceptive Cup
In order to fire up the proprioceptive system, the muscles and joints have to work against resistance. This type of “heavy work” is accomplished through actions such as pushing, pulling, crashing, and jumping. Proprioceptive input plays a key role in regulating (or organizing) behavior, which means in can come in handy during moments of emotional distress. The toys listed here target the proprioceptive system, contributing to improved body awareness, motor planning, and regulation.
· Pop Toobs: Pull these tubes apart and then squeeze them back together for quick and easy proprioceptive input. For an added bonus, this targets bilateral coordination (the skill that enables children to use both hands together).
· Squigz: These little suction toys can be stuck to each other or onto a smooth surface, such as a window or wood floor. Making them POP by pulling them apart is a great exercise against resistance.
· Therapy Putty: Putty comes in a variety of resistance levels (based on color) and can be incorporated into many playful activities. Create a “treasure hunt” by hiding small beads, pegs, or other manipulatives in the putty and have your little one work those hand muscles to dig out the pieces.
· Weighted Materials: Rolling, tossing, and carrying weighted balls may be a fun addition to an obstacle course or other gross motor activity. Homemade weighted stuffed animals can be made by replacing some stuffing with dry pantry materials, such as rice or dried beans. Weighted lap or shoulder pads can also be made using a large tube sock. Simply fill the sock with uncooked rice and securely close the end with a rubber band or ribbon.
· Plastic eggs: An easy sensory activity, at the right price! Plastic eggs can be used year-round to promote bilateral hand use and visual motor skills in addition to providing proprioceptive input when pushing/pulling against resistance to open and close. Add different materials inside to incorporate auditory and tactile input, too! Some examples could include play dough, beads, uncooked rice or beans, plastic or paper grass, ribbons, or small toys.
· Stress balls: This one should come as no surprise—de-stressing is in the name! And the best part is, no purchase necessary! Create your own stress balls by filling a deflated balloon with any squishy material, such as play dough, uncooked rice, flour, cornstarch, or sand.
· Chewy Necklace: Also known as “Chewelry,” these stylish pieces provide easy proprioceptive input on-the-go by providing a safe alternative to biting and teeth grinding.
Toys to Fill the Vestibular Cup
The vestibular system is activated through movement and changes in head position. Adequate processing of vestibular input is related to balance, posture, and navigation across unstable or varying surfaces. Children who tend to appear wiggly or fidgety likely require more vestibular input (or movement). The toys listed here target the vestibular system by providing a variety of ways to get moving!
· Rody Horse: Bouncing on Rody is not only tons of fun, but also challenges posture and balance as the body’s muscles are at work to stay upright! Rody races are a great way to get siblings and the rest of the family involved, too.
· Sit n Spin: A great option for kids that enjoy spinning! With the added challenge to sit upright and use their arm muscles to control the wheel, this is chock-full of sensory goodness. The suggested model seen here can also be connected to a hose for water play.
· Scooter Board: Roll around on one of these for a full-body workout! Kids can use their feet to propel the board while seated or rely on arm strength to “swim” on their tummies.
· Alternative Seat Cushions: Sitting still can be tricky, especially for those movement seekers! These seating options allow for kiddos to safely move around in their seats without distracting from the task at-hand.
Toys to Fill the Tactile Cup
The tactile system relates to how we interact with the surrounding environment through touch, one of the earliest senses to develop. Children learned a lot about their worlds by touching, feeling, and mouthing objects. Over time, these sensory experiences help to map the hands, contributing to fine motor development. The toys listed here target the tactile system with various textures.
· Shaving Cream: This one may not sound like a toy, but it can be tons of fun! Draw faces, practice writing letters or shapes, or mix in food coloring to create rainbow clouds. Warning: shaving cream may feel uncomfortable for kids who are hesitant to touch new things. Remember to respect your child’s sensory needs and go at their pace.
· Moon Sand: This type of sand is softer and squishier than the beach. It can be molded into different shapes using molds or cookie cutters. Try making your own by mixing flour and baby oil (8:1 ratio).
· Water Beads: Just add water…it is tons of fun to watch these little beads grow! They look dry but feel wet—a fun surprise for the tactile system!
· Vibration Toys: Vibration can be regulating for many children. Several tools may deliver this input, such as electric toothbrushes, vibrating pens, or a mini handheld massager.
· Body Sock: This stretchy garment feels like wearing a giant hug! Have your child nuzzle in and stretch out. It can be an awesome superhero costume, but also provide a safe space to take a sensory break.
Toys to Fill the Visual Cup
The visual system processes what we see, so we know how to act. In many cases, children rely on repetitive visual input to drown out other distressing sensory experiences. Allowing time to focus on soothing sights, may then make your child more ready to connect and participate in other activities. The toys listed here target the visual system by providing calming, repetitive sights to see.
· Beaded Necklace: A super simple string of beads just enough to pull in a child’s focus. However, these may present a choking hazard, so always be sure to maintain a close watch as your child plays.
· Lava Lamp or Sensory Bottle: These can be created at home using an empty water bottle, filled with a mix of water and any clear viscous material, such as shampoo, hand soap, or hair gel. Add in little items that are engaging to look at, such as glitter, confetti, sequins, pony beads, or water beads.
· Spinning Tops and Wind-up Toys: Send a top spinning or a little wind-up toy hopping across the table. It is sure to catch your kiddo’s attention and may provide a natural opportunity to practice signs or speech to request “more.”
· Slinky: This classic toy is tons of fun to watch crawl down the stairs or bounce up-and-down.
· Pinwheels: In addition to being fun to watch spin, pinwheels also work on oral motor skill development and regulation through deep breathing. Model for your child how to blow on the pinwheel, and then have him or her give it a try.
· Bubbles: So simple, yet such a crowd favorite. Bubbles are a natural way to promote visual scanning and can be super regulating even mid-tantrum. As children reach to pop bubbles, they are also working on hand-eye coordination.
Through play, many amazing things become possible! Engaging your kiddo in enriching, sensible play can provide an outlet for improved regulation, communication, and connection. This list is simply includes suggestions to jump start ideas for sensible sensory play at home! Consult with an occupational therapist to find out more about your child's sensory cup and how to best support him or her through play.