Sensory Diet

A sensory diet is a personalized program of sensory activities that is designed to meet the specific needs of an individual. A sensory diet is often used to help individuals with sensory processing difficulties, including those with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and sensory processing disorder (SPD).

The goal of a sensory diet is to provide a structured and predictable sequence of sensory experiences throughout the day, in order to support the individual’s ability to regulate their sensory systems and respond appropriately to their environment. A sensory diet typically includes a combination of activities that engage the various senses, such as touch, vision, hearing, smell, and proprioception (the sense of the body’s position in space).

Examples of activities included in a sensory diet can include:

  • Heavy work activities, such as carrying heavy objects, pushing or pulling, and jumping.
  • Proprioceptive input activities, such as crawling, bear walks, and activities that apply pressure to the joints.
  • Vestibular input activities, such as swinging, spinning, and jumping.
  • Fine motor activities, such as using tweezers or tongs to pick up small objects.
  • Calm and relaxing activities, such as deep pressure massage or meditation.

A sensory diet is customized to meet the individual’s specific needs and can be adjusted over time as the individual’s needs change. An occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration can help design a sensory diet that is appropriate for an individual’s needs.

Sample ‘sensory diet’ Activities:

PLEASE: Always Consult a Pediatric Occupational Therapist to Customize your child’s specific Sensory Diet. 

Vestibular Sensory Diet:

The vestibular system is a sensory system located in the inner ear that provides information about movement and helps maintain balance and stability. A vestibular sensory diet is a personalized program of sensory activities that is designed to provide the individual with vestibular input, in order to support the regulation of their vestibular system.

Examples of vestibular input activities that may be included in a vestibular sensory diet include:

  • Swinging: Swinging in a variety of directions, such as forward and backward, side to side, and circular, can provide vestibular input.
  • Spinning: Activities such as spinning on a spinning board or in a circle can provide intense vestibular input.
  • Bouncing: Bouncing on a therapy ball, trampoline, or other equipment can provide vestibular input.
  • Rolling: Rolling down a mat, rolling over a therapy ball, or rolling along a balance beam can provide vestibular input.
  • Rocking: Rocking back and forth in a rocking chair or on a therapy ball can provide vestibular input.

These activities can help individuals with vestibular difficulties improve their vestibular processing and enhance their ability to regulate their vestibular system. However, it’s important to remember that every individual is unique and may need different vestibular experiences to help with their specific needs. An occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration can help design a vestibular sensory diet that is appropriate for an individual’s needs.

Visual Sensory Diet:

The visual system is a sensory system that processes information from the eyes and helps us see and understand our surroundings. A visual sensory diet is a personalized program of sensory activities that is designed to provide the individual with visual input, in order to support the regulation of their visual system.

Examples of visual input activities that may be included in a visual sensory diet include:

  • Eye tracking: Following a moving object with the eyes, such as a pendulum or a toy on a string, can help improve eye tracking abilities.
  • Visual scanning: Scanning a visual scene, such as a book or a picture, can help improve visual attention and scanning abilities.
  • Visual closure: Completing a picture or finding an object in a cluttered scene can help improve visual closure abilities.
  • Visual memory: Remembering and recalling information from a visual scene can help improve visual memory abilities.
  • Visual figure-ground: Distinguishing a figure from the background, such as finding an object in a busy scene, can help improve figure-ground discrimination abilities.

These activities can help individuals with visual processing difficulties improve their visual processing and enhance their ability to regulate their visual system. However, it’s important to remember that every individual is unique and may need different visual experiences to help with their specific needs. An occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration can help design a visual sensory diet that is appropriate for an individual’s needs.

Tactile Sensory Diet:

The tactile system is a sensory system that processes information from the skin and helps us feel touch and pressure. A tactile sensory diet is a personalized program of sensory activities that is designed to provide the individual with tactile input, in order to support the regulation of their tactile system.

Examples of tactile input activities that may be included in a tactile sensory diet include:

  • Heavy work activities: Engaging in heavy work activities, such as carrying heavy objects, pushing or pulling, and jumping, can provide deep pressure input to the skin.
  • Textured activities: Touching or manipulating different textures, such as sandpaper, feathers, or different types of fabrics, can provide varied tactile input to the skin.
  • Vibrating activities: Using vibrating toys or tools, such as a vibrating cushion or a vibrating ball, can provide vibratory input to the skin.
  • Squeezing activities: Squeezing a therapy ball or other type of resistance equipment can provide input to the skin and muscles.
  • Brushing activities: Brushing the skin with a soft brush, such as a therapeutic brush, can provide light touch input to the skin.

These activities can help individuals with tactile processing difficulties improve their tactile processing and enhance their ability to regulate their tactile system. However, it’s important to remember that every individual is unique and may need different tactile experiences to help with their specific needs. An occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration can help design a tactile sensory diet that is appropriate for an individual’s needs.

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Early exposure to sensory activities

“There is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses,” – Aristotle

Did you know that when your baby crawls around a room touching objects, playing with toys, listening to you singing songs, or putting things in his mouth, he’s doing a lot more than just playing? Toddlers use their senses to learn about and explore their environment. As a parent, you can enhance this learning by providing a positive sensory experience.

Sensory play or experience would then allow your child to interact with his surroundings and learn about his world. 

Once your child is born, his brain is ready to gain knowledge about the world. They’re actually learning long before they walk and talk. This learning takes place through hearing, touch, taste, sight, smell, and movement. They hear our voices, enjoy bouncing, chew toys, and touch everything they can.

The more positive sensory experiences your baby has, the stronger newly built brain connections become. Sensory play not only has a positive effect on your child now, but also helps to promote learning and development even in adulthood.

Researchers have found that a baby who is not given an appropriate set of opportunities and is kept in a swing most of the day or is kept in a dark, quiet environment for long periods can have his learning and brain development stunted by lack of exposure to sensory stimuli. 

These sensory systems don’t develop simultaneously, but rather in a specific order that does not vary.

This is tactile > vestibular > chemical > audio > visual. The infant has five senses functioning at different levels at the time of birth. 

Building blocks essential to an efficient sensory system

  • For effective sensory processing, all sensory systems need to work together. It should be recognized that the sensory system is indeed composed of seven senses; these sensory systems process information as the building blocks to most of the individual skills.
  • Visual Sense: This is the ability to understand and interpret what is seen. The visual system uses the eyes to collect information about the contrast between light and dark, color, and movement. It receives sensory information from the environment by light waves that stimulate the retina then by the optic nerve to the visual cortex on the back of the brain.
  • Auditory Sense: is the ability to interpret information that is heard. The auditory system uses the external and middle ear to obtain sound information. They collect information about volume, pitch, and rhythm to the brain’s side parts by the 8th nerve.
  • Olfactory Sense is the ability to interpret smells by Receiving the chemical makeup of particles in the air to determine if the smell.
  • Gustatory Sense: it is the ability to interpret information regarding taste in the mouth using specialized buds on the tongue’s upper surface.
  • Tactile Sense: It uses skin receptors to receive sensations of touch, such as fine touch, pressure, vibration, temperature, and pain. This is the first Sense to develop (in the womb), and, as such, it is vital for the overall neural network.
  • Proprioceptive Sense is the ability to interpret where your body parts are in relation to each other. It uses information from the nerves and sheaths of the muscles and bones to inform about body posture and movement by muscle contraction, stretching, bending, straightening, pulling, and compression.
  • Vestibular Sense: is the ability to interpret information relating to movement and balance. The vestibular system uses specialized channels in the inner ear to transmit information on movement, change of direction, change of position of the head, and gravitational pull.

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Most human critical periods exist within the early years postnatal, which is why sensory play is especially important for young children​.

A critical period is a phase in which brain cell connections are more plastic and receptive to the influence of a certain type of life experience. These connections, called synapses, can be formed or strengthened more easily during this period.

A recent study has linked the lack of sensory play and negative home environments, especially during children’s first three years with several developmental problems, including:

  • Poorer language development by age three.
  • Later behavior issues.
  • Deficits in school readiness.
  • Anxiety, Aggression, and depression.
  • Impaired cognitive development at age three.

The Importance of Sensory Play

Building Nerve Connections

Research indicates that sensory play builds nerve connections (synapses) in the brain pathways that contribute to a child’s ability to perform more complex learning tasks.

Cognitive Development

Children first learn to understand new things through their senses. Every time they encounter something that is sticky, cold, or wet, for example, they gain a better understanding of which types of objects have these characteristics. Your child will then begin to make connections between things that have similar properties.

Strengthening Fine Motor Skills

Sensory play often involves touching, pouring, pinching, sorting, and moving actions. Toddlers primarily use their hands to explore, building on their fine motor skills, which will later be used for writing, zipping jackets, buttoning clothes, and tying shoes.

Enhancing Language Skills

By exploring new smells, tastes, and textures through sensory play, children can learn new ways to describe things found in the world around them. For example, a rock will be more than a rock when they feel it – it’s either smooth or rough or cool to the touch.  Also, your kids begin to describe food as sweet, salty, spicy, or crunchy.

