April is Autism Awareness month; help celebrate with some sensory activities! But what are they? Who can benefit from them? And why are they important? We checked in with an expert for some answers.
Chelsea McNichols is an OTR/L, CIMI from KTL Therapy in Northern Kentucky.
Chelsea: All children benefit from sensory play for brain development! Senses are how we perceive our world, and we know that our children’s brains are developing rapidly in the first 5 years of life. It is essential to offer opportunities that allow them to learn and interact with the world around them. children retain information more when we incorporate multiple senses into a task.
Chelsea: Sensory play can be defined as anything that activates a child’s senses (touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, movement, and balance). As an Occupational Therapist, I love incorporating sensory play because it is a FUN way to target goals. This type of play fosters creativity, promotes language development, supports cognitive growth, improves problem solving skills, and facilitates social interaction opportunities. As a society, we spend so much time discussing deficits or short-comings.
Chelsea: Individuals across the lifespan benefit from sensory input for regulation, although it looks different at different phases of development. We begin introducing sensory experiences to our newborns. Tummy time is a sensorimotor experience where we promote transitional movements to our infant and teach them to engage with their environment. A toddler sensory experience might look like an obstacle course including crawling through a tunnel, hopping like a frog, and rolling like a log. A preschooler learning to form pre-writing strokes in flour. An elementary aged child writing sight words in finger paint. All the way through to the residents at a nursing home participating in yoga. Sensory play means promoting whole body sensory experiences to aid learning and fun across the lifespan.
Chelsea: My biggest piece of advice with this is to tune into your child’s specific strengths and interests! Find what is interesting to them and incorporate it into multi-sensory experiences. For example, your child that is interested in animals we might utilize the following tools/tasks: tactile book about animals, use play doh to create animals, dig for animals hidden in kinetic sand, search for animal puzzle pieces hidden in a bean bin, acting out animal poses paired with their sound, scavenger hunt looking for animals inside or outside. It is imperative to note that you are your child’s best playmate, so join in the play and model away!
Chelsea: We truly cannot put enough emphasis on incorporating sensory play into all aspects of development. This type of play, incorporating our senses, is how we learn about the environment around us and in turn learn how to interact with the environment around us. Sensory play can be used to aid in development of language, cognition, imagination, social interaction, fine motor, gross motor, problem solving, and emotional regulation.