Occupational therapists focus on the sensory systems as part of their professional practice, especially when working with kids. Sensory input is so important for child development. It nourishes the brain and body for behaving, attending, and learning.
Sensory input and sensory activities have been a buzz word for some time. But occupational therapists like myself often see a lot of misinterpretation of what activities actually provide a balance of sensory input for a child’s nervous system.
For example, I see a lot of focus on activities that only provide sensory input for the tactile system. Many parents and educators are creating sensory bins, sensory bags, sensory tables, and other tactile activities that primarily stimulate the sense of touch.
While these are all great activities for the tactile system, the other important sensory systems are not being used.
Another trending problem I see as an OT is that the visual system is being given way too much input for babies, toddlers, and young children.
Parents and educators are thinking that they’re providing learning via apps, shows and videos. However, the overuse of screens have caused extremely negative effects on kids’ attention, focus and following directions.
We all really need to be aware of screen use in our children.
Additionally, my colleague occupational therapists and I see sensory input being used re-actively instead of proactively.
ALL kids need sensory input on a regular basis for optimal brain and body development. Kids with sensory processing disorder especially need regular intervals of input through a sensory diet.
Sensory input needs provided through a wide variety of routine play, learning activities, and everyday tasks. This helps stimulate all systems and all parts of the brain. Which in turn, ensures appropriate behavioral responses that lead to skill development and optimal learning.
The Five Basic Senses
Currently in the schools that I work in, kindergarten through second graders are learning about the five basic senses. You probably learned about them too:
- Gustatory System – Sense of Taste
- Olfactory System – Sense of Smell
- Visual System – Sense of Sight
- Auditory System – Sense of Hearing
- Tactile System – Sense of Touch
These five basic senses give our brains and nervous systems information around us. We take in the sensory information that we receive, we process it, and we make sense of it. Our senses help us learn and they protect us.
Children’s nervous systems develop rapidly. They need as much sensory input as possible to help nourish the brain and body.
The sense of taste is fulfilled during snacks and meals as well as beverages. We learn what tastes we like by being exposed to a large variety when we are little. Our sense of taste also protects us; we learn to discriminate bad tastes of food that might be spoiled.
Our sense of smell also protects us and warns us of potentially dangerous things around us. We remember the smell of something spoiled so that we don’t consume it, or the scent of something burning so that we can react quickly and appropriately.
Pleasant smells and odors stimulate learning and memory in the brain. I’m sure you have distinct smells that you associate with various people or places. You make connections and memories with the smell of your grandma, a library, flowers in the spring, art room supplies, the smell of the outdoors during recess, etc.
The visual system gives incredible amounts of information to our brains all day long. It’s such a complex system.
We have near and far vision so that we see things clearly, and we have peripheral vision and depth perception to protect us. Visual processing involves our brain’s ability to take in, interpret, make sense of, and respond to what we see. For more information on the visual system, check out the post on visual perception activities and visual skills needed for reading.
The auditory system is what we hear and how we process what we hear. This system develops in the womb before a baby is even born. Our ears make sense of many sounds that protect us from danger and to discriminate whether sounds are close or far away.
Our auditory system hears and processes sounds to help us learn. We associate sounds with objects, learn that words have meanings, and then we sequence them to develop language and communication skills.
Our sense of touch provided through the tactile system provides valuable information for the brain and body. Skin is the largest organ in the body. The tactile system gives us discriminative and protective information.
Our sense of touch gives info about pain, temperature, pressure, and vibration. It gives detail regarding location of input as well as what you feel (size, texture, shape.)
While these are the five basic sensory systems, occupational therapists will teach you that there are three more. The other sensory systems are hidden and not as obvious. But they’re incredibly important.
The Three Additional Hidden Sensory Systems
In my pediatric occupational therapy sessions, I spend a great deal of my treatment time providing games, activities, and exercises for the sensory systems. My focus is often on some of the known senses as well as the hidden senses.
The three hidden senses are:
- Interoception – Sense of Our Internal Organs
- Proprioceptive System – Sense of Body Awareness
- Vestibular System – Sense of Balance and Movement
Interoception is the sense we receive from inside our body. It involves messages from our internal organs regarding hunger, fullness, and thirst. It gives us feedback such as discomfort in the gut, a faster beating heart, or the need to use the restroom. Interoception helps keep our body in balance internally. It supports self-regulation and sensory modulation in everyday life.
The proprioceptive system gives information regarding muscle and joint position. Receptors for this system are in the muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons.
Our proprioceptive sense gives us awareness of where the body is in space. If you close your eyes, you can sense the position of your entire body where you’re sitting still. You feel the floor under your feet, the chair under you, and the position of your body.
