For children to develop to their fullest potential, their sensory system—which, in addition to the big five of sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, includes movement and balance (vestibular), body awareness (proprioception), and internal perception (interoception)—needs to be stimulated from the time they are born. Their senses flourish when they explore their environment by touching new textures, including their food, running, jumping, climbing, and splashing outside.
As an occupational therapist with a specialty in sensory integration, Allie Ticktin has seen an increase in cases of children who struggle to sit in circle time or at their desk upright and who are delayed in walking, talking, and playing by themselves and with their peers. In the recent past, kids spent their days playing outside and naturally engaging their sensory system and building key developmental skills. But with increasing time pressures for both kids and parents, children are spending more time in front of screens and less time exploring and interacting with their environment.
The good news is that boosting your child’s sensory development doesn’t take enormous amounts of time or supplies, or any special skills. Here, Ticktin discusses the eight sensory systems and how a child uses them, and offers easy, fun activities—as well as advice on setting up a play area—that will encourage their development so that your little one will be better able to respond to their emotions, build friendships, communicate their needs, and thrive in school. That’s the power of sensory play.
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The Sensory System
Nothing is more important than our children. If you're like most parents I know, you've spent untold hours up late fretting and searching for support on the internet about everything from nursing to sleep. You've quizzed your pediatrician and bombarded friends and family with questions about what to expect. At the heart of all this concern is what every parent wants: a happy, healthy child who is hitting their developmental milestones.
Newborns are bombarded with input from the moment they are born, and kinesthetic activities and physical play are critical to strengthen their sensory system and get them ready for preschool-and life. Although we can continue to improve our sensory system over the course of our lives, the sweet spot for laying the groundwork for success is birth to age five. And there is a lot you can do for your child during this time period because the sensory system plays a role in everything your child does. We'll discuss the eight senses of the sensory system at length, but for example, a toddler uses their tactile system to explore the texture of their food, their proprioceptive system to bring that apple slice or sweet potato to their mouth, and their vestibular system to remain sitting upright while eating. Likewise, an older child playing with clay needs to maintain their posture (vestibular) and feel the texture of the material on their hands (tactile). Their smushing, pulling, and molding is the heavy work that provides proprioceptive input.
Given the barrage of sometimes-contradictory information out there, parents can become obsessed with what is "normal" as they watch their child learn and grow. Often, parents focus on what their little one is not doing rather than celebrating the incredible changes happening right before their eyes. Yesterday they weren't rolling, and today they are easily avoiding tummy time. But rather than being in awe of this little human who has been in the world for only a few months, too many of us frantically turn to Dr. Google because the baby is only rolling to the right and not to the left. What if we shifted from wondering, "Why aren't they rolling to their left?" to considering, "How can I help them learn to roll to the left?" A strategy like placing a favorite toy on the left may do the trick.
There are similar opportunities to aid our children in conquering each breakthrough (largely through play) until they are ready to trade in their childhood bedroom for a college dorm room. The problem is, no one is teaching these basic strategies and games, so many parents feel at a loss for what to do. Naturally, they turn to the latest technology that claims to enhance their child's development; before long, their kids are spending hours "learning" from an app rather than by interacting with the people and things around them using their senses.
Most crucially, kids need to develop a sense of self-this is where I am in the world-to feel comfortable in their bodies and self-assured when they connect with others and interact with their environment. Children who can move with coordination in the space around them have more confidence and have a solid sense of where they are physically, are better able to enter into unfamiliar territory-a new classroom, playground, or activity-and can then more thoroughly participate and interact with others.
Not too many years ago, these developmental skills came to fruition naturally in the yard, neighborhood, playground, or living room. But increasing time pressures, as well as safety concerns (here in LA, most schools no longer have swings in the yard), mean that many kids have not had the opportunity to explore their surroundings in a way that we all took for granted.
So how is a time-strapped parent supposed to balance the daily realities of an overbooked life with what is best for their kids? Trust me, I get it-it can seem overwhelming to do play "right." There is a way, however, to develop their sensory system. But first, let's dive in to understand what the senses are and what they do.
The Eight Senses for Success
When most people are asked to list the senses, they think of the big five we learned in elementary school: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. When it comes to the sensory system, there are three more: movement (vestibular), body awareness (proprioception), and internal awareness (interoception). Your child needs all eight senses working robustly to help them grow to their fullest potential.
The Sensory System
Vestibular: Processes movement and balance; coordinates the motion of your head with your eyes; involved in bilateral coordination, postural control, and level of physical arousal.
Proprioceptive: Provides feedback on where your body is in space; controls the force and pressure of your movements.
Tactile: Allows us to distinguish between qualities of touch (i.e., light touch, prickly, soft); recognizes pain and temperature.
Visual: Allows us to process and make sense of the items we see in our environment.
Gustatory: Supports our ability to taste and identify the five flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami/savory.
