The deal with what I call “sensory play” is that it’s intended to be particularly stimulating to the senses in some way. Sensory play has been found to help with kids’ brain development, motor skills, spatial intelligence, and even picky eating. Here’s a PBS article about sensory play and here’s an article about sensory processing and picky eaters. I’m not a trained therapist, so my understanding of sensory processing comes from the interweb and from the therapists and doctors who have worked with my kids.
At our house, we mostly do tactile sensory play: bins filled with interesting textures or different kinds of dough/slime/gooey stuff. I’ve also made sensory bottles that are all pretty and colorful and glittery. You can also do things like scented play dough, or exploring scents in the spice cabinet for some olfactory sensory play… just watch it with that cayenne pepper!
The best kind of sensory play is probably just playing in the dirt outside! And my kids do LOVE that. But I also try to set up some indoor sensory play to mix things up, especially right now because it’s so friggin cold outside and I’m a big wimp about cold weather.
But, I am aware that I usually set up sensory play activities for my older son, Calvin, and not so much for baby brother Henry. So I’m asking myself if there’s any way to include Henry more in these kinds of activities…
A couple of things about Henry: He’s “hyposensitive.” This means he physically feels things less than a typical person. His skin isn’t as sensitive, it takes more input for the messages to get to his brain. (Pretty sure it’s just his sense of touch, not any of his other senses.) If there’s food on his face, he may have no idea because he literally might not be able to feel that it is there. It would have to be really warm, really cold, or, like, a LOT of it. (Whereas I feel compelled to wipe my mouth after every single bite of a sandwich because I can’t stand any amount food on my face or lips! I’m that person who uses a jillion napkins during a meal, and I eat wings with a knife and fork because I don’t like my hands to get messy. OK, I have sensory issues of my own, clearly. Sensory play is good therapy for me too!) For Henry, he needs things that will “wake up his nerves” as one of his therapists put it, and get those signals to his brain buzzing.
Henry is also “sensory seeking.” Which is probably related to the whole hyposensitivity thing. Since it takes more for him to really feel stuff, he will seek out things that are particularly stimulating. He likes our dinosaurs with their rough scales and spikes and frills and he has no interest in stuffed animals or soft toys. He loves toys that vibrate. We have a couple of vibrating teething toys that have been a lifesaver during tantrums! He loves things that make noise and light up. He’s really into auditory stuff right now. He will press his little face and hands up against the side of the dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer to feel the vibrations and hear the churning or whirring. In rooms with an echo he will yell out to hear the sound fill the space.
It’s relevant to note, though, that Henry’s sensory seeking-ness has its limits. If there are too many stimulating things going on all around him, he gets overwhelmed and melts down. Usually in loud and/or crowded and/or brightly lit public places. Like, ya know, the grocery store.
But, because Henry is sensory seeking, most of the play he does on his own is already what I’d describe as “sensory play.” I feel like maybe he doesn’t need me to go out of my way to find things for him to explore with his senses when he is already purposefully doing that on his own…?
Also, there are a few things that make it REALLY HARD to do sensory play with Henry:
- Henry still explores EVERYTHING with his mouth. Typical babies will grow out of the whole mouthing thing by the time they’re Henry’s age (2 1/2), but I’m not convinced that Henry will ever grow out of it! It seems like sticking with edible sensory bins would be an easy fix but that brings me to #2:
- He has a VORACIOUS appetite. I saw a cool Lucky Charms sensory bin in Instagram yesterday. Cool, right? Except, Henry would absolutely try to eat all the Lucky Charms in that bin. And I don’t exactly want that to happen.
- He will make a HUGE MESS. I’ve been kind of spoiled by Calvin – When Calvin was younger, he was more on the sensory-averse side, meaning that he didn’t like to get messy. That’s actually why I push the tactile sensory play stuff with him so much, and I’ve seen him make great progress. But now that he’s comfortable touching icky, squishy stuff and doing messy play, he’s also developmentally mature enough to understand the concept of where the mess belongs. Like, keep the rice inside the bin, or at least, in this one room. Or, keep the fingerpaint on the paper and drop cloth and off the walls and furniture. Calvin can and will follow directions about that stuff, whereas Henry can and will make the biggest mess possible. Which is great for getting his little nerves stimulated and sending signals to his brain like we want them to! But it is really stressful for me, especially because Henry is also not developmentally able to help clean up!!
But, OK. I’m trying to include Henry in the sensory play stuff I set up for Calvin. Yesterday, Calvin did an activity with a rice bin that wasn’t something Henry would be able to do. So I decided to put together a tactile “invitation to play” activity just for Henry.
I set up a tray with a few items from around the house that I felt had interesting and stimulating textures.
I chose a baby hair brush, that glow wand (sorry about the glare!) because of the rubbery, spiky ball on the end (it also lights up), a string of heavy pearl beads, a big pom pom, and a strip of glitter paper which feels basically like sandpaper. My idea was that I would help Henry brush these items against his arms and hands to let him feel the textures, kind of how his OT would do her brushing routine with him at the beginning of their sessions.
He had no interest in the pom pom. He threw it aside and ignored it.
All the other items he enjoyed, but he wasn’t super into letting me brush his arms with them because he was much more interested in putting each one in his mouth. He really had fun with those beads!
And he really went for it putting that glitter paper in his mouth. I had to stop him when he started basically scraping the glitter off with his teeth. He was really enjoying himself. though!
I can’t help shaking my head at Henry and that glitter paper! And at myself for giving it to him! We are all weirdos around here.
He had fun, but it wasn’t super different from what he does with things around the house on his own! I think it’ll be easier to include him when we do the other senses, especially sound. And taste!! He’ll love that one!
Do you set up “sensory play” for your kids? What kinds of things do they love to get messy with?
Anybody else doing sensory play with kids like Henry? Any tips?