How to Create a Sensory Smart Classroom or Home

When teachers and/or parents think of how they can support the sensory needs of their students or child, they often have ideas of elaborate sensory rooms that boast expensive fancy equipment. I am here to tell you that while this is a fantastic option, it is not the only option!  You can provide meaningful sensory experiences using regular household and or classroom stuff.  If you haven’t read part one of this series: Sensory Processing Skills Unveiled and Explained be sure to do so.  Having an appreciation of what sensory processing disorder is and what it might look like is paramount before implementing any type of sensory strategy for children.  Understanding the why behind behaviors is the key to handling it, and may I say, how to keep your cool when managing it.  

How Sensory Supports Can Help Children

First, I must say some children need the expertise of an occupational therapist to develop a specialized sensory program designed to meet their individual needs.  This post is not intended to replace individualized care, but rather to provide generalized insight and practical sensory strategies that can be implemented as support at school or home.  

A child may gravitate to one or several types of sensory input based on their individual needs.  All children are different and therefore will have unique sensory preferences.  Here I will break down the various types of sensory input and how you can support both over-responsive (think sensory avoiders) and under-responsive behaviors (think sensory seekers).

Types of Sensory Input

Types of Sensory Tools
Types of Sensory Tools

Remember the behaviors that you see in children with sensory processing disorder have a purpose.  They are trying to regulate themselves but do not know how to do so appropriately.  Providing meaningful and appropriate sensory experiences will teach children how to safely and effectively get what they need to regulate themselves. 

Replace the behavior with a healthier and safer sensory outlet
Replace the behavior with a healthier and safer sensory outlet

For example, let’s say a child is seeking oral motor input by chewing on pencils throughout the day.  You want to replace this behavior with a healthier and safer sensory outlet.  You may provide the child with alternatives such as a chewy necklace that can be worn daily.  Also, you may offer hard and crunchy foods at snack time that will provide intense oral motor input.  Explain why you are offering alternatives to the child so he/she will gain insight on how to appropriately self-regulate.  The hope is that they will be able to make better choices on their own eventually.

How Can You Help a Child With SPD?

This is my favorite part of this series. What can you do to help a child with sensory needs? Here I will discuss each type of sensory input and share activities, tools, and environmental modifications that can be provided to give the child the type of input they need.

Vestibular Input (Movement)

Vestibular Input
Vestibular Input

The word vestibular can be intimidating. Vestibular input is any activity that causes a change in the movement, position, or direction of the head. To keep it simple, just think movement. The child needs to move! What types of activities can you do to support a vestibular system?  This is dependent upon whether or not the child is over-responsive or under-responsive to vestibular input.  If you believe your child has a compromised system that may be impacting his or her ability to function, seeking the advice of an occupational therapist is highly recommended.  Sensory integration is a type of treatment offered by occupational therapists to help those who struggle with processing sensory information, including vestibular input. Every child’s needs are unique and call for a treatment plan that is designed to meet their specific and individual needs.  Providing information to meet child-specific needs is beyond the scope of this post.  Generally speaking, for those who are over-responsive or hypersensitive to vestibular input, introducing movement in a slow rhythmic pattern following a  horizontal plane is a good start. Gradually progressing to movement in a vertical plane and finally rotational movement. Children who are under-responsive may benefit from lots of movement throughout the day.

Some ideas are: 

  • trampoline (you do not need to invest in a large backyard trampoline, mini trampolines work great as well)
  • swings
  • rocking horses or rocking chairs for older kiddos
  • Sit-and-spin
  • bouncing on an exercise ball
  • spinning on an office chair
  • wheelbarrow walks
  • jogging in place
  • jumping jacks
  • running, jumping, skipping, galloping
  • wiggle cushion
  • hanging upside down or sitting upside-down on the couch
  • somersaults or cartwheels
  • yoga poses like downward dog
  • jump rope
  • sensory paths
  • Go Noodle

Therapist Tip: Provide Choices Visually

Movement Choice Board
Movement Choice Board

Helping children learn how to self-regulate is the ultimate goal. Children with SPD tend to be visual learners, so providing information visually is often successful. Children can see what their options are and make choices. The picture above is a sample of a visual choice board that can be posted in your classroom or home. How does it work? Cut out and laminate each vestibular or movement choice that you have or can make available to your students or child. Discard any pictures of items you do not have and can’t offer as a choice. Apply Velcro to the backing. Apply Velcro to the choice board below, and affix the sensory options.

Sensory Choice Board
Sensory Choice Board

Post or place the sensory choice board in your classroom or home where it is easily accessible. Present the choice board to the child when their behavior indicates that they may need a sensory break.

Sensory Break Card
Sensory Break Card

Have the child choose their sensory break by pulling off the visual and placing it on their break card. You determine how you’d like to structure the break based on the child’s needs and the setup of your classroom or home. For example, you may set the timer for a 3-minute trampoline break. Once done, the child moves the sensory choice to the “all done” side of the break card. If more than one break card is needed, use more.

