Sensory Activities for Kids: in this post, you will be able to explore sensory processing and the benefits of sensory play. We will also share a comprehensive list of sensory activities for kids of all ages. You will be able to download the PDF “My Sensory Menu” with the complete list of suggested activities indicating the sensory system involved (sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, proprioception, and vestibular systems).
This post was written in collaboration with Dani, a support worker and a special education aide, who has significant first-hand knowledge of how you experience the world when you have sensory processing issues.
She has been a terrific help for us during the last four years. Her understanding of this topic has helped us meet our son’s sensory needs better. And, she keeps coming to us with great sensory activity suggestions.
A few words from Dani:
Before we jump into this post, let me take the time to explain a little bit about my background and my interest in sensory processing and activities. I am a twenty-eight-year-old woman who works with children and young adults with disabilities. I also previously studied and worked in the early childhood education sector.
I also happen to be an Autistic adult with other additional diagnoses, including a sensory nervous system dysfunction, which has made me rather acutely aware of sensory needs. So, let’s expand our understanding of sensory processing and sensory play benefits. And, I will enumerate a list of sensory activities for kids you may wish to consider.
What is Sensory Processing?
Sensory processing is how the body and brain organize sensations, both internal and external, making it possible for the body to function effectively and make sense of the world.
Five primary senses are widely recognized. These senses are sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. I will briefly explain these senses below, and also two lesser-known senses, proprioception and vestibular perception, and their importance in development.
Proprioception and vestibular perception are part of the internal sensory and perception systems that would also include nociception (pain).
Let’s take a brief look at these seven human senses.
Sight is the process of perceiving the world through the eyes. It is achieved through a complex process involving the various parts of the eye. The eye perceives light, and the brain interprets it as visual images.
Smell is the acquisition of information through the stimulation of chemical receptors in the nose and upper airway.
Hearing is the brain interpreting vibrations in the inner ears as sound information.
Touch is made up of an array of sensations that are communicated between neurons in the skin and brain. These sensations include but are not limited to pressure, pain, temperature, and vibration. Touch is considered to be more than just a sense used to interact with the physical world. It is also recognized as essential to human wellbeing.
Taste is made up of the perception of five flavors, sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami or savory. Taste is sensed through the taste buds on the tongue. There is a myth that the tongue has zones that are flavor-specific. But, although the tongue’s sides are more sensitive than the middle, we can sense all five tastes on all parts of the tongue.
Proprioception is the sense of place in space and includes the sense of movement and the position of our limbs and actions of our muscles. It allows us to do things such as climb steps without looking at them as we climb. People with poor proprioception may appear clumsy and uncoordinated.
- Vestibular perception
The vestibular system is the sensory system responsible for providing our brains with information about motion, head position, and spatial orientation.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder, which used to be referred to as Sensory Integration Dysfunction, is a neurological disorder characterized by an abnormal or unusual response to perceived sensory information from the world.
Unlike individuals with a sensory impairment (visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing), those with Sensory Processing Disorder still take in sensory information. But it becomes “muddled up” in the brain and causes the individual to react in a way that is considered inappropriate or disproportionate to the situation.
Symptoms will vary depending on:
- whether the child presents hyposensitivity or hypersensitivity (not easily vs easily stimulated senses)
- the sense/s affected.
Children with sensory processing disorders may struggle with loud noises, bright lights or food textures, just to mention a few common manifestations.
A few extreme real-life examples that I have come across include:
- a child would gag or vomit at the mere smell of pumpkin
- an adult would go under the table to isolate from stimuli saturation
- an adult would express the desire to headbang when overwhelmed with their environment
What is Sensory Play?
Sensory play is any activity that stimulates an area of your child’s senses.
These activities facilitate the child’s learning and exploration of the world.
Sensory play allows the child to redefine how they perceive sensory information and respond to sensory input.
For example, a child with autism might find it challenging to sit still and focus on an activity. Nevertheless, if the child is allowed to sit in a chair that wriggles (which stimulates the vestibular sensory system), they may focus for a more extended period.
Fussy eaters who are allowed to explore their food with all of their senses, including touch, often become more willing to try new foods.
Why is Sensory Play Important for Kids?
Sensory play has many benefits.
Sensory play has been linked to the building of nerve connections in the brain’s pathways that aid in completing complex learning tasks.
Sensory play is also shown to support:
- language development
- cognitive skills
- fine and gross motor skills
- social development
Sensory play is beneficial in helping to calm anxious and frustrated children.
Who benefits from sensory play?
In short, I believe that everyone benefits from sensory play. Whether it be for the calming effects, the acquisition of new skills, or just to have fun, sensory play activities are a great addition to your day.
