Your Kid's Table: Sensory Basics

Sensory Basics

The term "sensory" is becoming more mainstream, but it is still a foreign concept to many people.  Sensory play/integration/processing (a variety of terms are used depending on who you are talking to) can be complex and abstract.  I want to give you a quick course in the sensory basics so you can understand why occupational therapists focus on it and how you can give your child a variety of sensory experiences. I am going to get a little technical here (don't say I didn't give you fair warning).  

What is Sensory Integration?

Sensory integration is a theory developed by an occupational therapist, A. Jean Ayres, in the 1960's. In Ayer's own words, "sensory integration is the central nervous system translating information into action". Basically, it means that the behavior we exhibit is linked to neurological processes. Therefore, if we display disorganized behavior, we likely have disorganized neurological processes.
    • In layman's terms: Everything we feel or experience, from wind on our face to driving a car is processed in our brain. If a child has an unusual response then their brain isn't processing what they feel or experience well.
Through meaningful sensory activities and a child's inherent motivation, the child is able to make adaptive responses. This allows them to have more organized behaviors.
    • In layman's terms: When a kid wants to participate in sensory play (to them it is just play), they adjust how they are playing based on what they are experiencing/feeling.
The theory focuses on tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive input, which are described in more detail below.

What is Tactile, Vestibular, and Proprioceptive Input?

Tactile Input: Sensation derived from stimulation to the skin (a.k.a. touch).
    • How does a feather feel compared to a piece of sandpaper.
Vestibular Input: Sensation derived from stimulation to the vestibular mechanism in the inner ear that occurs through movement and position of the head; contributes to posture and maintenance of a stable visual field. 
    • How we sense or perceive movement. We stimulate our vestibular system when riding on a swing, riding in a car, jumping up and down, etc.
Proprioceptive Input: Sensations derived from movement and joint compression.
    • How we are able to sense where our body's are in space. We stimulate our proprioceptive system through the deep pressure input we receive in the joints throughout our body. This occurs when we walk, run, jump, get or give a hug, etc. 
Bundy, A.C., Lane, S.J., and Murray, E.A. (2002) Sensory Integration Theory and Practice. Second Edition.
Schaaf, R.C. and Roley S.S. (2006) Sensory Integration: Applying Clinical Reasoning to Practice with Diverse Populations.

Sensory Activities

Below is a short list of ways to stimulate the various sensory systems.  I bet you didn't know you were doing sensory play when you played leap frog with your kid!  There are many more ideas than what is listed here, this is just to get you started!

Proprioceptive: Roughhousing, play wrestling, leap frog, tug-of-war, wheelbarrow walking, jumping on a trampoline, crawling under couch cushions, chin-ups, play with weighted balls, jumping and crashing on the bed, pushing another child on the swing, playing in a body sock, foot-to-foot bicycling with friend, firm family hugging, stirring/ rolling/kneading dough, digging, carrying, shoveling, raking, pushing/lifting heavy objects, moving furniture, vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, carrying laundry basket, row row row your boat with partner, rolling up with a blanket to make a hot dog or burrito, rolling a large ball over the child,  playing tug-of-war, and crawling into a stretchy pillow case or tunnel

Vestibular: Sitting in a rocking chair, sitting on a ball to watch TV, playing on a slide, swing, seesaw, trapeze, rings, ladder, monkey bars, glider, suspended bridge, and roughhousing

Oral: Healthy, chewy foods (e.g., celery, carrots, apples, nuts, fruit leather, beef jerky), thick liquids requiring straw (e.g., milkshakes, smoothies, gelatin, pudding), teethers (especially those that vibrate), whistles, blowing bubbles, feathers, balloons, or anything lightweight

Tactile:  Texture bins (rice, cotton balls, bird seed, dry macaroni noodles, sand, rice, dry beans),  shaving cream, soap foam, play do, finger paint (also try with pudding, peanut butter, and other purees), lotion/non-lotion massages, fidget toys (koosh balls, stress balls, etc.)

Some Important Tips

  • Generally speaking, it is better to avoid light touch and provide firm touch, especially if your kid is sensitive to touch.
  • Take into consideration light, odor, and noise in the environment. it may be helpful to play soft music, eliminate strong smells, or dim the lights. Conversely, some children may need fast paced music, strong smells, or bright lights to focus.
  • A child’s sensory needs may change from day to day.  They may respond well to being wrapped up in a blanket during one session and run from it the next.  Always respect a child’s boundaries in relation to sensory activities (i.e. never force a child’s hand into finger paint if they are tactile defensive, even if you are tricking them).

What is a Sensory Diet?

I have used the term sensory diet a few times on the blog.  I know some of you may know what a sensory diet is, especially if you have managed to find my little blog.  However, if this is a new term to you, here is a basic definition: 

    • A sensory diet is sensory activities provided to a child at particular intervals throughout the day to help them respond more effectively to their environment. It should be dynamic in nature, changing with the child, ultimately giving them a tool to modify sensory input. 

    • A sensory diet should be set up by an OT.

Links to Posts with Sensory Play Ideas

Ultimate List of Sensory Bin Ideas
DIY Sensory Tunnel
Sensory Pillow Mountain
Sensory Scarf Box

Have another sensory activity that your child enjoys? Please share!


  1. great site, just attended a workshop on sensory integration this last friday!

  2. That's great, feel free to share anything you learned!

  3. I am so glad I found your website! I am a new follower on Twitter & Facebook. My son who is 3 has Sensory Processing Disorder!
    I hope you will follow me back.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Following you back :)

  4. thank you so much for starting this web site my daughter is 1.5 and has SPD and im still learning web sites and support groups like this one have been a life saver to me and my fam and friends

    1. You are welcome! So glad it is helpful!

  5. This is such an informative look at this particular disorder. My son is now 4 and has been placed on the Autism Spectrum Disorder program at his school. Sensory play has been a lifesaver for him, and I hope some parents will implement these simple things in their home. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much Shanna! Sensory is such an important piece of ASD as well as autism spectrum disorder.

  6. Danielle SupermomJuly 1, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    I have an 11 year old son with autism. Although he is verbal, he also does a lot of scripting from videos or computer programs. Do you have any ideas on how to address this issue? Thanks, Danielle

    1. Hi Danielle, I think this is a common issue for those on the spectrum. I don't think there is any sensory angle I can use, but re-directions is sometimes helpful. That may mean conversationally also, such as... "Hey 'Jack' what did you have for lunch at school." This will help break up the repetition of it. I know some families have made rules also like, "no repeating while eating dinner", etc. Hope that helps a little!