Sensory Diet Activities
What is a sensory diet?
Just as your child needs food throughout the course of the day, the need for sensory input must also be met. A “sensory diet” (coined by OT Patricia Wilbarger) is a carefully designed, personalized activity plan that provides the sensory input a person needs to stay focused and organized throughout the day. Just as you may jiggle your knee or chew gum to stay awake or soak in a hot tub to unwind, children need to engage in stabilizing, focusing activities too. Infants, young children, teens, and adults with mild to severe sensory issues can all benefit from a personalized sensory diet.
Each child has a unique set of sensory needs. Generally, a child whose nervous system is overaroused and too wired needs more calming input, while the child who is more underaroused and too tired needs more alerting input. A qualified occupational therapist can use her or his advanced training and evaluation skills to develop a strong sensory diet for your child—or you—but it’s up to you and your child to implement it throughout the day.
The great news is that the effects of a sensory diet, combined with professional intervention, are usually immediate AND cumulative. Activities that perk up your child or calm him down are not only effective in the moment; they actually help to change your child’s nervous system over time so that he or she is better able to:
- tolerate sensations and situations that are challenging
- regulate emotions, alertness and increase attention span
- reduce unwanted sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behaviors
- handle transitions with less stress
Creating a Sensory Diet: The Ingredients
It is strongly recommended that you work with an occupational therapist who has a solid understanding of sensory processing issues. One of the trickiest aspects of sensory difficulty is recognizing when a child is overreactive or underreactive in any given moment, and then calibrating sensory input to meet him where he is and provide a “just right challenge” to help him move forward into a “just right” state of being. That’s why it’s so important to partner up with knowledgeable help. Our comprehensive book, Raising a Sensory Smart Child, which includes the Sensory Checklist you can print here, is geared toward building your “sensory smarts.”
Print out these sensory diet activities to get started. You’ll need to modify them depending on your child’s age, arousal level (does she to rev up or relax?), whether she is in school, at home, or away, and whether or not you have special equipment available. See our Toys and Equipment page for items that provide valuable sensory input. Also check our Working with Schools page regarding sensory diet at school.
Proprioceptive input (sensations from joints, muscles and connective tissues that underlie body awareness) can be obtained by lifting, pushing, and pulling heavy objects, including one’s own weight. A child can also stimulate the proprioceptive sense by engaging in activities that push joints together like pushing something heavy or pull joints apart like hanging from monkey bars.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
Make a “burrito” or “sandwich.” Firmly press on your child’s arms legs and back with pillows or make a “burrito” by rolling her up in a blanket.
Push and pull. She can push her own stroller, and a stronger child can push a stroller or cart filled with weighted objects such as groceries.
Carry that weight. Your child can wear a backpack or fanny pack filled with toys (not too heavy!).
Jump! Have your child jump on a mini-trampoline or rebounder or play hopscotch.
Push and pull. Have him vacuum, carry books from one room to another, help wash windows or a tabletop, and transfer wet laundry from the washing machine to the dryer.
Teenagers and Adults
Heavy lifting. Without straining, teens and adults can shovel snow or lift free weights.
Push, pull, and carry. Rake leaves, push heavy objects like firewood in a wheelbarrow, do push-ups against the wall, wear a heavy knapsack (not too heavy!) or pull a luggage cart-style backpack, or mow the lawn with a push mower.
Reassuring pressure. Get a firm massage, use a weighted vest or lap pad from a therapy catalog, or place light weights in the pockets of a fishing, athletic or regular type of vest. (Please see Raising a Sensory Smart Child for weighted wearable recommendations and precautions).
Vestibular input (the sense of movement, centered in the inner ear). Any type of movement will stimulate the vestibular receptors, but spinning, swinging, and hanging upside down provide the most intense, longest lasting input. If your child has vestibular (movement) sensitivities, please work closely with a sensory smart OT who can help you recognize and prevent signs of nervous system overload.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
Swing. Encourage her to swing on playground swings, trying various types of swings and movements, such as front to back and side to side.
Spin. Have him spin using a Sit n’ Spin, Dizzy Disc Jr., or office chair. Let her run in circles, and ride a carousel. Hold your child’s arm and spin in a circle as he lifts off the ground, or play airplane by holding one of his arms and the leg on the same side of his body as you spin in place (only if he does not have low muscle tone).
Get upside down. Have him hang upside down from playground equipment, do somersaults, or ride a loop-de-loop rollercoaster.
