Let's talk about our sensory seekers and how to look at their needs with new eyes!
These are the children who are frequently jumping, crashing, twirling, hanging off furniture, touching almost everything in their environment, licking, chewing, running, wriggling and bumping into people or objects in their environment while seeming to never tire. If you have been wondering if your child is a sensory seeker, just count your head nods as you read that list!
What we know about these children is that their need to move so much often lands them in trouble (at both home and school), and need is the key word here. What can look like impulsive hyperactivity is in fact their nervous system crying out for the sensory input that gives their body more feedback.
Our bodies are constantly receiving sensory input. Without us even realising it we are processing it and continuously adjusting our responses. For some sensory seeking children, the vestibular system - the ability to sense movement and balance, and the proprioceptive system (knowing where our body is in space) can be under-responsive. Troubles can occur with balance, midline crossing, coordination, and body (and space) awareness, and, at the same time, there can also be issues with oversensitivity in these same systems. It is not a case of these children simply learning to “slow down” or be still, because their nervous system is urging their bodies to move, move, move. We can picture their sensory system like a GIANT bucket, and no matter how much water you add, it never quite gets full enough. (Not easy to live with always, but also imagine being them)!
What helps our child is also twofold – first, using a sensory lens to look at the behavior of their body, and secondly, providing appropriate ways to meet these ‘feedback needs’. When you next see your child running, spinning, bumping into things and/or hanging off furniture, give some thought to what their bodies are seeking. The bumping and crashing may mean they need some proprioceptive input: try squishing between 2 pillows, rolling up in a yoga mat and applying some firm pressure with your hands, pressing the back, arms & legs.
Hanging off furniture, spinning and twirling? Time for some vestibular input! Rather than spinning and rotary movement which can over-alert, go for linear swinging, or engage them in an activity laying on scooter board. How about this scooter board activity idea?
Put puzzle pieces at one end of the room and have them scoot across the room to retrieve them, piece by piece, to build the puzzle at the opposite end of room. This keeps them engaged and challenged while getting the rich input to their bodies that is both organising and calming.
Here are my other top tips and inspiring ideas for sensory seekers:
1. Use an air cushion to allow for movement while your child does seated work or at dinner. A hot water bottle half filled with COLD water works well too.
2. Engage your child in heavy work activities like pushing a shopping cart, carrying groceries, sorting cans, or moving firewood. Make it part of the day to keep it simple.
3. Head to playgrounds that have climbing walls, slides and swings.
4. Encourage your child to swing or jump with consistent, rhythmic patterns- singing songs is a great way to incorporate rhythm. (For calming input, place the child on a basket swing and swing them in a back-and-forth linear motion).
5. Let them squish in between big pillows for whole body sensory input. (To make a DIY crash mat, grab a duvet from the linen cupboard and fill with all the cushions, pillows, soft toys and blankets you can find around the house). Children love to jump and crash on these mats- it can help to follow this activity up with some calming deep pressure activities to regulate the body.
6. Provide deep pressure by rolling an exercise ball along the child’s back – like a steam roller (see picture below).
7. When in doubt about what your seeker is needing- go for heavy work- Proprioceptive activities: squishing, wall push-ups & animal crawls. Putting on some ankle weights can add extra feedback during these activities too. Pinterest has loads of inspiration for these types of activities so you can keep things novel and fun!
Just a note on language too - it is easy for sensory seekers to be told off often, and to get a bad rap. Shift the language and your will shift your response. It’s normal to get irritated but saying “I can see that your arms and legs are REALLY wanting to move - let's do some wall push-ups together. How many can we do,” is responsive and respectful, rather than reactive. “Let’s” is such a magic word too - doing alongside your child is inviting, and it will not only help them, but is highly likely regulate you as well.
Our children don’t choose their sensory responsiveness, but we can choose our lens. Look with new eyes for a new (and incredibly helpful) understanding of your child’s needs.