If you move, you can feel the force and direction of your body parts.
Proprioceptive input helps with graded force movements, motor planning, and motor memory.
We automatically adjust the force needed to interact with things. Think about picking up an egg vs. picking up a heavy weight. You adjust your grasp and strength required to pick up either object.
Motor planning occurs when we automatically perform daily movements smoothly and efficiently without thinking about each step. Think of getting dressed, riding a bike, playing basketball, or starting a car and putting it in drive. The appropriate motor movements become automatic during each activity.
The vestibular system receptors are located inside your brain in little semicircular canals in the inner ear. This sensory system receives movement and gravity input and helps with balance.
Vestibular input gives you information on the position of your head, speed and direction of movement input.
It also is related to our muscle tone and helps with balance.
If you’re accidently bumped, your brain senses the change in movement and your body muscles automatically react to keep you upright.
The visual system and eye muscles work very closely with information from the vestibular system! The eye muscles automatically adjust and level to the position of your head so that the visual system takes in info correctly.
The Importance of the Sensory Systems for Learning & Development
All human beings receive, process, and respond to daily sensory stimuli. Our brains are like computers rapidly and continuously processing input outside and inside of our bodies.
As adults, we process sensory input, create an appropriate response, and make adaptations to daily experiences. We know what sensations we prefer and that we need to keep us at an optimal level of arousal.
We choose different sensory tools that either alert us or calm us. When our brains and bodies feel good, we feel good too.
Children’s nervous systems are less mature. The have to work a little harder to regulate their bodies and stay organized. And they need tons more sensory input than we do; it nourishes their brains for learning, attending, and behaving.
The skills young children need for learning and daily activities develop well, if the sensory systems have received enough input AND if they are functioning properly. Kids bodies take in the sensory information and create adaptive responses during everyday activities. This helps them continue to develop higher level skills.
The Pyramid of Learning shows the sensory systems as the foundation for a child’s central nervous system. Specifically, it shows the three systems at the base of the pyramid that I like to focus the most during my occupational therapy sessions.
The vestibular system, the proprioceptive system, and the tactile system are at the base of the pyramid of learning. These three systems provide valuable information for learning.
Many activities and exercises provide combinations of movement and proprioceptive input for the brain.
Movement Activities for the Vestibular System for Learning
Balance and movement activities stimulate the vestibular sense in the semicircular canals in the inner ear. The movement system helps direct the rest of the nervous system. Movement is EXTREMELY important for children to improve brain development and help develop skills. Pre-teens, teens and adults also need movement input to alert the brain and to maintain mental and emotional health. A body in motion stays in motion.
Movement activities can either increase alertness OR calm and organize the nervous system, depending on which type and direction of movement is used.
Alerting movement activities include spinning, rolling, cartwheels, or tipping upside down. Windmill exercises, a merry-go-round, sit-n-spin, or hanging upside down a monkey bar provide stimulating movement input.
Calming and organizing activities include movement in straight lines – think of getting a baby to sleep: rocking, gently bouncing up and down, swinging back and forth in a swing, or riding in a car.
Some teens and adults respond well to movement input and make it part of their leisure time. Many enjoy the great feeling after a bike ride, downhill skiing, or dancing.
The vestibular system supports core strength and stability, muscle tone, eye muscle strength, and visual development. Frequent opportunities for moving, climbing, and playing improve strength throughout the body and the core. A strong core in turn helps with balance and movement. Check out the post Movement Activities to Enhance Learning and Indoor Gross Motor Activities for movement games and ideas.
Proprioceptive System: Heavy Work, Deep Pressure and Joint Compression Activities for Learning
Activities for the proprioceptive system are referred to as heavy work, deep pressure and joint compression activities. I LOVE proprioceptive input for kids, teens, and adults- it’s so powerful for the brain and nervous system.
This input BOTH increases alertness and it calms and organizes the brain and body.
Proprioceptive activities for adults include Yoga, stretching, scrubbing a floor or car, weight lifting, massages, and running. Heavy work activities for the hands include kneading dough, pulling weeds, squeezing a sponge or rag, or chopping food.
For kids, there are so many important activities for this system.
All the heavy work activities previously listed for adults are helpful, as well as running, playing outdoors, marching, climbing, jumping, and hanging or swinging on monkey bars or a zip line. Kids can help carry things, push or pull furniture or toy bins, rake leaves, or shovel snow. They can play with Legos or playdoh or other resistive toys to help improve hand strength.
Deep pressure tasks are important (and a preference for many kids) such as floor time play, bear hugs, sitting in a bean bag, massage, and heavy or weighted tools.
Helpful alerting proprioceptive activities for kids can be found in 25 Brain Breaks for Kids: Improve Focus and Attention. Calming and organizing brain breaks for kids can be provided via Calming Deep Pressure Tools and Activities.
