Most kids react to sensory input in predictable ways, but some do not. Some kids may underreact to sensory input and may be considered to have a sensory-processing issue. These kids need more sensory stimulation to respond to stimuli, and may engage in what we call sensory-seeking behavior.
Sensory-seeking behavior among children is increasingly common today, but the good news is that we now know more about it and how to help kids struggling with sensory processing issues.
It was not so long ago that children with these issues were thought of as “difficult” children because of the associated challenging behavior.
Common sensory-seeking behaviors
There are five well-known senses — hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste — but there are also other lesser-known senses, and two of them have an impact on your child’s ability to respond to sensory information. Proprioception refers to the sense of balance, self-movement and body position that is mediated by neurons located in muscles, tendons and joints; spatial orientation is associated with the ability to identify one’s position in space.
All these senses influence the behavior of a child with sensory-seeking issues. This child may:
- Consistently crash into things
- Have poor fine motor skills, which makes them appear clumsy
- Appear “loud” — talk loudly, walk loudly, etc.
- Be a messy eater
- Engage in dangerous behavior because of their need for further stimulation
- Constantly need to chew, bite or lick things — their clothes, toys, pens, etc.
- Have regular meltdowns
- Appear to be aggressive with other kids — pushing them, hugging them too tightly and so on
- Be overly touchy with both people and things
- Be attracted to loud noises
- Be unable to keep still — these children are often described as “hyperactive”
The good news is that providing sensory input can help your child get the stimulation they seek, increase their awareness of their bodies and help them adapt more easily to their environment. Here are some indoor and outdoor activities that will help your sensory-seeking child.
Indoor sensory-seeking activities
- Play-dough has been providing sensory input to children for years! By allowing your child to squash, knead and pound, play-dough activities provide proprioceptive input. These activities also strengthen your child’s fine motor skills.
- Give your child a stress ball and let them squeeze it. Like play-dough, this will provide proprioceptive input.
- Yoga exercises are whole-body activities that provide considerable stimulation. Many kids love animal yoga poses where they get to “hop like a kangaroo,” “walk like a crab,” “slither like a snake” or “jump like a cat.” Try online yoga classes that are specially designed for kids. If your child is age 5 or older, your entire family will enjoy the ThinkFun Yoga Spinner Game, which will provide the sensory input they need.
- Finger painting is a powerful proprioceptive activity for sensory-seeking children.
- Chewable fidgets can provide the oral stimulation your child seeks, and there are hundreds to choose from. These are great (and discreet!) if you are looking for something your child can carry around everywhere.
Outdoor sensory-seeking activities
- Swimming is one of the best proprioceptive activities because it is a whole-body activity.
- Jumping on a trampoline is a great activity for a sensory-seeking child because it will help them work on both their balance and spatial orientation. Getting an indoor trampoline will ensure that your child gets their sensory input, no matter the weather!
- Pikler triangles or monkey bars stimulate your child’s entire body by encouraging them to pull, push, crawl, jump, twist and so on. Be sure to get a sturdy product that they can use for years.
- Have your child plant their own garden or help in yours. Activities such as digging and weeding are all great for proprioceptive input.
- Create a hopping obstacle race by placing obstacles on the ground (cardboard boxes, a hula hoop, sticks, etc.) and ask your child to jump either on or in between the obstacles. Make the race harder by varying the instructions (hop with one foot, both feet, etc.) or by increasing the distance between obstacles.
- The wheelbarrow walk provides proprioceptive input and strengthens your child’s muscles. Grab their ankles and let them use their hands to get around. You can make the activity more fun by putting obstacles in their path.
Occupational therapists say that when it comes to providing activities for sensory-seeking children, short but frequent multisensory activities are more effective than infrequent and lengthy ones.
An easy way to ensure that your child is getting sufficient sensory input is to make them participate in age-appropriate chores as often as possible. For example, they can: help bring in the groceries, help in the garden, empty the dishwasher, be “in charge” of the laundry basket or the garbage bins (taking them to or from the curb), vacuum or even mow the lawn if they are old enough.
A therapist may be in order if you feel that your child’s sensory-seeking behavior is interfering with their home and school life. A good therapist will be able to assess your child and propose a personalized sensory plan to help them find greater balance.
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