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How to Implement Sensory Toys During Play and Learning

January 24, 2024

Sensory toys are essential items to keep in your home to aid your child’s sensory needs. Here are a few ideas to consider.

How to Implement Sensory Toys During Play and Learning

Think of a moment in time where you’ve felt a sense of calmness and relaxation. It could be from receiving a massage, maybe listening to your favorite music, or getting into a hot bath. We all have unique outlets that we resort to when seeking relief or comfort. A child with autism frequently seeks comfort through sensory experiences. Sensory toys such as slinkies, sand or slime, fidget toys, and tactile balls are all great examples of popular products. Engaging with sensory toys can enhance brain function while also supporting the child’s ability to acquire new skills.

As autism awareness becomes more prevalent in our society, sensory toys are emerging as supportive tools to enhance children’s development and learning. As a parent, you may find yourself trying multiple different toys with your child to determine which ones he/she will benefit from and engage with most.

Sensory toys stimulate one or more of the child’s senses and help him/her to self-regulate.

Most might refer to the five senses as: taste, touch, smell, sight, sound. In addition to these five, we also have movement (known as vestibular) and body position (proprioception). This article will break down some of the most common sensory toys that fulfil children’s auditory, tactile and visual sensory needs—and how to best utilize them during play and learning.

Toys to aid your child’s auditory, tactile, and visual sensory needs:

Gravity Timer

Gravity timers are excellent tools for wandering minds as they aid in anxiety and stress relief by providing a calming effect. This sensory tool also provides visual stimulation, helping to improve visual tracking skills and focus. Incorporating this sensory toy during parent-child skill practice or one-on-one work can help your child stay on task. Use the timer as a visual prompt to remind your child when his/her breaks are approaching or when they’re coming to an end.

During virtual learning, place the gravity timer beside the screen to help maintain focus on the lesson. If you notice your child becoming overstimulated or agitated during the lesson, shake the timer and allow him/her to watch the mesmerizing coloured droplets slowly fall as a method of “cool-down” mode.

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Kinetic Sand, Slime & Putty

Playing with textures is a great way to engage tactile senses while enhancing those fine motor skills. Fortunately, there are a variety of textures available to choose from such as slime, play foam, putty, and playdough. Kinetic sand is a great sensory tool to integrate into learning and play. It can help improve hand-eye coordination skills while sparking creativity and imaginative play.

Kinetic sand is mess-free sand that neatly molds together when you play with it. This allows for easy clean up—less mess, less stress! Kinetic sand can be broken down into multiple shapes and sizes or clumped into one giant ball. Form the sand into shapes and practice patterning. If the patterning is a hit and your child stays engaged throughout the activity, try working on math by forming the sand into balls and practice addition/subtraction.

Playdough and putty are great textures to incorporate into learning as you can teach your child imaginative play and tell a story as you both build together. Identify shapes, common objects, and practice social skills as you build. The learning opportunities that come with tactile play with textures are endless!

Tactile Balls

Tactile balls

Tactile balls engage three of the five senses—visual, auditory and tactile. Tactile balls come in many different shapes, sizes, weights and textures. Some balls are raised, some are spiky, and some are squishy. Some balls light up or make noise when you bounce them, providing auditory and visual stimulation. Tactile balls can be highly stimulating and aid in strengthening grip, as well as fine motor activities such as writing.

Tactile balls are great tools to teach your child to tolerate a variety of new textures. While exploring new textures, you have the ability to also encourage communication skills by asking the child what he/she is feeling or describing what he/she sees. This is a great way to practice answering questions and to also teach and encourage reciprocal communication while providing a stimulating sensory experience.

Fidget Toys

Fidget toys are great toys to take with you on the go or to provide support during school and group activities. There are many different makes of fidget toys. When thinking about fidget toys, the fidget spinner may come to mind; this toy hit the market in 2017 and became a very popular trend. This small toy is promoted to relieve stress and anxiety, and while children with autism took a liking to the toy, so did neurotypical children and even adults.

Fidget toys

Fidget toys are built to have many functions to keep hands busy while improving concentration and fine motor skills. Focusing on the fidget toy helps to eliminate any surrounding distractions in the child’s environment. Some fidgets come with buttons that produce noise when you click them, which provides auditory stimulation in addition to the visual and tactile input you get when playing with the toy.

These toys are suitable for all ages and are typically made to be compact to allow the user to take it with them wherever they go. Fidgets are great to incorporate during a stressful outing in the community, while on long car rides or during classroom activities that require the student to sit still and attend.

Autism support is needed now more than ever before, as we adjust to having our children at home a majority of the time. Luckily for us, e-commerce has experienced significant growth over the past year, enabling more access than ever before. Companies like Sensa are taking it a step further and curating subscription boxes to give your child the best variety possible while at home. 

In conclusion

As sensory toys continue to hit the market, it’s recommended that you seek advice from professionals who can recommend suitable sensory toys for your child. When searching for quality sensory products, it may be beneficial to research brands that work with evidence-based practitioners such as occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and board certified behavior analysts. Happy stimming!

This article was featured in Issue 121 – Autism Awareness Month

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