Sensory Smart Spaces at Home
Updated: Mar 14
Given what's going on globally with the covid-19 pandemic, parents and kids are facing more and more challenges in getting much-needed exercise, time outdoors in nature, and opportunities for looking into the distance (for the sake of eye health and preventing or arresting nearsightedness). Kids' routines and sensory diets have gone out the window, and many parents are scrambling.
As to your home space: Lindsey Biel, MA, OTR/L, who wrote the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child with me, was recently quoted in the New York Times on how to help your child with sensory issues to stay regulated by adjusting a space to be more sensory friendly. Kids with sensory issues are more sensitive to things like fluorescent lights and overly busy walls and floors—check out Lindsey's advice. Read the article and see if there's anything you can do to stash away (or even get rid of) clutter that might overstimulate your child with sensory issues or anything you can do to provide physical activity indoors.
If you lack equipment for sensory seeking, improvise with what's at hand: walking up and down stairs, perhaps in time to favorite music or while doing skip counting (counting by 2s, 3s, 4s, etc.) Cushions, pillows, and piles of linens can serve as crash pads. Make a game of throwing "throw pillows" (hey, that IS their name!) toward targets outlined with chalk or tape on a floor or rug. Throwing things pulls apart joints in the arms and hands, stimulating sensory receptors associated with proprioceptive (body awareness) input. Have your child toss unbreakable items with some weight (such as beanbags) into a basket. Sensory avoiding, getting breaks from sensory input, might involve calming, focusing music. If you haven't played vinyl records or CDs for a while and you have a collection, experiment with playing those as well as with playing digital music files. Ask your child to help you determine what type of music is most calming—stringed instrument? children's tunes? Something else? Singing and playing an instrument might be calming, too, especially if it's your child with sensory issues controlling the sound—singing by herself or playing the drums (or an cooking pot turned upside down). Breaks from sensory input might involve crawling under piles of pillows and blankets, too.
If your child is on screens more often than ever before, please don't fret. That's to be expected given the situation. Not everything they watch or everything they play will be clearly educational, but encourage creativity and conversations with questions that can help them learn from what they're doing. Now's a good time to join your child in learning their favorite video game or rewatching a favorite family movie and talking about what various characters feel and how they respond to those feelings. Trying to help your child with schoolwork? You don't necessarily have to pressure your child to do math the school's way. In the long run, isn't mastering math fundamentals, understanding how to apply basic concepts, and having a pleasant learning experience more important than doing it one particular way? Talk with your child's teacher about the limits of what you're able to do at home with your child who is frustrated by schoolwork. We can all try to keep an eye on the bigger picture of learning and not get bogged down in details that won't matter a week from now, a month from now, or a year from now.
As you teach your child about social distancing and hygiene including proper handwashing (which can be done to the verse of many pop songs or children's songs like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to be sure to get that 20-plus seconds of lathering and fingernail scrubbing in), don't forget to take a little time every day to find something to laugh at. Laughter actually has positive physical effects on the body, reducing stress and boosting immunity.
Make time to enjoy nature, too. If you can't get outdoors, look out a window at the sky, especially at sunrise or sunset when the colors can be gorgeous. Just listening to recordings of natural sounds has been found to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Try sounds of running water, rain on a rooftop, or whatever your child finds soothing or stimulating and energizing. Grow a plant from an avocado pit or some seeds, snuggle your furry family member and take walks if you can do so safely. If your child or teen resists wearing a mask, try desensitizing their face with gentle massage or vibration (such as from the handle of a vibrating toothbrush that's been turned on).
Helpful information is important, but be careful not to have news reports playing from a phone, TV, or other device too often. Once a day updates is enough. And talk with your teen about limiting exposure to bad news, maximizing exposure to good news—and enjoyable things they can do at home while social distancing.
Work with your kids to set up an obstacle course in your house, or on the sidewalk, your driveway, or in your backyard. In a small space, you can dance, do yoga, or do stretches and jumping jacks. As always, teach your child to pay attention to how much activity they can do that is stimulating before they need to take a break to take their energy level down so they can teach their nervous system to better self-regulate. And whatever you do to help your child's limited spaces right now be more sensory smart as well as safe, be mindful of how challenging all of this thinking and creativity can be. Don't try to be Super Parent. Just do the best you can and take a little time to practice self-care to be sure you're not becoming overwhelmed by everything.
You'll find all sorts of tips and strategies for helping your child with sensory issues and becoming a sensory smart parent in the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child: Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues, available in print and as a eBook. And soon to be available in Chinese!