My brother and I have a 15 year difference in age, and I remember the days of helping my mother change diapers and prepare bottles. He had an inquisitive mind, and even as a toddler, he was determined to learn everything. I remember at one point he wanted to learn the names of all the state capitals. This was before the Internet really took off, so we pulled out our trusty encyclopedias and looked up information on whatever topic interested him for that week.
He learned about friendship from Barney & Friends, investigating from Blue’s Clues, and I am still trying to figure out what Teletubbies taught him. He watched television, played like a boy, and desired to know all about the world. It just came easily, and since this was my first introduction into teaching, I thought all kids learned this way.
Once my son approached his toddler years, I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t picking up language. I followed all of the same routines that I did with my brother. After hours of therapy, I came to a realization that he just learns differently, but more importantly (and because of his great therapists and family members), he does learn. It might take a different path than I intended, but he was capable of retaining information. I just had to be a little more creative in my approach.
One way I was able to help my son learn and experience the world was through sensory boxes. Sensory boxes are essentially boxes filled with different textured material. Kids can explore their senses by using these as a tool. Even better, parents can use these to help teach their children educational skills.
To start, keep your eye on local stores for sales on plastic containers. Other than your smaller sensory box, you need a place to keep supplies. When storing supplies, I use freezer baggies to hold the different materials. Next, you want to get the “fillers.” This can be sand, uncooked rice, beans, cooked noodles, shaving cream, etc. I find that coloring the rice, noodles, and beans can make the experience visually appealing (Use rubbing alcohol and food coloring to do this). I usually let mine sit for an hour. Then, I dump it onto a plastic tray lined with paper towels and let it dry overnight. The next day, you can put it in the box and start adding various items to it.
When trying to think of sensory box ideas, I first work with what is in my house. When I want to try something new, I use the Dollar Store for supplies and inspiration. If you are willing to spend more, Michaels carries various animals, buildings, and people figurines. My first sensory box was a construction one. We had sand at our house because we were working on a yard project. I took some cars from my son’s toy box, a few rocks from our yard, some beads from a vase, and presto, we had our first sensory box experience!
We’ve done several themes, from ocean critters to Easter eggs. What is fabulous is that you can use these as tools to help encourage speech, attention to task, following directions, and pretend play. For example, you can place some bowls and cups near the box. You can ask your child to pour the material into the cup. You can stress the words “in” and “out” while doing this. I’ve taken objects from the bin and asked my son to put it “on” something or “under” something else. What a fun way to start teaching prepositions and following directions! For pretend play, if your box includes people or animals, you could practice making the figurines “walk” or “jump.” Imitation is a precursor to speech, and this is great for practicing creative play.
Another method for incorporating skills is utilizing pictures. This one takes slightly more planning. Take pictures of the items in the bin. I would upload them to my CVS account (to avoid two trips), and go pick them up later that day. I would take the pictures and tape them to a piece of cardboard (I used cereal boxes, diaper boxes, or large construction paper). My son would then match the items from the box to the pictures. When he got better at this, I would find items that were very similar but with slight differences. Eventually, he was able to match these items with ease. I was proud that he was noticing all the details.
Finally, an easier way to incorporate math and reading skills into the bins is to use numbers and letters within your box. For example, I hid numbers in his Easter egg bin. He practiced fine motor skills when opening and closing the eggs, and once his numbers were all out, he put them in order. For another bin, specifically my frog one, I put numbers on the “lily pads” (or green felt) and numbers on the frogs. He practiced matching the frogs to the numbers. You could put in letters from the alphabet and have your child place these in order. If your child can follow directions well, you could ask for a specific letter or number and have your child search for it.
The themes and uses for sensory boxes are endless. Explore different textures, like feathers or play-dough. When first opening a box, let your child just play. Don’t encourage any matching or other skills. Just give your son or daughter time for exploration. Then, after a few minutes, practice the skill for that box. You may discover that your child can follow directions; he or she may say “in” or “out” (for many autism parents, this is huge). Regardless, just enjoy playing with your child while he or she discovers more about the world.
Lindsay Wieand lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania with her husband, 4-year-old son, and pug, Dexter. Since their son was diagnosed with autism in November of 2014, they’ve become very active in the autism community. They really enjoy sharing stories and connecting with other parents who are on a similar journey.
This article was featured in Issue 39 – Working Together to Communicate Better