Does your child love to splash water (all over the floor)? Do you have a little artist who loves to paint on paper (and fingers, and hands, and arms, and belly…)? Do you have a little ninja (who turns every space like an opportunity to practice their parkour skills)? These can be examples of how children seek to meet their sensory needs! While some children are avoidant of sensory experiences, many others crave input to the point of engaging in behaviors that feel disruptive or excessive. Before addressing sensory seeking behavior, it is necessary to understand and accept that sensory needs do not go away. The body and brain crave the sensory input which helps children feel regulated and calm. Children will meet their sensory needs regardless of how disruptive or dangerous it may be. The best means of addressing sensory seeking behavior is to learn to recognize it and provide appropriate activities to support a child’s need.
When children crave tactile input, they often enjoy the experience of touching, splashing, sliding, and rubbing. They enjoy smearing shaving cream on a table top and feeling their fingers slip and they rub their hands together. You may see them rub their hands, bodies, or faces against soft, scratchy, fuzzy, warm, or cool objects. Paint brushes are tools that feel wonderful on their hands, arms, and bellies. All of these activities are exciting, but can also help soothe the child in times of distress.
Some children prefer sensory activities that give their body proprioceptive input. These children like to smash, crash, bump, pile, and press as they seek out physical input that transmits sensations from muscles, joints, and connective tissues. The proprioceptive sense helps children develop body awareness. Although proprioceptive sensory seekers often appear to be the opposite of being aware of their bodies, their desire to experience pressure on their body directly impacts their future understanding of how their body relates to their physical space. You may notice your child enjoys running their hands along walls as they walk, spinning and bumping into living room furniture, giggling under a mountain of pillows, or stomping around the house. Many children feel soothed with a weighted blanket at bedtime and may be soothed during times of excitement with back rubs. Heavy work is an excellent way for children to get what they need physically without engaging in disruptive or dangerous activities such as biting, wrestling with siblings, or crashing their bodies into objects. Heavy work activities allow children to experience weight moving as a resistance activity or physical challenge. Lifting and moving tires, boards, wheelbarrows, and rocks are often a welcome challenge as they build structures outside. Pushing a laundry basket filled with heavy items such as weighted exercise balls, pulling a friend in a sled, rolling down a grassy hillside, or stretching inside a swinging hammock chair are also great for these types of sensory seekers.
Sensory seekers can also benefit from a “sensory diet” to help them feel regulated and meet their needs. A sensory diet provides the calming impact of sensory input in a controlled and responsive way. If a tactile child is restless or fidgety when sitting still for school work, it may be helpful to brush their hands or arms with a soft bristled brush prior to needing to focus on a sitting task. A sensory diet for a bed-jumping kiddo may include some body pressure activities. The child may be less bouncy at bedtime if they get to use a body sock before settling down. Or you can have two adults make a “hammock” out of a jersey sheet and have some swinging time before bed. Fidget toys are also wonderful for helping children feel calm and focused. Any stretchy, moldable, or clickable object will work such as Monkey Noodles, TheraPutty, or Fidget Cube. (These are also great for “pen-clicking” adults!) Fidget toys can also be helpful for the proprioceptive sensory seeker as well! Children who chew on their shirt, pencil, or other objects may find it helpful to have an alternative tool to satisfy their sensory needs. The Chewlery brand has some great options that provide different types of input.
Some of the best parenting advice I ever received (and have found to be the most helpful for my little sensory seeker) is that “when kids are cranky, put them in water.” Water provides both tactile and proprioceptive input and keeps many children engaged for an hour or more. The kitchen sink has been a lifesaver and helps my own child feel regulated as he plays with toys, scoops, and squirters. Warm or cold, bubbles or plain, scented with essential oils or not, water turns the afternoon wild child into a calm and happy kiddo. I also encourage everyone to consider rephrasing this advice to “when kids are cranky, give them sensory input.” to help any sensory seeker feel calm, safe, and supported.If you think your child may benefit from a sensory diet, ask your pediatrician for more ideas or check out Carol Kranowitz’s website and book, The Out of Sync Child, for more about how to best support sensory seeking (and avoidant) children.