Sometimes the entire classroom may demonstrate the need for a movement break. Have all the students take a time out Research has shown that all kids benefit from movement breaks, so giving the entire classroom a “Go Noodle” break is always a winner. Of course, you would not need to utilize the break cards under these circumstances. The break cards are designed to support individual student’s needs.

Visual Input

Visual Input
Visual Input

Visual input is anything that we capture with our eyes, our sight.   Visual input is the light, color, or movement that we see in our environment. Lighting is very important as it can be very overwhelming to a sensory vulnerable child.  Natural lighting is ideal.  Choose artificial lighting that best mimics natural light.  Avoid lights that flicker or make a buzzing noise.  This can be hard to pick up on if it doesn’t bother you, but some lighting, particularly fluorescent lighting, can be very hard to tolerate because of this.  You can buy filters for fluorescent lighting that will reduce the harsh effect

Dim rather than bright lighting is often the best choice. When decorating, avoid overbearing paint colors on the wall or furniture.  Red, for example, can be too intense for someone with sensory sensitivities.   Instead, opt for calming neutrals and blues.  Try to keep your classroom or home organized and clutter-free.  Having excess items in the home can be overwhelming and distracting.  

Visual sensory tools: 

  • study carrell
  • I-spy
  • Spot It
  • timers
  • vision bottles
  • visual prompts
  • colored overlays
  • fidget spinners
  • reading strips
  • colored paper
Visual Choice Board
Visual Sensory Choice Board

DIY Vision Bottle: Vision bottles are super easy to make.  Don’t toss your empty water bottle in the recycle bin, instead fill it about one-third full with water. Add a few drops of food coloring, whatever color the child fancies.  Swirl the food coloring to mix it well with the water.  Add a few fun items like small toys, beads, really anything that you think the child will like that will fit inside the bottlenose.  Then fill the rest of the bottle with baby oil. Seal the lid with a hot glue gun or superglue. There are so many variations of vision sensory bottles.  You can make them using wet or dry materials (i.e use a funnel for dry materials such as different colors of kinetic sand).  They can be a hit with visual sensory seekers.

Here are a couple of videos that share great ideas:

Autism Speaks DIY: Sensory Bottle

How to Make Calm Down Sensory Discovery Bottles 

Tactile Input

Tactile Input
Tactile Input

Tactile input is anything that we touch or anything that touches us.  The tactile system registers temperature, pressure, tickle, itch, vibration, as well as pain.  Tactile input or touch can be light or firm, wet or dry.  It is the feel of various textures.

There are several ways to provide sensory opportunities for tactile seekers:

  • sensory bins (fill a large container with flour, sugar, sand, rice, pasta, beans, water; hide small toys/items in the contents and have the child try to find them using their hands) 
  • touch fidgets:  items with varying textures (bumpy, smooth, hard, soft, rough, sticky, coarse, slimy) of fabrics, paper, feathers, sandpaper
  • Play-doh, clay, finger paints, Kinetic Sand
  • tactile Play:  play in dirt or sand, cooking, gardening
  • vibration:  vibrating toys, massagers, Squiggle Wiggle Writer Pens
  • poppers
  • stress balls
  • textured fidgets
  • pencil toppers
Tactile Choice Board

Auditory Input (Hear)

Auditory Input
Auditory Input

Auditory input is sound or anything that we hear.

How to provide auditory sensory supports:

  • Noise-canceling headphones or earbuds to filter out ambient noise and make it more bearable
  • Some children respond well to auditory input as a calming and organizing method.  Classical music, mindfulness playlists, ocean sounds, etc. can be used to facilitate calm.  Listening via headphones or ambient sound are options based upon the child’s preference.

Olfactory Input (Smell)

Olfactory Input
Olfactory Input

Olfactory input is anything that we smell.

Some olfactory sensory supports are:

  • Oil diffuser
  • Scented markers/crayons
  • Essential oils
  • Scented lotions
Hear/Smell Choice Board

Proprioceptive Input

Proprioceptive Input

Proprioception is our sense of body awareness.  It is the ability of our body to know how it is moving and where it is in space. Children who have a poor sense of body awareness have trouble knowing where their body is or how it is moving in space. Proprioception is also an intimidating word. Think of deep pressure input or any type of activity that involves pushing or pulling. Proprioceptive input provides our bodies with the information needed to modulate.  In other words, proprioceptive input helps to improve body awareness.  It helps children process sensory information and deliver an appropriate response.  

