Updated: Aug 6, 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 our five basic 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 also proprioceptive/vestibular (movement & balance). A good sensory experience will use multiple senses at once.
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. A sensory seeking child is not receiving enough stimuli from their senses and a sensory sensitive child is receiving too much stimuli from their senses. 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. A loud train going by or getting splashed in the face at the pool may cause these children to become overwhelmed and unable to process their emotions, leading the child to act out. Every child is different, but it’s helpful to keep it on your radar so you know what to watch for and can better anticipate your child's behavior or prevent negative behaviors before they occur.
Children need sensory experiences and input for proper development. Screen time does not fill this need and is not beneficial to a child's brain. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggest a 1 hour limit of screen time for children under the age of 6. You’ll often notice short-temperedness, impatience, and general mood imbalance when a child has been on a screen for too long. This is impart because the screen is not filling their cup beneficially or worse, causing sensory overload. Sensory play is not only important for proper development but it also has a calming affect on children, the opposite of screen time. Screen time doesn't have to be all or nothing though. If you choose to allow screen time, try setting time limits and specific time of day allowances. Offering sensory experiences in place of screen time will benefit children's overall development. Children need to move, touch, smell, see, hear, and taste - a screen simply doesn’t fill these needs. At the very least, aim to balance the amount of screen time with an equal or greater amount of sensory play.
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. My favorite Summer sensory experiences are sand & water play! The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) states that sand and water play, "allow children to learn with hands-on materials and take in new information through their senses. These sensory experiences can assist some children with calming down their bodies." It's a win, win!
If your child seems overwhelmed or overstimulated, give them time and space to ease in at their own pace. Provide a towel if they want to dry their hands and face or a safe place to sit until they feel more comfortable. If they can't stand to sit in the grass, provide a blanket to sit on. This will ease their feelings and the amount of stimulus they are receiving while allowing them to still participate. You can also model how you'd like your child to play with any given activity. Sometimes, they simply don't know or are intimidated about what to do. You also can set the expectations of proper or desired use of materials at this time.
Check out the list of our favorite OUTDOOR SUMMER SENSORY activities below!
run through a sprinkler
play in the pool
sink or float water table
colored ice cubes for color exploration and mixing
shaped ice cube molds for shape & animal exploration - frozen ice cubes
sponges & water play
shaving cream play - clean toys, water table, or just play with shaving cream!
sand box play
build a beach in the sandbox using natural materials and tinfoil (for the water)
build sand castles
trucks & sand
small world & sand
washing rocks, shells, & natural materials
fill a bucket with rocks, sand, dirt, or other materials
toy animal bath
dig in the sand or dirt
paint with water
walk on logs
climb hills & roll down
pick, cut, smell herbs & flowers
make potion with water, herbs, flowers & other natural materials
pour water in cups, watering cans, buckets
water the garden
catch & release lightning bugs
splash in a nearby watering hole
dance in the rain
outdoor dance party
visit a local park
go for a walk
If you don't have a pool or water table; a simple bowl, tub, or toy truck filled with water will work too!
If you don't have a sandbox or sand, dirt works just as well!
If you prefer your kiddos not dig holes all over your yard (like mine) give them a tub of dirt and let them have at it!
Sensory Tip! I recently discovered a new sensory toy sensation, Fidget Poppers! They come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors and are super affordable. They are available on Amazon and I hear that Target Dollar Spot also currently has them. These are great for sensory development and regulation and can be used in the water or sand as well! I don't normally highlight actual toys over natural materials, but
these are both beneficial and affordable and can be used for those long Summer car trips or be combined with outdoor play on a walk or stroller ride for little ones. Bonus! They could be used to collect small nature items. *This is NOT a sponsored post, I just happen to really like them!
Happy Sensory Summer!