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Sensory Activities for Kids (Babies, Toddlers, School-age Children, Special Needs)
Check out this list of ideas for sensory activities for people of all ages below (babies, toddlers, young and older children – and even adults)!
The age groups you will see below are just a guide. Most of the sensory activities mentioned below are great for all ages!
Sensory Activities for Babies
- Water play
Any play that includes water will be a fun multi-sensory activity that will allow them to explore the environment and develop a range of skills.
- Texture ring
Babies use not just their hands but also their mouth to explore their environment.
- Rattles, instruments, etc
These activities stimulate babies’ senses (sounds, textures, colors ) and help develop their motor skills (grasping, shaking)
- Nature play
Nature play can be as simple as playing in the garden or going for a nature walk. This type of activity is a treat for your baby’s senses. They can enjoy the colors, the sounds, the smells, the textures.
- Ball pit
A visual and tactile experience for older babies and beyond that can also help them explore cause and effect and develop motor skills.
- Textured storybooks
- Adding to the visual input the possibility of exploring different textures
Massage is an excellent sensory activity not just for babies but for older children too.
Anxiety reduction, aggressive behavior improvement, better sleep patterns, and increased parent-child bonding are some of the benefits research suggests for massage.
⇒Learn fun massage ideas for kids of all ages.
Sensory Activities for Toddlers
Sand introduces kids to a world of sensory exploration (texture, temperature, sight). Playing with toys in the sandpit also allows them to work on their motor skills (dexterity and hand-eye coordination )
Making bubbles strengthens mouth and abdominal muscles, develops motor and visual skills, and is fun and visually pleasant. It’s a lot more than just fun!
- Shaving foam
Grab a tray and spray a can of shaving foam on it. Things will get messy, but your toddler will get a terrific sensory experience manipulating the foam. Add a few drops of food coloring, and you will add a visual sensory input. Or hide a few toys, and ask them to guess what they have found before taking them out of the foam.
Have you heard about gloop? Is it solid? Is it liquid?
Playing with gloop is a super cool sensory experience. When you press the mixture, it feels solid. But when you let it slip away through your fingers, it feels like liquid.
Would you like to try it? Put two cups of cornflower in a bowl and slowly add a cup of cold water. Stir until the water is absorbed, and add a bit of food coloring for extra fun.
- Gardening/mud play
Gardening can be a stimulating sensory experience that engages all senses.
And, mud play is a related activity ideal for practicing motor skills and improving hand-eye coordination.
- Finger painting
Touch, smell, sight, motor skills, creativity, learning about colors. This sensory activity is a must-try on our list.
Playdough is another sensory activity that helps develop fine motor skills. It provides different sensory inputs such as touch and sights.
- Sensory bins
A sensory bin is a large container filled with a variety of materials selected to stimulate different senses.
- Water painting
It can’t get less messy than this. Take a bucket of water and head to your fence or your deck (any surface that temporarily shows the traces of the brush strokes) and let them paint with just water!
- Bubble baths / Bath bomb
Bubble baths are a fun sensory activity.
But we took this activity to the next level when we discovered bath bombs.
Bath bombs are a treat to your child’s senses, the fizziness, the color explosion, those delicious smells.
And it is so relaxing!
Sensory Activities for Young Children
- Sensory stories
Any story can become a sensory story when you add external stimuli to it. Splash a few drops of water when there’s rain in your story, imitate the sounds of the animals, apply a warm wheat pack to feel the sun on their face, a bit of movement when they gallop on your lap.
A tremendous tactile sensory experience that also helps develop fine motor skills and creativity
Baking can provide a full range of sensory experiences:
– the yummy and exciting smells
– the tactile experience of working the dough
– the ingredients’ visual appeal
-a flavor explosion in our taste buds.
- Bath paint
Get a few bath paints or bath crayons ( like these ones) and unleash their creativity while they enjoy the soothing water sensory input (don’t worry, they come off super easily!)
- Volcano experiment
My son has done this experiment a thousand times.
Great for tactile, visual, and hearing sensory inputs.
Shape a mountain with playdough, leaving a nice hole in the middle. Place a teaspoon of baking soda inside the volcano, and pour a small quantity of vinegar to make it erupt! Use red food coloring if you want to give it a bit of realism. Or, go with any color that pleases you! Let’s have some fun.
Sensory Activities for Older Children
Visual, touch, and sound sensory inputs while they nurture their creativity and their motor skills.
- Kinetic sand
If you can’t go to the beach, bring the beach home!
Feel the texture, squeeze it, let it flow through your fingers.
And let the imaginative play begin!
- Making slime / Playing with Slime
Making slime is a fun arts & crafts activity.