Swing and roll. Encourage her to use playground swings and roll down a grassy or snowy hill (which good proprioceptive input as well).
Spin. Encourage her to go on amusement park rides that spin, have a Dizzy Disc Jr..
Teenagers and Adults
Swing and spin. Swing on a hammock, use playground swings or merry-go-round (you’re never too old!).
Move that body! Do cartwheels, swim (doing flip turns and somersaults in the water), do jumping jacks, and dance.
The tactile sense detects light touch, deep pressure, texture, temperature, vibration, and pain. This includes both the skin covering your body and the skin lining the inside of your mouth. Oral tactile issues can contribute to picky eating and feeding difficulties.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
Food and drink. Let your child drink plain seltzer or carbonated mineral water to experience bubbles in her mouth (you can flavor it with a little juice or with lemon, lime, etc.).
Messy play with textures. Have her play with foamy soap or shaving cream, and add sand for extra texture. Have her fingerpaint, play with glitter glue, mix cookie dough and cake batter, and so on. Let your child use the playground sandbox or create your own at home, filling a bin with dry beans and rice or other materials and small toys. Cover and store the bin for future use.
Use child-friendly modeling material such as Play-Doh, Model Magic, and Sculpey (the classic Play-Doh Fun Factory provides excellent proprioceptive input as well). Never force a child who is unwilling to touch “yucky” substances. Let him use a paintbrush, stick, or even a toy for cautious exploration.
Dress up. Dress up in fun costumes to get used to the feel of unfamiliar clothing,
Food and drink. Provide your child with frozen foods (popsicles, frozen fruit or vegetables) and mixed temperature foods (hot fudge sundae, hot taco with cold toppings, etc.).
Get in touch with nature. Encourage him to walk barefoot in the grass (avoiding pesticide applications), sand, or dirt. Have him garden and repot indoor plants.
Play dress-ups. Encourage play with make-up, face painting, and costumes, putting on a play or making a mini movie with a video camera.
Teenagers and Adults
Tactile hobbies. Sculpt, sew, weave, crochet or knit. Create a scrapbook (which involves lots of pasting and working with different textures). Use sandpaper to smooth a woodworking project. Make things out of clay, and try using a potter’s wheel.
Auditory input refers to both what we hear and how we listen, and is physiologically connected with the vestibular sense. In addition to various types of recorded and live music, here are some ways kids and adults can get calming and organizing auditory input.
Get outside and listen. Go to the beach or sit still and listen to the rain, thunder, and so on. If you hear birds singing, try to identify what direction a given bird is calling from.
Listen to natural sound recordings. There are many recordings of rain falling, ocean waves, bird songs, and so on. Sometimes natural sound recordings also feature light instrumentation with flutes, keyboards, etc. Some children and adults find they sleep better if they play such music.
Play a listening game. You and your child sit very quietly and try to identify the sounds you hear (traffic, the hum of the refrigerator, a door shutting, etc.) and where it’s coming from.
Find calming, focusing music. Listen to music specially engineered to promote calm, focus, energy, or creativity. Keep in mind, of course, that musical preference is highly idiosyncratic, so this will take some experimentation. The music you love may distress your child, while the music he finds so soothing may drive you up the wall.
Encourage musicianship. Provide your child with a musical instrument and encourage him to play and even take lessons.
Give him some control. For a child with auditory sensitivity, predicting and controlling sounds can be very helpful. Encourage him to turn on the vacuum cleaner, help him pop the balloons after a birthday party, anticipating the noise. Try Sound Eaze and School Eaze CDs that desensitize children to everyday sounds such as flushing toilets, thunder, barking dogs, alarms, and other sounds many kids find distressing.
Create pleasant sounds. Get a white noise machine, tabletop rocks-and-water fountain, or aquarium.
Visual input can often be overstimulating for a child with sensory issues. Think about ways you can simplify the visual field at home or school for a calming, organizing effect. Alternately, if the child seems “tuned out” and doesn’t respond easily to visual stimulation, add brightly colored objects to encourage visual attention. For example, a child who has trouble getting aroused for play may be attracted by a brightly painted toy chest filled with toys in appealing colors. A child who seem unable to watch a ball as it rolls may be able to watch it if the ball lights up or makes noise as it moves.
Avoid excess visuals. Hide clutter in bins or boxes or behind curtains or doors—a simple, solid-color curtain hung over a bookshelf instantly reduces visual clutter. In rooms where the child spends a lot of time, try to use solid colored rugs instead of patterned ones. Solid-colored walls in neutral or soft colors are less stimulating than patterned wallpaper in bold colors.