Proprioceptive input is also powerful to the jaw. Many people find chewing gum, eating a chewy food, or munching on a crunchy snack to be very calming and alerting. Check out Oral Sensory Activities for more info and ideas for kids.
Tactile System and Activities to Activate the Sense of Touch
The tactile system gives valuable information to calm us and alert us. The feeling of a cozy blanket and warm cup of tea are calming, while a glass of ice water or a cold shower wake us up! We feel things with our hands without looking and can process many types of touch input.
Kids need a variety of tactile input from the time they’re born through their school years to help their brains process the information properly and learn. The hands have so many nerve endings and receptors that send information to the brain.
Hands on learning activities with manipulatives and messy play activities are important for young children and elementary students for learning.
Touch input provides an important foundation in babies not just for processing tactile input but also for social and emotional regulation. Deep pressure input and soft tactile input calm babies and make them feel safe. A variety of touch activities are important for learning. The tactile receptors in the hands and the mouth need to feel many textures to help the brain learn. Additionally, messes during meals when babies and toddlers learn to eat are really helpful for the brain to process smells, visual stimuli, and feelings in the hands and mouth to prevent picky eating.
Many children are tactile learners, and need hands on activities during play and daily routines. For tactile ideas, check out DIY Math Manipulatives for Tactile Learners and this Tactile Learning Activity for tactile discrimination.
Sensory Processing Difficulties and Sensory Processing Disorder
Young children, teens and adults all have sensory preferences. We grow and develop and figure out what our own unique nervous system needs to alert us or calm us. Additionally, we all have sensory preferences.
We know what types of clothing make us the most comfortable, the types of leisure activities or exercises we prefer, and what type of music we like the best. Some of us may like a heavy blanket for sleeping while others like a light sheet with a leg hanging out! When focusing on work, some of us might be able to attend well with extra noise, activity, and movement around while others might need absolute silence.
There may be days where we don’t get our sensory preferences, but we can still function and get done what we need to. As adults we may even have mild sensory sensitivities. We might be sensitive to certain noises, bright lights, movements, textures of clothing on our skin, or smells.
Sometimes our sensitivities fluctuate depending on the day or the environment. Lack of sleep, hunger and nutrition can impact how we process input inside and outside of our bodies.
Different environments might also make us react differently to sensory input. Consider the auditory information provided at a quiet, serene lake vs. a noisy birthday party with 20 kids at an indoor arcade.
One of those environments is likely to cause any adult sensory overload!
Sensory Processing Difficulties in Kids
Young children have less mature nervous systems than adults. Their need for sensory input is greater and looks very different. Kids are meant to move frequently, touch things, and only attend for specific periods of time based on their age.
Kids also have sensory preferences and sensory sensitivities. The sensitivities can be mild and not interfere with day to day functioning. Neurotypical kids find ways to adjust to mild sensitivities.
For example, kids who need extra movement, might seek or choose activities that provide this input for them inside and outside. A child who likes deep pressure input may sit on their leg or wrap their feet around the legs of the chair for more feedback or enjoy snuggling with a parent. Kids who are tactile learners will be exploring more with their hands or frequently touching things around them for information.
Additionally, neurotypical children may also learn how to avoid sensory stimuli that are bothersome. They may use a fork for really sticky finger foods or choose a swing over a merry go round. Some kids might be bothered by light touch and will choose not sit too close to a peer who might accidently brush against their arm. These are minor adjustments and do not interfere with their everyday activities.
Sensory Processing Disorder in Children
Sensory processing difficulties may occur in children without the need for sensory integration therapy. Kids may have varying tolerances to pain, high or low tolerance to specific movements, or clothing sensitivities. In schools in my occupational therapy role, I see various difficulties with kids in regular education or special education classrooms. But this does not mean that they need my services.
When difficulties are severe in various sensory systems, to the point where they cause frequent disruption to daily routines, severe difficulty learning, or turn into behavioral problems, then support from an occupational therapist should be sought out. Sensory processing disorder encompasses difficulties with sensory modulation, sensory discrimination and sensory-based motor disorders.
School-based occupational therapy can support an educational team in creating a sensory diet for a student.
Outside of school, medical advice can be obtained by a pediatrician if there is a great impact in the home environment. Pediatricians can right a script for outpatient occupational therapy services that focus on sensory integration therapy by a qualified OT. The outpatient OT can help the family create a sensory diet tailored to the home and to the child’s needs.
More Occupational Therapy Activities for the Sensory Systems
Be sure to check all the links throughout this post. Several helpful posts are in each of the sections throughout the article. For additional sensory activities, check out these posts: