12 - 48 Months

Sensory play & what it does for your child’s brain

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“Our three hidden senses are, the vestibular sense, which is our sense of movement, the proprioceptive sense, or a sense of where we are in space, and the third is called interoception, which is our internal awareness.”

Occupational therapist Dr. Allie Ticktin, Author of “Play to Progress”

Some children make a lot of noise as they move through their day. They tend to like big movements: bear hugs, wrestling, getting messy. Others are quieter. They can sometimes be bothered by subtle things: tags, temperature, too much light. These children might retreat if their senses get overloaded. Sensory preferences fall on a spectrum.

Jessica Rolph is accompanied by Dr. Allie Ticktin to talk about how to navigate these differences. Dr. Allie is an occupational therapist with a specialty in sensory integration and early childhood development. She is the author of Play to Progress, Lead Your Child to Success Using the Power of Sensory Play.

Key Takeaways:

[2:07] Dr. Allie talks about how sensory needs can vary from child to child.

[3:19] How do you know if a child’s sensory needs are within the normal realm versus when it’s time to get extra support?

[4:07] Why is proprioception one of Dr. Allie’s favorite senses to work on? 

[5:32] Dr. Allie shares tools to provide more proprioceptive input to your child.

[9:25] What senses other than proprioceptive should be on a parent’s radar?

[11:25] How do we respect our child’s need to be clean? 

[13:40] Why do parents need to engage these senses for children’s learning?

[14:52] How can we have sensory-rich play that engages all of these senses?

[15:38] What are open-ended toys and why you should choose more of those?

[18:38] What is a sensory toolbox? Does it vary based on the child’s needs? 

[20:42] The first step is regulation; a child who is not regulated can’t learn.

[21:04] How can you tell if a child is playing with something or if it’s helping them regulate? 

[22:15] What is in the calming toolkit?

[24:14] How can a parent incorporate zones of regulation into their house? 

[25:58] Dr. Allie’s advice to parents: Allow your child the space to play and to explore.

Mentioned in this episode:



Processing sensory play

Jessica: Along with everything that pertains to a child’s development, it seems like sensory needs exist on a spectrum also. So some children’s systems are more deprived and are looking for big inputs. It’s like… I think about my middle child here, he’s loud and he just craves big physical interaction with us and with the world, and other children can be easily overwhelmed by sensory input, so certain scents or bright lights might really bother them or an uncomfortable tag in their shirt. I’m really wanting to understand this better. Can you explain this? 

Allie: Each child is going to have a different sensory need. So some kids, they need a lot of sensory input… So they might need a lot of vestibular, which is one of our hidden senses. They may need a lot of movement, whereas another sense, possibly our sense of smell. Smells might be really overwhelming to them, and they may really struggle to process smells. So it’s not just one child is a big mover and the other child is more hesitant. It’s a lot, how do we process each individual sense? 

I kind of compare it to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. We want to have the “just right” reaction to each sense, so one child may say, “Oh, that’s a little bit too much. Not quite perfect. That’s not quite enough.” And our goal is that within our senses, we get that just right, but of course, you won’t always get the just right, and that’s okay. But that’s what we want to work through.

Different sensory needs

Jessica: And we’ll get into how we can help children and really enrich their sensory life, but how do you know if a child’s sensory needs are within the normal realm versus when it’s time to get extra support? 

Allie: This is a really great question. And like I mentioned, all kids do have their own sensory needs, but what to look for is if it’s impacting their daily life. Is it impacting their learning? Is it impacting their friendship skills or their ability to do something like get dressed, eat a balanced meal? And when I say that, I know tons of parents are thinking about picky eating, but when I talk about a sensory-based picky eating, it is far more intense than just, “I don’t want to eat broccoli.” So when these sensory needs are really impacting their daily life, that’s when you want to seek some additional support.

Proprioceptive input

Jessica: And so you talk about proprioception being one of your favorite senses to work with. Why is that? 

Allie: I absolutely love proprioception, and the reason I love proprioception — it’s actually our sense of where we are in space — but proprioceptive input, which is often referred to as heavy work (so like pushing, pulling, climbing, any force against the muscle), this input is incredibly grounding and organizing. It has this powerful ability to help calm a child, especially in the most difficult moments. It’s the first input I’ll turn to during a tantrum or after a hard day when their body is really having a hard time settling. It’s actually also a tool that I love for my own body, and many adults also turn to it, but for them, it may look different. It may look like a boxing class. For our kids, we want to incorporate it into their daily life to help their body feel calm and grounded.

Jessica: This is so interesting, ‘cause my little guy just come up to me and squeeze me so hard and give me the biggest hugs. And it’s actually, it hurts. So what do you recommend? There are fidget toys, weighted blankets. Are those some of the answers to this? 

Allie: I always tell parents, “It’s not one tool fits all or one tool works all the time.” Call these body tools and you want a variety of different tools. The first step is help to bring awareness to your child. I’m very careful to say, your body, not you. I wouldn’t say, “You hugged me so hard and I didn’t like it.” I would say, “I noticed your body squeezed me so hard,” because it’s not a behavior, it’s not them, it’s their body. And we want to remove the shame and really help bring awareness to their own body’s needs. From there, we work through, how can we get the need? And it looks different in every environment because it’s going to look different when you’re out at Target versus when you’re sitting in circle time at school. I will often turn to heavy work, so pushing, pulling. If you are at home, I always grab a laundry basket. You can fill the laundry basket with wet clothes, with cans, anything you can, and push and pull. There’s a lot of different things you can do at home, like using the couch cushions, pull them off.

Now, when you’re out in public, that’s when some of the little fidgets come into hand, which again, I’ll call a body tool. And you can keep just a little piece of Theraputty, which is a really resistive putty, in your purse in a little Ziploc bag and pull that out, and hand that to your little one. So as they’re sitting in the cart, they can just pull on this putty and get that need out, but it’s not bothering anyone and it’s really, really easy and simple.

Those are all proprioceptive activities, they provide proprioceptive input. How you might know that your little one is needing more of this input is if you’re noticing that they’re doing things like crashing, big body movements that really give them that big, intense feeling. They could be hugging, they could be biting. And I think that is one that parents don’t always realize, but when you bite or really chewing on different things, that is also providing proprioceptive input. They may be hitting or pushing, so it really can look like a behavior, a lot of crashing. And they’re really just needing more of this heavy work, more of this proprioceptive input and we want to bring that awareness to them, so then we can give them the tools to work through it.

Jessica: That makes so much sense. It’s all coming together now, because both of my boys went through a phase where they were just chewing on the sleeves of their shirts and chewing holes into them, and so we ended up getting them some around the neck chew toys in the hopes that they wouldn’t ruin their shirts. But it sounds like that is, again, looking for that proprioceptive input.

Allie: You’ve got it. And those chew toys were providing it for them in a more functional way.

Jessica: Talk to me about other sensory input that children are looking for, that’s more common in addition to the proprioceptive input that they’re looking for.

Tactile input

Allie: Yeah, one that comes to my mind, and there’s a little girl popping into my mind right now actually, but is texture, is touch. So some kiddos, you will find them at preschool, head-to-toe covered mud, when they’re washing their hands, they want to get it wet all over them. They’re constantly touching slime and they’re really, really enjoying that feeling of getting completely messy. They may play with their food and that might feel really, really good to them. In that instance, that child is saying, “I need more tactile input. I need more touch.” And one thing I also want to mention on the flip-side of this, and I think it is important to mention, we’re talking a lot about needing more, but remember, it can also be too much. And if it’s too much, sometimes these kiddos will retreat, and I always am really careful, and I always say to teachers when I’m doing teacher trainings, pay attention to the child who is really quiet and has just retreated all the way to the back of the group, because that child may not be jumping into play because all of the sensory inputs are too much for them, and they’re not disruptive or making a big fuss, so maybe it can be easy to look over them and say, Oh, maybe they’re just shy, but really they’re struggling with all of the sensory inputs, it’s too much for them, it’s too overwhelming, and now that is impacting their friendships and their ability to play.

Jessica: And so we give textures to children who are looking for more of the squishy, getting muddy, getting messy. And then how do we respect our child’s need to be clean? I know that one of my babies went through that phase where she really just did not want to be dirty at all. I know some of that is typical development. How do we serve those needs as a child grows? 

