Fun and Affordable Sensory Play Ideas for Kids With Special Needs
Sensory play is important for the development of all children—and that’s even truer for children on the autism spectrum who might have sensory integration issues.
Whether it’s climbing a tree, squishing Play-Doh through their fingers, blowing bubbles, or burying their feet in the sand, sensory play stimulates the senses and helps children discover and understand the world around them.
Kids become more aware of cause and effect, how things work, and what their own bodies can do. For children with sensory integration challenges, these types of experiences help create connections between the pathways of the brain that are responsible for processing stimuli.
The Benefits of Sensory Play
If a child plays a game incorporating the sense of smell, it improves the ability to differentiate different scents. The child learns to like some smells, such as flowers and fruit, while other smells, such as smoke, trigger danger. The same is true of the other senses. When babies put things in their mouths, this exploration helps them learn what is soft or hard, what is warm or cold, what is smooth or rough. These distinctions can help to build vocabulary and language.
Sensory play helps to develop fine and gross motor skills, memory, spatial awareness, and problem-solving. It helps children develop the cognitive skills necessary for science and technology study including:
- Drawing conclusions
- Incorporating new knowledge
Sensory play is educational and therapeutic, but perhaps most importantly, it’s fun. To get started, here are some fun and affordable activities you can enjoy with your child.
Create Sensory Bins
Sensory bins are a common sight in preschools where children use them to explore different textures and shapes. They are inexpensive to create and can keep potentially messy activities contained. To make one, start with a plastic storage tub, a cardboard box, or a cooking tray. It should be big enough for kids to manipulate the contents without spilling. Fill your bin with things that have different colors and textures. Some options include:
- Uncooked pasta
- Shaving foam
- Buttons or beads
- Ice cubes
- Potting soil
- Shredded paper
- Unpopped popcorn
Let kids explore with their hands or use tools like spoons or sand shovels to scoop and pour. If you have a child on the autism spectrum who dislikes unusual textures, start slowly and offer a lot of positive reinforcement. You can bury objects your child likes in the bin like plastic animals, toy trucks, or other small things that don’t present a choking hazard.
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Dance on a Bubble Wrap Runway
Bubble wrap is more than just a tool to keep packed items from breaking. It can also be a lot of fun. The next time you get a package in the mail, hold onto the bubble wrap. Once you have a pretty good stash, tape it securely to the floor and have a dance party on your bubble wrap runway. Let your child go wild running, hopping, and stomping on the bubbles. If you have more than one child, you can make a contest to see who can pop all of their bubbles first.
Make a Den Den Drum
Nothing is more educational than making your own musical instruments, and one of the simplest is a homemade Den Den Drum. This is a Japanese noisemaker that you twist back and forth in your palms, causing beads or pellets to hit the drum head. For the homemade version, you need:
- Wooden spoons
- A drill
- Strong thread or cord
1. Paint or decorate your spoon in bright colors
2. Drill two holes 1 cm apart in the spoon head.
3. Thread the string through a hole and knot it to keep it in place.
4. Slide the beads on the string and tie a knot to secure them. Keep it fairly short(a few inches) so it will hit the back side of the spoon.
5. Do the same on the other side.
6. Twist your spoon back and forth to the beat of a song you know, or one you make up.
This is just one of many musical instruments you can make with household objects. With a little imagination (and online research) oatmeal canisters, paper towel tubes, rubber bands, tissue boxes, plastic Easter eggs, beans, and soup cans can become drums, maracas, ukeleles, and whistles.
Feast on Colors and Textures
There are many ways to make new tastes and textures fun. One is to make a dessert buffet with squishy, jiggly, crunchy, crispy, hot, cold, smooth, rough, soft, and hard items. Get kids involved in planning the menu and making the treats. You can include flavored gelatin, popsicles, whipped cream, pudding, Rice Krispie treats, pretzels, homemade hard candy, and more. This activity is sure to be a hit with your little chefs and even picky eaters are likely to be more open-minded about sampling their own creations.
Save the Animals!
Get your future doctors and nurses started early by making a pretend emergency room for dolls and stuffed animals. You can use a wagon as a stretcher and bandage their “wounds” with toilet paper. You can even perform CPR to save their lives.
Invent a Balloon Sport
Young children are fascinated by watching adults blow up balloons. Let your kids stretch the balloons, try to inflate them, and feel them expand as you fill them with air. Once you have a few made, try playing balloon volleyball, soccer, basketball, or a game of your own creation. Trying to keep the balloons afloat is great for hand-eye coordination.
Plant a Garden
Playing in the dirt is the ultimate grounding sensory experience, and if you plant a vegetable garden, your kids can learn a lot of lessons while they’re at it. Pick a fertile corner of your yard or get some containers and potting soil. If you’re crafty, you can make upcycled planters out of discarded items like tires or pallets. Once your garden is planted, make your own mulch out of shredded paper, cardboard, or lawn clippings. Before long, you and your kids will be able to enjoy harvesting and eating the results.
Make the World Your Playground
In addition to sensory play at home, you can encourage exploration when you’re out and about as well. Plan periodic trips to fun places such as parks, playgrounds, children’s museums, and science centers. If your child is extra sensitive to noise, bring a pair of earphones to help him/her cope. When possible, encourage him/her to pick up leaves, bugs, and objects to learn what they feel, look, smell and sound like (maybe skip taste for this one!). Safely encouraging their curiosity helps them learn to deal with their surroundings better. It’s also lots of fun!
Jackie Nunes is a former pediatric nurse who is now a full-time homeschool educator and co-founder of Wondermoms.org. She and her husband have three children, all of whom are taught at home. Their middle child, an 11-year-old daughter, is hearing impaired, developmentally disabled, and uses a wheelchair.
Jackie and two other moms created Wonder Moms as a project to share real talk, helpful information, and practical advice with parents of kids who have intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, autism, language and speech delays, deafness, chronic illness, and traumatic brain injury.
This article was featured in Issue 86 – Working Toward a Healthy Life with ASD