21 Sensory Activities for Focus & Calm

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Engage the seven senses[1] to help your home learners feel calm and stay focused. 

Grumpy, frustrated, worried, bored, overwhelmed (insert adjective describing your child's mood here) home learners can all benefit from a sensory break to engage their senses, boost self-regulation, and shake things up a bit. 

Parents of home learners, and educators soon to welcome students back into the classroom, take note: all it takes is a little innovation [2]to create meaningful sensory experiences. Try one of the activities from the list below when your child becomes fidgety, disengaged, anxious, or overwhelmed. Even better, plan a handful of activities throughout the day, because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (and sensory activities can be a lot of fun for adults and children alike!). 

What are sensory activities?

Sensory activities are a gateway to improved self-regulation [3]for many children and youth, especially those with sensory processing challenges[4]. Developmental or behavioral disorders, such as autism and ADHD, cause some children to process sensory information in ways that make learning and playing difficult. Anxiety[5] - which is currently at a societal peak - is another reason children may have a hard time tolerating the sensory terrain of daily life, such as loud sounds, bright lights, background noise, or uncomfortable clothing. 

Sensory-based therapies [6]are one way occupational therapists help children cope with diverse sensory stimuli so that they can participate in daily life with less distress. Sensory activities - which target one or more senses in a soothing or stimulating way - are the bedrock of this approach. 

How to get started:

1. Choose a target sense (one that your learner is struggling with or especially enjoys)
2. Pick an activity from the list below (or make up your own)
3. Assemble materials and set them up (older learners can help with this step)
4. Dive into a world of sensory exploration!

21 Sensory Activities for Focus & Calm

Sight:

 

Scent:

 

Hearing:

 

Touch:

 

Taste:

 

Proprioception:

 

Vestibular: 

 

 

Select images from freepik.com

While we often talk about the five senses, we actually have seven sense systems:

  • sight
  • scent
  • hearing
  • taste
  • touch
  • proprioception (sense of where our body parts are in relation to each other)
  • vestibular (sense of where body is in space)

Children with sensory processing challenges have trouble using and/or integrating the information their body takes in through the senses. 

Some children are more sensitive to certain sensations, like loud noises, bright lights, strong tastes, or having sticky hands, for example. 

Other children may be less responsive to sensations and actively seek them out, such as constant or repetitive movement or deep pressure like a tight bear hug. 

A pilot study conducted by Pffeifer et al. (2011) published in the Journal of Occupational Therapy used a randomized controlled trial model to measure the effects of sensory integration therapy in children with autism aged 6-12.

They found that this type of therapy helped autistic children make significant improvements in sensory processing and  regulation and social-emotional function. 

Sensory-based therapies are based on the pioneering work of Dr. Ayres in the 1970s. They use a variety of activites and materials to provide stimulation across the seven senses, with the goal of organizing the sensory system. 

While sensory-based therapies are widely recognized to be anecdotally beneficial, the empirical research on their effectiveness is mixed due to methodological challenges and other considerations, such as variation in sensory-processing issues between individuals. 

Read this article from understood.org to learn how sensory-processing challenges and anxiety in children often go hand-in-hand. 

Educational innovation is an important component of a strengths-based approach to home learning. Other essential elements are effective communication and a commitment to SEL and Heart-Mind well-being.

This resource is the fourth and final installment of Heart-Mind Online's home learning series. 

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.