20 Creative Play Ideas for Sensory Avoiders
Welcome to my series of Sensory Processing blogs.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a medical professional of any kind. Or qualified teacher. I teach my children at home but they attend an SEN school. These blogs are full of what I know from what I've learned from various sources and my own experience over the last 12 years. I truly hope they're helpful and inspiring. Let's get started!
Humans are sensory creatures. So much of our lives, particularly as adults, is desperately lacking in a rich sensory diet. We can learn from our children about this! Especially children with a sensory processing difference. They are often masters of find and engage in sensory play to the benefit of their mind and body.
Sensory play is AMAZING both for children and adults. Sensory play builds connections in the brain and helps to cement learning by accessing different senses together.
When you mix sensory play with creativity the results can be extraordinary.
I have an exciting list here. Check this out!
Creativity plus sensory play:
+ supports cognitive growth,
+ hones fine and gross motor skills,
+ improves problem solving skills,
+ boosts imagination,
+ helps establish identity,
+ improves social and play skills,
+ builds communication skills
+ improves observation skills,
+ sparks curiosity,
+ develops hand-eye coordination,
+ improves focus and attention,
+ supports emotional regulation,
+ boosts memory,
+ builds self-esteem
and creates opportunities for CONNECTION
There are different types of sensory input. You'll know of course the classic 5:
Sight/visual, sound/auditory, taste/gustatory, smell/olafactory and touch/tactile.
But did you know about these?
Vestibular, proprioceptive and interoception.
Our vestibular system is how we receive and process information relating to our body's orientation (standing up, lying down, upside down), movement and balance. Examples of vestibular actions are: swinging on a swing, going down a slide or zip line, balancing on a beam/on one leg. cartwheels, hand or headstands etc...
Our proprioceptive system processes pressure and gravity and how our body relates to an environment. For example, we receive proprioceptive information when we hold someone's hand, sit on a chair, squeeze a stress ball, are swaddled/wrapped in a blanket, get pushed or pulled etc...
Our interoceptive system is our body's inner sensations like pain, hunger, thirst, itches, temperature, feeling dizzy or sick etc...
All of us have these sensory systems and they give our mind and body a LOT of information all day every day. For most of us we are able to process this information efficiently and without issue, but those with a sensory processing disorder will have areas where they are over or under-sensitive to various or all of these senses.
Today I'm talking about Sensory AVOIDERS.
Sensory avoiders can be reluctant to stimulate one or two, or many or even all of their 8 senses; it varies from person to person. Similarly to the sensory seeking blog previous, most of us will have one of two things we avoid regarding our senses. I avoid spicy food for example as I can't bear the sensation, I am sensitive to light and need to wear sunglasses most of the year when I'm outside or I can barely see and I avoid wool in clothes as it makes my skin itch. How about you? And how about your child?
Here are a few other examples. If your child is a sensory avoider they may be distressed by the following:
* food being on their hands or face,
* labels in clothes (even if they feel soft to you),
* sudden noises,
* loud music,
* certain pitches or tones of music/instruments,
* fluorescent lighting,
* flickering lighting,
* sound of crying,
* hot food,
* cold food,
* crunchy food,
* sloppy/messy food,
* strong-smelling food like garlic or onions....
... you get the idea.
So looking at this list it could be easy to feel a bit bombarded by warnings. It's worth saying though that it's unlikely your child will be sensitive to all these sensory inputs, and also that many will have some sensory seeking and some sensory avoidant needs.
When it comes to parenting our children with sensory sensitivities that lead to avoidance, it is different to seekers in that your role is much more geared toward preventing over-stimulation from sensory input that could lead to distress and meltdowns. So with sensory seeking needs we're required to create sensory input that will create relief for your child, but with sensory avoidance we need to be detectives; armed with our own spidey-senses and magnifying glass to check for sensory stimuli! (I like to hum the theme to Inspector Gadget when I'm doing an environment check, but you do you...)
My two boys have the same trio of diagnoses but they affect each differently, AND - with my eldest particularly - his sensory sensitivities and needs changed as he grew older. He started life very sensory sensitive; he was avoidant for some tactile stimulus and seeking for lots visual stimulus. He loved vestibular input as a baby and toddler but nowadays tends to avoid sensations like swinging and going too fast on anything, and he instead seeks and NEEDS proprioceptive input. My youngest has always been a sensory seeker and particularly loves vestibular input but also loves a good squeeze, especially before sleep to decompress after all the energy he builds and releases during the day.