Seat him elsewhere. Have your child sit at the front of a classroom where there is less distraction. He may also need to sit away from the window to avoid the allure of the outdoors. Some children do best sitting in the back of the room so they can monitor what other kids are doing without constantly turning around. Work with the teacher and an OT to see which seat placement works best.
Be color-sensitive. Avoid toys, clothes, towels, etc., in colors that your child find distressing.
Olfactory input (sense of smell) comes through the nose and goes straight to the most primitive, emotional part of the brain. So if your child is upset by something being stinky, it’s no wonder. Certain odors can stimulate, calm, or send him into sensory overload.
Smell stuff! Explore scents with your child to find ones that work best to meet your goal (to soothe him or to wake him up). Everyone has different preferences, but vanilla and rose scents are generally calming. Peppermint and citrus are usually alerting. Let’s say your child needs help staying calm and loves vanilla. You can use high-quality vanilla soap and bath oils at bath time, vanilla candles or essential oils in an aromatherapy machine at bedtime, and vanilla body lotion.
Caution: Avoid lavender products for boys as several recent studies show a link with breast development in boys. It’s probably best to avoid using these products for girls as well.
Scent break. If your child is overtired at the shopping mall and you know scents help, have her smell her favorite scent or stop into a store that sells candles and soaps.
Scent play. Play a smelling game with your child. Have her close her eyes or wear a blindfold and try to identify smells such as citrus fruit, flowers, spices such as cinnamon, and so on.
Taste input is perceived by our tongue but how we interpret or experience it is strongly influenced by our sense of smell. As an experiment, chew some gum until the flavor is gone, then hold a lemon under your nose; the gum will taste like lemon. Help your child with to broaden the tastes he tolerates or likes, and use strong tastes he enjoys to help arouse his sluggish system.
Give strong-tasting foods before introducing new ones. Strong tastes can stimulate the mouth of an undersensitive child and make him more willing to try new foods. Before presenting new foods, let the child have one peppermint, sour gummy bear, or other strong-flavored food.
Play a taste game. If your child does not have a strong negative reaction to refined sugar (becomes very “hyper” or sleepy), get an assortment of flavored jellybeans. Eat one at a time, and have her guess which flavor it is. If you wish to avoid sugar (and artificial color and flavor in most candies), you can play this game with slices of fruit, or another healthier snack.
Involve him in food preparation. Children are more likely to taste something if they help make it. Let your child help you grow fruit, vegetables, and herbs, and plan dinner and shop. Give him a sense of control: let him choose between chicken or fish, string beans or sugar snaps, potato or rice. Then let your child put the meat in the baking pan, break off vegetable tips and dump in water, and so on. Let him help you arrange food on each plate so it looks nice.
Play with your food. A so-called picky eater may be more willing to eat “rocks and trees” than meatballs and broccoli. Fun arrangements such as some vegetable sticks and grape tomatoes placed in a smiley face pattern on a plate encourage kids to taste something new.
Sample Sensory Diet
Here is a sample sensory diet, created for a second grade child with sensory processing disorder. We’ve used the annoying term “as directed” to avoid providing a cookbook recipe. Activities must be individualized for each child and modified frequently to meet changing needs. A separate program was worked out for this child with the school, including frequent movement breaks, an inflatable seat cushion for wiggling while remaining seated, and providing crunchy/chewy oral comfort snacks at handwriting time.
In the Morning
- Massage feet and back to help wake up
- Listen to recommended therapeutic listening CD
- Use vibrating toothbrush and/or vibrating hairbrush
- Eat crunchy cereal with fruit and some protein
- Spin on Dizzy Disc Jr. as directed
- Jump on mini-trampoline as directed
- Go to playground for at least 30 minutes
- Push grocery cart or stroller
- Spinning as directed
- Mini-trampoline. Add variety: have him play catch or toss toys into a basket while jumping.
- Massage feet to “reorganize,” use therapy putty, make “body sandwiches,” wheelbarrow walk
- Do ball exercises as directed
- Listen to therapeutic listening CD
- Oral work — suck thick liquids through a straw, eat crunchy and chewy snacks, or chew gum before and/or during tabletop activities
- Help with cooking, mixing, chopping, etc.
- Help set table, using two hands to carry and balance a tray
- Provide crunchy and chewy foods
- Family time: clay projects, painting projects, etc.
- Warm bath with bubbles and calming essential oil
- Massage during reading time