Allie: Absolutely, so I will say it’s always really important to never push any sensory input on your child, we always respect their boundaries, we offer them. You want to finish the activity and then wipe your hands, or are you feeling like you really need to wipe right now? Because the number one thing as we’re working on this is, do they feel safe? If they feel like they’re pushed to stay messy, they are going to feel unsafe and get this anxiety in their body that’s going to cause them to really never want to engage in that messy play and never get messy. So the number one thing is let’s create a safety net around them, make them feel safe and always respect their boundaries.

Jessica: I remember one of the tips that we have on the Lovevery Blog, is to offer a little popsicle stick as an implement to then engage with sensory, whether it’s a little bit of paint or some food that we’re doing some sensory play with, but let them do it through and implement instead of actually getting their own hands wet or dirty.

Allie: You can even use a cotton ball or even food, broccoli, a head of broccoli makes a great paint brush, it makes wonderful texture on the paper. So you can really use anything and it’s up to them. One other strategy I will often say is, get messy yourself, and I’ll tell you this, for me is a big challenge. I happen to be a person that really struggles with mess, but when I’m with a child, I really always will push myself, and I think it’s hard as adults to let it get all over you. Show them that it’s safe and fun and be silly. Bring out your inner child, so that they also feel okay to meet you there, and they may naturally push their own boundaries when they’re given the space to do it on their own versus being pushed to get there.

Learning through sensory play

Jessica: And I think that this is all based on assumption that sensory input is good. Talk to me about… Let’s elevate for a second, help me understand why we need to engage these senses for children’s learning.

Allie: Absolutely, so, especially when a child is young, our kids learn through their senses. So from the time a baby is born, they learn and they immediately begin taking in their world, learning about their environment using all eight senses.

My goal is that one day, the eight senses are taught in every classroom and everyone knows there’s eight senses, not five. So I will start with our three hidden senses, so our three hidden senses, the first is our vestibular sense, this is our sense of movement, the second is our proprioceptive sense or a sense of where we are in space, the third is called interoception, and this is our internal awareness, so this is a big one for potty training, and then we have the five that you are already familiar with that I don’t think we need to list, but our three hidden senses are so important, and my goal is that one day we know all eight senses.

Jessica: And so then how can we have sensory rich play through materials incorporated in engaging all of these senses? 

Importance of open-ended toys

Allie: I think the first thing that comes to my mind is being picky about your toys. Toys that require batteries or toys that light up, we want to try to avoid those toys. We want to pick toys that allow a child to one, move their body and two, really decide how do I use it and use it in multiple different ways. So open-ended toys. Take something like a dog that you push a button on the dog and it moves and it barks, then your little one starting really young, will push the button on the dog and then watch it move and the dog will bark. That dog is playing for your child, your child isn’t playing with the dog, your child isn’t having to come up with a way to play with the dog, they’re not really using all eight of their senses, versus if you just have a dog that doesn’t require batteries, it doesn’t bark, it doesn’t light up, then your little one has to decide, “Do I want to take the dog on an adventure, do I want to build a ramp for the dog? Where am I going to go with the dog and can I make the barking noise for the dog?”

Now your little one is going to move their body, they’re going to use their own creativity, they’re going to problem-solve as they’re building and as they’re exploring in order to create an adventure with this dog, because there isn’t just one prescribed way to play with the dog, and that’s why picking open-ended toys are so important. I also always say, turn to your recycling bin, some of the best toys will come out of your recycling bin. So you can use the boxes from the toys you buy. Anything that you have around your house, toilet paper rolls, there’s so many ways to use natural materials along with the toys that we have that are open-ended. Also getting outside. Explore the sounds of nature. Go on a leaf hunt. What can you find? These are all great ways to naturally explore our sensory system. I grew up in the Midwest, and I often say, think about what you would have done as a child, we didn’t have all of these toys that have all these special features when we were growing up, go back to your own childhood and bring your kids there and allow them the space to create.

Sensory toolbox

Jessica: What is a sensory toolbox? You talk about this in your book. Is it a one-size-fits-all, or does it vary based on the child’s needs? 

