Sensory Diet Activities Outdoors
A sensory diet is key for helping a child with sensory processing disorder to develop self-regulation skills. Throughout the day, activities that provide sensory input to calm a child who is hyperactive or to rev up a child who is sluggish can help a child with sensory processing issues to function better and more easily meet your behavioral expectations. For example, the child who is too active can start to ignore safety rules while a child who is in a low state of energy may not take advantage of the learning and socialization opportunities available. You want your child to engage with others and with the environment. A sensory diet can keep her from being totally withdrawn or so excited she can't remain still for a minute and have a conversation or observe the caterpillar you spotted crawling on a plant.
Sensory diet activities outdoors can be fun!
Pushing a wheelbarrow with a reasonable amount of weight in it, or a pushing a shovel along a sidewalk covered with snow, can be pleasurable for many kids with sensory issues. Throwing something with some weight can be a part of a sensory diet, too. Think about a beanbag game or horseshoes for the yard or park, or throwing rocks from a shoreline into the water (aiming to skip them along the surface can be great fun).
Badminton, croquet, and tossing a ball outdoors can all be a part of a sensory diet and will get your child outdoors in the sunshine, which helps their body produce vitamin D, an important nutrient we all need. It also will get them out into a physical space where they have to focus on items close up and far away.
Take a moment out to look into the trees in the distance or look up at the clouds, observing their movements and using your imagination as you talk with your child about that one that looks like a snowman or the one that looks like a smile. Focusing close up and then far away exercises the eyes and helps supports healthy vision and visual processing.
What's more, being outdoors allows a child with sensory issues to hear in three-dimension as surrounding sounds enter their ears as sound waves. Sit still with your child and pay attention to the sounds outdoors. Where are they coming from? What is making them? This type of listening game can be part of a sensory diet outdoors, too.
Another outdoor activity that can be part of a sensory diet is walking on uneven ground. Your child might find it easier to walk barefoot or in socks when navigating a narrow dirt path in the woods or alongside a river or lake, or ascending or descending a hill. Or, he might want to walk in sturdy shoes that offer support. You might want to practice slow, mindful walking with your child to help her become more aware of the sensations of moving the muscles in her feet as she rebalances again and again while walking on an uneven surface. Slow, mindful walking and balancing can help her to learn to trust herself and her body as she meets the challenge of walking on a surface that makes her feel unsteady.
Sensory diet activities outdoors can involve playground equipment, too, but talk to your child beforehand about sharing that equipment with other children. Have a plan for transitioning from the swing to solid ground if your child craves the movement and hates to end his turn and let another child take over the swing. Stopping the swinging activity at intervals to let his brain register a lack of movement, just for a minute, can help reduce your child's urge to swing nonstop and make swinging a more productive part of his sensory diet. Deep pressure and heavy work after swinging can reduce hyperactivity and overstimulation. Hugs or pushing, pulling, or carrying something of weight can do the trick. Pushups against a wall might be just what's needed to keep your child from jumping off the swing and running in circles or worse, pushing another child. Then too, counting off to when an activity will end can help reduce tears, frustration, and resistance:
"OK, I'm going to push you ten more times and then we will leave the swingsets and let this little boy have a chance to swing. Let's count down. Ten.... nine..."
"Three more times down the slide and then we leave the playground."
If your child is resistant to sensory diet activities outdoors, ask questions and listen carefully to their answers. Pay attention to their signs of discomfort and comfort when they are outside. You might enjoy nature, but they might find the sounds of buzzing insects and birds frightening. Learning that they can use bug spray to avoid getting bitten, or that birds rarely fly at us unless we come too close to their nests, can be comforting. But you might not know about these fears unless you ask, "Why don't you like going to the park?" and listen carefully to their answers. Even older children can have irrational fears that keep them from experiencing the pleasures and health benefits of being outdoors.
Want to know more about getting your child outdoors into nature, moving, and engaging in sensory diet activities outside? You'll find tips, strategies, and creative ideas in the NEWLY updated, best-selling and award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues by Lindsey Biel, MA, OTR/L, and Nancy Peske.
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