For sensory avoiders/sensitives you may well find that ear defenders or noise-cancelling headphones become your must-have item, particularly for trips out and social events in your home. Ear defenders: the clue is in the name with these: defend. When wearing these many people will feel safer due to having this extra blocker for sensory input. With ear defenders you have choice over how much sound input you receive. I'll be honest here as well and say that they have been very helpful for me too while I've been in with my eldest during the shouting/roaring part of his meltdowns. When I'm wearing these I'm able to stay much calmer. I am sensory sensitive myself and with ear defenders I can reduce the impact of the sounds of distress from my son. I'm still present, I'm not ignoring him, I can still hear it, but the decibels can be reduced to a much more manageable level so I'm more able to be useful and make good decisions during those meltdowns. Sensory overload is a serious issue for parents as well as our children!
The lovely thing about sensory sensitive children is that we can still have some fantastic creative playtimes with them - and clean-up is much easier!
Now let's have a look at some fun ideas to try for your sensory avoiders!
Reusable zip-seal bags with paint, glitter, slime etc... to make colours and patterns without having to touch the stuff!
Wax crayon and hairdryer drip painting
Long-handled tools and gloves to keep skin from touching the mediums
DIY jigsaw puzzle (lollipop sticks, wooden building blocks, strips of card, cut shapes of card)
Jumping Clay (much less sticky texture than regular clay or even playdoh and dries really fast)
DIY soothing bottles
Sun Print paper/Cyanotype
Mirror painting (drip paint from bottle onto page then fold and press one half of paper onto the other without touching the edges - can use a tool to press down if necessary).
Colouring with coloured pencils
Drawing/painting using a phone/tablet art app
Creative writing (stories/poems)
Simple animation (flick books, 2 image roller, stop motion with Lego/other toys)
Sticky-back plastic/contact paper collage
The images below show some examples of creative, sensory play that's gentle on the sensory-sensitive, avoiders. As said above, play it by ear and check your child's reaction to each thing. I would suggest not to offer too many activities within a day. If they're not loving an activity you've set up, go ahead and try another - if you have the time and supplies - but if you find they're refusing everything it could be that they're too overwhelmed that day to process any new activities. In this case, find a way to ground them, make them feel safe and at ease. This could mean giving them cuddles in a dark, quiet place or zoning out with some gentle TV or music or wrapping them in a blanket and holding them, rolling them or allowing them to lie down and decompress all swaddled up. If they calm and are eager to explore play again you can try a familiar activity then maybe move on to a new one after that.
(Another little heads up here in case it's helpful, with my youngest I find that after we've had calm time he will be full of beans and need to bounce, run, dance, shake off the energy of being still for a while before moving on to the next activity. It's called a 'movement break' and in some schools now they are starting to incorporate them into the kids' days which is brilliant as it's showing an awareness for our childrens' physical needs in order to learn.)
My eldest as at 4 years old in full sensory-sensitivity mode. This was taken shortly before his first proper meltdown and was over the glitter not rubbing off his little hands. He is still very wary of glitter now at 12 years old...
This is a photo of an abstract portrait created by youngest Sonshine using features I created and cut out for the boys to arrange how they wanted. It's got an Art Attack feel as the pieces were all large, I think the eye on the left was about 7 inches wide.
This pin-board image was taken from www.Arteza.co.uk
This Kaleidescope-style image was created by eldest Sonshine using a symmetry drawing app. He gets lost in these when he's in the mood and will create many in a session. This is one of my favourites. The app is called Doodle Master.
In my Facebook community group I've done a couple of 'create with us' videos that tick some of these boxes and we'll be doing much more going forward so if you'd like to join in please head over there to like and follow the page so you'll know when and what we're going to be doing for some awesome creative and sensory play! If you can't join live, don't worry, the videos will be kept on the page for you to watch in your own time.
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Did you learn anything about yourself or your children's sensory processing system reading this? I'd love to know if you'd like to share! I've learned so much about myself over the years raising my special boys. Aren't our bodies just fascinating?!
Feel free to share this blog if you like but please share it directly from this page.
Thanks so much!
Have a wonderful time exploring fun activities with your sensory avoiders!