Updated: Aug 5, 2021
“A child’s neurological system is naturally designed to seek out the sensory input it needs in order to develop into a strong and capable individual.” - Angela J. Hanscom, pediatric occupational therapist, Timbernook founder & author of Balanced and Barefoot.
Children naturally seek to fill their sensory cup and require sensory input for proper development. When their sensory cup is not being filled, they will continue to find a way to fill it, often in less ”positive” ways. This is when we find ourselves asking, “Why is my child acting this way.” The answer is usually that their sensory cup is running low, or worse, empty. A child's cup can also be overfull when they receive too much stimulation via their senses.
So, what is the sensory cup? The sensory cup is what I call the sensory input or the stimulation of our child’s senses, or how they take in the world around them via their senses. Every child has their own requirements for their cup. Think back to the basic five senses; touch, smell, sight, taste, and hearing. When we are referring to our sensory cup these are defined as tactile (touch), olfactory (smell), oral (taste or mouth), auditory (hearing), and proprioceptive/vestibular (movement & balance).
A child may either seek or avoid when their cup is not properly maintained - this is the difference between a sensory seeking child and a sensory sensitive one. For example, a sensory seeking child may hate wearing shoes while a sensory sensitive child may hate being barefoot! Just think of all the input that can be received from walking barefoot across the lawn. An example I like to use is; you’re on the phone, the TVs on, you’re cooking dinner, and one (or more) of your children are asking for a snack or for you to “watch me” in the background - holy sensory overload! Our children are no different. Sometimes, their meltdowns are from too much sensory input. Again, every child is different but it’s good to simply keep it on your radar so you know what to watch for and can better anticipate their behavior or prevent such meltdowns. Too much screen time is a common trigger for sensory overload. The One way this can be easily rectified is by turning off the screens and giving a sensory experience instead, jumping on a trampoline or play-dough. You’ll often notice short-temperedness, impatience, and general mood imbalance when they’ve been on a screen too long. This is impart because the screen is not filling their cup. Children need to move, touch, smell, see, hear, and taste - a screen simply doesn’t fill these needs in a beneficial way. Sensory play is important for proper development but also calms children.
So how do we fill our child’s sensory cup? We can easily fill our child's sensory cup by encouraging or providing play that can be manipulated in several different ways while using their senses.
Here is a list of some of my favorite outdoor Winter sensory activities;
ice skating, with or without skates (sliding across the ice in boots works just as well!
making snowballs & throwing snowballs
painting snow (you can use watercolors & paintbrushes or spray bottles, water, & food coloring)
build a snowman
build animal dens
build an igloo
rolling in the snow
freeze toy animals or nature items & set them free
build a snow/winter village (you can bring almost any water safe toy outside to add to your village)
build a snow castle using sand toys
writing in the snow with pine needle branches
scooping snow with an ice cream scoop to build snow cones
moving snow with toy trucks
colored ice cube building blocks (add food coloring to your ice trays and create frozen building blocks)
use cookie cutters to create in the snow
scoop ice/snow into water and watch it melt
Keep in mind, this is just a short list and lots of things are considered sensory play. Often, our children engage in it on their own even if we don't recognize it as such. Anything that stimulates one or more of their senses or engages their body in movement or balance is considered sensory play and will fill their sensory cup. And trust me, a child with a well maintained sensory cup is a happy child!