And, playing with slime helps:
-improve motor skills
-provides multi-sensory input
-relax (lots of people find manipulating slime very relaxing.
- Paper mache (Papier-mâché)
It is as much fun to make papier-mâché as it is to use it to make objects.
And, it provides a very interesting tactile sensory input.
You can find plenty of recipes online (with and without glue)
- Cornflour bouncy balls
Two in one!
A science experiment and a sensory experience, all in one activity.
This is an example of a tutorial, there are plenty of them on line.
Fun Sensory Activities for All Kids but Children with Autism May Especially Love Them
- Sensory Rice
Playing with sensory rice provides visual, auditory, and tactile input
Swings provide vestibular and proprioceptive sensory input.
Most kids love swings, but benefits go way beyond the pleasure of the experience.
Therapeutic swings are often used with kids with special needs as a way to increase balance and coordination. Some of them have a “cocooning effect” that helps kids feel safe and soothed. And the back and forth movement of a swing is incredibly soothing.
Jumping on a trampoline has many developmental benefits, like improving gross motor skills and providing proprioceptive and vestibular sensory inputs.
- Fidget toys
Fidget toys have become very popular tools to help reduce /manage anxiety or stress.
They also provide a variety of interesting touch sensory inputs
Threading would be any activity involving threading beads through a string.
You can also thread string through holes (different shapes cut-outs or wooden objects) ⇒ an example
- Sensory jars
A Sensory Bottle (or a Calm Down Jar) is a bottle or jar container usually filled with a liquid solution where different materials can float and flow, creating a visually soothing and pleasant experience.
Preparing a Calm Down Jar is a great arts & crafts family activity. The bottles provide an excellent multi-sensory experience and can be used to help kids soothe or calm down.
- Lava Lamps
Look at the relaxing motion of a lava lamp (like this one) can be a very soothing sensory experience.
- Smell boxes (boxes with different smelling items such as coffee beans, soaps, essential oils, etc.)
- Vestibular activities like dancing, bouncing on an exercise ball, or jumping
Compression / Deep Pressure Touch
Many kids find deep pressure touch very calming. These are some examples of items that provide deep pressure input:
- Weighted blankets
If you are considering using a weighted blanket, I recommend you read my post on how to use a weighted blanket and learn from my mistakes! (I didn’t get it right the first time)
- Weighted vests
- A weighted stuffed puppy
- A body sock (⇒ an example of body sock)
- Blanket wrap
Put a blanket on the floor and ask your child to lie down on it. Wrap the blanket around tight enough to give a gently hug (obviously, the head should stick out)
- Baby Swaddle Wrap (for those who are not babies anymore!)
This activity is similar to the blanket wrap one, and I use it with a big boy, not a baby. Instead of a complete swaddle wrap, I wrap him from the waist up with a big towel.
My Sensory Menu: Vision, Hearing, Smell, Touch, Taste, Proprioception, and Vestibular Sensory Inputs
I though it would be useful to have a checklist with all the sensory activities that we have listed here, organized by sensory system involved.
Most of these activities provide a multi-sensory input, so you will see them assigned to more than one sensory system.
- Visual Sensory Input / Sight ( water play, texture ring, rattles, nature play, ball pit, textured books, bubbles, finger painting, sensory bins, water painting, sensory stories, bath paint, volcano experiment, lego, slime, cornflour bouncy balls, sensory rice, fidget toys, sensory jars)
- Auditory Sensory Input / Hearing (water play, rattles, nature play, sensory bins, sensory story, volcano experiment, sensory rice, sensory jars)
- Olfactory Sensory Input / Smell ( nature play, massage (oils), shaving foam, sensory bins, bubble baths, sensory story, baking, smell boxes)
- Tactile Sensory Input / Touch ( water play, texture ring, rattles, nature play, ball pit, textured book, massage, sandpit, shaving foam, gloop, mud play, finger painting, playdough, sensory bins, water painting, bubble baths, sensory stories, clay, baking, lego, kinetic sand, making /playing with slime, paper mache, cornflour bouncy balls, sensory rice, fidget toys, threading, weighted blanket, weighted vest, body sock, weighted stuffed puppy, blanket wrap, swaddle wrap)
- Gustatory Sensory Input / Taste (baking)
- Proprioception Sensory Input / Body Awareness (texture ring, ball pit, massage, swings, trampoline, fidget toys, weighted blanket, weighted vest, body sock, weighted stuffed puppy, blanket wrap, swaddle wrap)
- Vestibular Sensory Input / Movement (water play, nature play, ball pit, swings, trampoline, jumping, dancing, bouncing on an exercise ball, wiggle cushions)
Download your free Sensory Menu PDF ⇓