Some activities for classroom and home are:

  • mini trampoline
  • wall push-ups
  • wipe the board clean
  • squeezable/squishy fidgets
  • resistance bands on chairs
  • Kinetic Sand/Play-Doh
  • chair dips
  • body sock
  • weighted lap pad
  • carry a weighted backpack during transitions (not to exceed 20% of the child’s body weight)
Deep Pressure Choice Board
Deep Pressure Choice Board

Oral Motor/Gustatory Input

When we think of oral input most of us think of taste and flavor.  But there are actually three different types of sensory input received orally.  Of course, taste is one of them.  We also receive tactile input, anything that touches our oral cavity, meaning our lips, tongue, teeth, inner cheeks, and gums.  The joints that move our mouth, our jaws, also receive sensory input known as proprioception.  Chewing on something hard for example provides a lot of proprioceptive input orally.  Sucking is another way of gaining this type of input.

There are several ways to provide oral motor input to our sensory-seeking kiddos.

  • chewy tubes, necklaces 
  • hard crunchy snacks such as pretzels, carrots, and celery sticks
  • intense flavors like sour lemons, Lemon Heads, Sour Patch Kids candies
  • lollipops
  • hard candy
  • sucking beverages through a straw
  • chewy snacks like Twizzlers candies

I LOVE the chewable pendants available at Munchables. They offer such a wide selection, and the chewables look like actual jewelry, so it doesn’t stand out or look different. Click on the link to check out their online store!

Oral Motor Choice Board
Oral Motor Choice Board
Play Detective

Having several of the supports described in this post available for children is how you create a sensory smart classroom or home.  Again, be sure to review part one of this series: Sensory Processing Disorder Unveiled and Explained which spells out the “why” behind behaviors that stem from sensory issues. Play detective by observing behaviors and trying to figure out what sensory need the child is seeking or avoiding.  Offer choices that may be a more appropriate and safer sensory outlet.  For example, Jimmy is chewing on his collar, offer him a hard crunchy snack or perhaps a chewy necklace that he can wear throughout the day.  Let’s say Billy keeps crashing into things, the wall, other kids, furniture.  He may be seeking deep pressure or proprioceptive input.  Perhaps Billie should take a wall- push up break, or complete 25 or so jumping jacks.  If you have a mini-trampoline in your home or classroom, maybe suggest Billy take 5 on the trampoline.

It’s a good idea to offer choices, ideally presented visually because many children with SPD are visual learners.  The break cards pictured above are a great way of involving children in the self-regulation process.   This way the child may choose their sensory fix and also develop an awareness of the sensory tools they need to self-regulate. 

Feeling like this is too much information to absorb at once? I completely get that! Here is a helpful visual that summarizes each sensory system along with the corresponding list of sensory tools.

Free PDF: Sensory Smart Tools at a Glance

Fun Strokes Freebie:  Sensory Smart Tools
Sensory Smart Tools At a Glance

I am thrilled to offer the entire Sensory Smart Toolkit for free! A comprehensive sensory program for classroom or home.

Everything you need to provide sensory solutions for your little one’s today!

Sensory Smart Toolkit

Fun Strokes Freebie:  Sensory Smart Toolkit
Sensory Smart Toolkit

How to use the Sensory Smart Toolkit:

Cut out and laminate each sensory option that you have or can make available to your students or child. Discard any pictures of items you do not have and can't offer as a choice. 
Apply Velcro dots to the backing. Apply Velcro to the choice boards, and affix the sensory options. 
Post or place the sensory choice board in your classroom or home where it is easily accessible. Present the choice board to the child when their behavior indicates that they may need a sensory break. 
Have the child choose their sensory break by pulling off the visual and placing it on their break card. You determine how you'd like to structure the break based on the child's needs and the setup of your classroom or home. For example, you may set the timer for a 3-minute trampoline break. 
Once done, the child moves the sensory choice to the "all done" side of the break card. If more than one break card is needed, use more. 

How to Use the Sensory Smart Toolkit
Sensory Toolkit Example 1
Cut & Laminate
Sensory Toolkit Example 2
Post in classroom or home

Get Yours Today!

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All information on the Website is for informational purposes only. It is not a substitution for medical advice from your physician or pediatrician. Please consult with an occupational therapist or medical professional if you are concerned about any medical or developmental issues with your child. The information on the Websites does not and is not intended to take the place of the therapist and client relationship that would be provided in a one-on-one treatment session. The Website does not and is not intended to replace an individualized plan of care that would be offered based on a professional evaluation. The information provided on the Website is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied.

All medical information on the Website is for informational purposes only. Do not rely on the information on the Website as a replacement for guidance from your medical professional or healthcare provider. You should never delay seeking medical advice, disregard medical advice, or discontinue medical treatment as a result of any information provided on the Website. 

Fun Strokes is not liable for any injury when replicating any of the activities found on the Website. The activities shared on the Website are intended for completion with adult supervision. Be sure to use your judgment and do not provide objects that could pose a choking hazard to young children. Never leave a child unattended while he or she is engaged in these activities. Please comply with all age recommendations on all products used in these activities. 

Published by Linda Craig Dennis

Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Author and Creator of Fun Strokes Pre-writing Program

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