Olfactory: Allows us to distinguish between different odors and decide if they are safe and pleasant (flowers) or dangerous (smoke); connects to our emotional system, bringing back memories (the most famous example, of course, being Proust's madeleine).
Auditory: Allows us to not only hear but to discriminate and interpret sounds to allow for an appropriate response.
Interoception: Tells us what is going on inside our bodies; lets us know when we need to go to the bathroom or are hungry or thirsty.
We'll delve into each sense one by one, but as you can see from the following diagram, all aspects of the sensory system work together to build a foundation for the abilities and skills children need to be successful in everything from self-esteem to academics to sports. Our senses are like tree roots-if they are strong, then the trunk and branches will also be strong, but if these roots are not nourished, a child may not be able to become their best self. In other words, a well-developed sensory system builds the foundation that allows other skills and abilities to develop and flourish. Our goal here is to develop a strong sensory system, i.e., the roots, using play from the time a baby is born. And even if your child is struggling in one or many of these areas, the activities we'll discuss can put them back on the path toward mastery.
What Is Sensory Integration, and Why Is It Important?
Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist who studied extensively on the sensory system and developed the theory of sensory integration, defined it as "the neurological process that organizes sensation from one's own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment."
Let's break that down. Essentially, sensory integration is our brain's process for taking in feedback from our eight senses, to interpret and organize it, and then using that information to generate an appropriate response. As I've mentioned, we rarely use only one sense at a time. As babies are exposed to sensory input, they learn to decipher their environment and to respond to it. They become more efficient at processing sensory input as exposure increases-meaning that each new experience creates fresh connections and understanding. It may seem obvious, but these senses are necessary for riding a bike, reading, walking through a store without knocking over the display shelves, sitting still, and eating. When you touch something hot, your brain takes in that information and instantly sends the signal to remove your hand-quickly-from the burning object. Most activities require us to integrate information from multiple senses to initiate the correct output. We need to both modulate and discriminate (we will dive into what this means a bit later).
We all know that infants first hold up their heads, then roll, crawl, and eventually walk. The sensory system plays a crucial role in their ability to plan movements and maintain postural stability. For example, some kids have a difficult time staying still at circle time because they physically cannot sit crisscross applesauce for twenty minutes. When a child struggles with praxis-the ability to formulate an idea for what they want to do and then make that plan happen-they may also have a hard time with motor planning, appearing clumsy and uncoordinated.
A child's brain is like a sponge, ready to absorb everything they see, feel, and taste, and establish connections that they will use for the rest of their lives. Those associations are developed from the kind of experiences you get from playing in the backyard with friends, running around a playground, or reading a book.
So, what happens when kids aren't exposed to a variety of sensory input, and most of their playtime is spent with electronic toys and gadgets? In short, they may not process the information they come across as efficiently. Kids need back-and-forth interaction, which happens in play when they do something and another child or adult responds. As I say to parents, watching kids play and interacting with them should be like watching a tennis match, with a lot of back and forth. Play is not passive.
I often say I found my passion for working with kids through my childhood love of playing with baby dolls. A child who enjoys building with a LEGO set or blocks may become an architect; another who is skilled at sports could go on to be a personal trainer or coach. It's not always such a straightforward correlation, of course-and it's not about directing your child down a particular lane for the rest of their life-but it all begins with play. The reality is kids are engaging in free play much less than when we were kids. But the cost is dear, as they lose the ability to be creative, play, and socialize.
It's not just kids who have lost the magic of play and become caught up in overscheduled lives. I'm no longer shocked when parents tell me that they don't know how to play with their children. One client was concerned about their child, who didn't seem to be interacting with the other kids on the playground. Sometimes they played with LEGO sets together at home, but they didn't play any imagination-based games and they didn't try any physical activities. If you're stumped about where to start, know that you're not alone, and there are plenty of games and activities in these pages to inspire you. Unlike when we were kids, many parents today don't let their kids play outside alone anymore, which is one of the easiest ways to stimulate their sensory system. That loss means that it's important to be thoughtful and deliberate about play and the toys you give your children. At the same time, I encourage parents to let themselves be silly and enjoy themselves, too.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Sensory Success xi
1 The Sensory System 1
2 Meaningful Movement: Moving the Body to Engage the Vestibular Sense 21
3 Increasing Body Awareness: Enhancing the Proprioceptive Sense 53
4 Getting in Touch: Strengthening the Tactile Experience 81
5 Seeing Clearly: Honing the Visual System 109
6 A Little Taste: Waking Up the Gustatory System 136
7 Scent-Sational: Getting the Olfactory System Engaged 151
8 Sounds Good!: Getting the Auditory System in Sync 164
9 The Sense Inside the Body: Being Aware of Interoception 179
10 Making a Plan: Praxis in Action 189
11 Power at the Fingertips: Building Fine Motor Skills 204
A Final Word 220
Appendix: Allie's favorite Things 223
About the Author 241