While holding our sensory diet activities homework in my hands, I walk out of the Occupational Therapist and my brain starts to spin, anxiety rushes in, and I can feel my pulse in every portion of my body.
It happens every week over this one single piece of paper.
I know my son has sensory differences, I know sensory diet activities are important to help him function on a daily basis, but making these actually work is more than I can handle.
Be sure to learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder and my parenting tips on how to support your child with sensory challenges.
How to Encourage Sensory Diet Activities Without Bribes
Every week I try, every week he resists.
In the past I’ve spent hours trying to set up the perfect activity he’ll actually want to do.
On a lucky day, I’ll get him to participate for about 2 minutes before he’s bouncing off to something else.
If I push too hard, we end up in a huge fight.
The situation seems doomed from the beginning.
Or at least that’s how it used to be.
Until I changed one tiny little aspect.
Why Sensory Diet Activities?
Sensory activities can be the difference between a wild child and a calm one.
The more we give our kids the opportunity to balance and regulate their sensory systems, the less often they have to act out to meet those needs.
Regular access to sensory activities can actually improve;
- Communication ability
- Reasoning skills
- The overall function of the sensory system
Kids with more extreme sensory differences need more frequent access to sensory activities to keep their sensory system regulated.
Having a set of regularly planned activities specific to your child’s unique sensory system is called a sensory diet.
As With Any Diet
The reality of making it part of a daily schedule for more than a few days is another story.
As parents of sensory kids we feel the pressure to make our kids participate in regular sensory diet activities.
The OT says we should do certain activities, the internet is full of various ideas, and we’ve all seen how effective some of those can be.
So, with all that in mind we grab a sensory idea, try to make it fun, then tackle the bigger burden of trying to get the buy-in from the child to participate.
All the work put into it and the pressure to help the child is inadvertently placed on our child, which then ends up in a power struggle and can turn a bad situation worse.
While sensory play is important, using pressure to make it happen, or taking initiative to create them all the time, just isn’t worth it.
All of that can be changed with just one word.
Related: How to avoid Power Struggles
Turn Activities into Opportunities
During a lazy summer day last summer my kids decided they were too bored to think of anything to do.
I hopped on Pinterest, found a great sensory activity, set it up, and 30 minutes later I had the best sensory diet activity ever.
After 5 minutes of playing with it, my kids were uninterested. FAIL.
Being determined, and the great sensory mom I wanted to be, I tried for a second activity.
After another 30 minutes of cleaning up the first activity, searching and setting up a second, I was optimistic and ready to go.
Once again, FAIL.
Not to be defeated, I tried for a third.
This one required less setup and cleanup, but once again, they participated for 5 minutes and the magic was over.
I gave up, I just let them play, and the magic started happening.
One kid took the messy sensory activity and turned it into a game – he created his own sensory activity.
Another went barefoot exploring in the backyard, taking pictures of everything he could find – he created his own sensory activity.
My daughter decided she wanted some time on the swing to relax and unwind – she created her own sensory activity.
That day made me realize the power of letting my kids have access to sensory play on their own terms.
Essentially, I create opportunities instead of activities.
- Kids naturally spend more time in sensory play
- I spend less time scouring Pinterest
- Less resistance to the strict diet
- More creative time spent doing what feels good to their unique sensory systems
What’s the difference?
An activity or a diet is a one-time thing, it is parent guided, and typically parent initiated.
If it happens without a power struggle, you do the activity, you put it away, and it is over.
If it is to happen again, YOU have to make it possible, the pressure is on YOU as a parent.
An opportunity is available at any time, which means the child has access to it at any time and is able to engage in regular sensory play more often.
The opportunity may require a parent to set it up one time or demonstrate how it is done, but after that it is typically child initiated, child guided, and happens without a power struggle.
I call that a win!
Creating Sensory Opportunities
So, how is an opportunity created? It is done one or both of these ways
- Identify child’s sensory needs and aversions
- Fill those sensory needs through naturally occurring situations throughout the day
- If those needs can’t be met naturally, create ways for the child to access them regularly throughout the day with minimal parent guidance
A few examples are:
- A cupboard with a bucket of playdoh with plastic tools right next to it.
- A tub of sensory beads with a few “scoopers” inside and in a place they can easily get to
- Two tubs of dry rice with Gi Joes inside waiting to be rescued
- Bubbles galore for outside sensory time
- A closet full of pillows and blankets they know they can take out and jump in at any time as long as they clean them up
- A teepee their size they can use as a cool down spot or a hide out if they want
- A permanent swing in the garage
- A spinning chair in the office
- For more ideas of easy sensory diet activities, check out this great post.
It’s easy and effective. Just what all busy parents need!
Now when I walk out of the OT office with a list of sensory diet activities in hand, I glance over them to see how I can turn it into an opportunity instead of a forced activity.
No stress to make it cute. No pressure to force my kid to do it.
He’s happy, I’m happy, and both of our sensory systems end up being more regulated.
About the Guest Author
This post originally appeared on WendyBertagnole.com and is reprinted with permission.
With an undergraduate degree in child development, and a master’s degree in special education, this foundation was a springboard for Wendy in helping kids and families to see the root of any challenges they face.