Allie: So our sensory toolbox is really a box of what I call, I mentioned it earlier, our body tools. It’s a box of tools that will help your little one stay regulated. You may have theraputty in it, which will provide some of that proprioceptive input, you may have some fidgets in it, you may also have something like a weighted ball, which is great for circle time, where a child can roll that weighted ball in their legs or just sit it in their lap. I’m careful in the sensory toolbox, especially because I often recommend that it goes to school, that I pick things that aren’t… They don’t look exactly like toys. I’d rather have just a plain weighted ball then weighted stuffy, because the weighted stuffy is going to look a little bit more like a toy and maybe a little more distracting versus just the weighted ball really is a nice body tool. 

We want to provide a variety of tools in there and help teach our kids to be aware of what their body needs in that moment, and they can independently just go to this toolbox, grab a tool, and then use it to help them stay regulated. One thing to remember is that regulation is the key to learning. A child can’t learn without being regulated. The first thing we need to achieve is regulation before we can even talk about learning. And this sensory toolbox, the body tools in it will help a child stay regulated.

Jessica: Okay, so wait, how can you tell if a child is playing with something or if it’s helping them regulate? Isn’t it one and the same? 

Allie: Really good question. It’s not one and the same, because if something is helping a child regulate, you’ll notice that their body is now calm, they’re attending, they’re engaging, versus if they’re playing with it, they’re likely more focused on that item than they are on what the goal is, whether it’s circle time, or if they’re working on a project, whatever it is. You’ll notice that they’re more focused on that item than what the group task is. Than the group plan, is what we call it. And at that point, that’s when you’ll kind of say, Oh, I’m noticing it’s a toy, it may even be disruptive, they may be playing with it in a way that’s a little bit disruptive. That is when we want to go and replace it for a different body tool.

Calming toolkit

Jessica: Some of us have calm down corners or places where our children can go to just try and find some calm after having a big emotional moment. Can you talk about what’s in a calming toolkit? You talk about this in your book. Can you explain this? 

Allie: Absolutely. Similar to the sensory toolbox, a calming corner, calming toolkit is an area of your house and can be really wherever works for you. We want it to be a really small area, so I’ll often tell parents, if you have a little spot between your couch and your wall, that’s kind of just this little dead space, but a place where a child can crawl in, that’s the perfect place for your calming corner, and it’s a space where a child can go and there isn’t much, if any, sensory input. It’s a place where they can start to realize, my body is feeling a little out of control, I need to get away from all of the sensory input, so from the noise, from the lights, and it’s a really calm spot and inside of it, you don’t have much, you just have… Again, we’re always coming back to that proprioceptive input, you just have a few heavy work items, so maybe that putty, you may also have some items that will give them deep pressure, and typically I try to put it in a place that you can eliminate light. So it’s a really calm, dark kind of quiet place, you may have a book in there, if that is really, really calming for them, but not 10 books, just one.

So it’s not overwhelming, it’s really, really simple, you want it to be cozy. And then we want to teach our little ones that this is a place that you can bring your own body when you’re needing a break. One really important thing about this is that we never tell them, go to your calming corner. Instead we introduce the calming corner at a time when they’re really, really regulated, and then they can slowly learn and practice going there when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Jessica: This has been so great connecting with you. I feel like I could talk to you for another two hours, but is there anything that we have left out that you wanted to share with parents? 

Allie: I think the number one thing that I think of is really just allowing your child the space to play and allowing them the space to explore. And it may look different in every child, but if your little one is really wanting to explore something, let them explore it. Of course, keep them safe, but allow them to check it out and see, how does this work? How do I open this? How do I get this done? And also allowing them the space to make mistakes, because that’s how they’re going to learn.

Jessica: That’s great. And I think oftentimes in our need to keep our children safe, we deprive them of some sensory exposure. There is a balance there. Allie, it’s been so great connecting with you today. Thank you so much for your time.

Allie: Awesome, thank you.

Learn more sensory play ideas to try with your toddler on Lovevery’s blog, Here with you.


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Kate Garlinge

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Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, 18 - 48 Months+, Gross Motor, Fine Motor, Sensory Play, Water Play, Sensory Development, Child Development, Playtime & Activities

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