Sensory Play Is Calming

You may have noticed that your kid is calmer after bath time or after a particularly rough session of jumping around the room, crashing onto his bed, banging into furniture, or pillows. This type of sensory activity calms children as it helps them manage their internal discomfort, whether it is boredom or restlessness.

 Early taste experiences 

 Early life nutrition is an important factor affecting later health. Your child’s food habits are shaped in infancy and are tracked back to adolescence and beyond, meaning that supportive eating activities are important to prevent eating disorders later in life.

Italian researchers from the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Milan have shown that early repeated experiences with different tastes and supportive feeding increase the children’s desire to try new foods and greatly decrease the risk of having a picky-eater kid in a healthy social environment. In other words, you, as a parent, can modify the innate food preferences of your child! 

By paying attention to these things, your baby will gain a lot of benefits and get exposed to various wonderful activities that will really help him develop properly! 

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 Blair C, Granger DA, Willoughby M, et al. Salivary cortisol mediates effects of poverty and parenting on executive functions in early childhood. Child Development. 2011; 82(6):1970-8.

Son S, Morrison F. The nature and impact of changes in home learning environment on development of language and academic skills in preschool children. Developmental Psychology. 2010; 46(5):1103–1118.

De Cosmi V, Scaglioni S, Agostoni C. Early Taste Experiences and Later Food Choices. Nutrients. 2017;9(2):107. Published 2017 Feb 4. doi:10.3390/nu9020107

Howard-Jones P, Taylor J, Sutton L. The Effect of Play on the Creativity of Young Children During Subsequent Activity. Early Child Development and Care. August 2002:323-328. doi:10.1080/03004430212722

Rosenzweig MR, Bennett EL. Psychobiology of plasticity: effects of training and experience on brain and behavior. Behavioural Brain Research. June 1996:57-65. doi:10.1016/0166-4328(95)00216-2

10 Toddler Gross Motor Activities and Why Obstacle Courses are the Best!

Developing gross motor skills is an essential foundation that all children need!

Gross motor skills are any movements that engage the large muscles in your body. They are the significant movements that kids begin to use regularly. We often hear a lot about fine motor skills and their importance in learning and academia. However, without strong gross motor skills, a child’s fine motor development could suffer greatly. Gross motor skills include rolling, walking, running, jumping, climbing, hopping, skipping, bending, kicking, throwing, catching, balancing, and more. 

Think about not being able to control your arm or shoulder actively and how hard it would make it to hone your fine motor skills to write a word or letter. Gross motor skills provide foundational skills for learning and developing. Kids use gross motor skills to eat, play, dress themselves, or even sit in a chair to participate in school-based activities. Needless to say, gross motor skills are grossly important (pun intended!)  

Here are ten gross motor activities for children ages 1-3 and why obstacle courses are the best gross motor activity of them all! 

(Above picture: A child doing Obstacle course activity using OT park worksheets in her Backyard.)

  1. Cleaning up

Cleaning up requires walking, reaching, bending, and squatting. All of these movements are great gross motor practice. 

  1. Catch and toss

Catch and toss is such a simple and classic game. Get the whole family involved and allow the kids to run and retrieve the ball for optimal skill building! 

  1. Water play/swimming

This activity requires adult assistance and supervision at all times to prevent drowning. However, water play is such an excellent gross motor activity and even allows your child to build strength safely by moving, playing, kicking, and splashing against the water’s resistance. 

  1. Jungle gyms

Most kids enjoy parks and outside play. Constant movement is created to run and climb, swing their legs back and forth, or even squat and bend to squeeze into tight and low spaces. The most fun part is they don’t even realize they are building foundational skills!

  1. Animal Walks

Pretend to be your child’s favorite animal, or allow them to show you how that animal moves (even if it’s wacky!) Pretend play with them and show them how to walk like a crab or hop like a frog! Have them mimic you and see which animal was their favorite!

  1. Pretend play

Layout various clothes or costumes that you have around the house, and let your child dress up and pretend to be a football player, a teacher, or even mommy or daddy! 

  1. Dancing

Put on your favorite tunes and dance it out! Dancing also builds endurance and relieves tension, stress, or anxiety.

  1. Hopscotch

The most important part of this game for kids ages 1-3 is hopping and jumping around! We aren’t looking for perfection. Allow your kid to hop and attempt to hold their balance while picking up the rock they threw. Hopscotch is such a great gross motor activity! Hop, hop, hop!

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  1. Playing with bubbles

When toddlers play with bubbles, it encourages them to reach up high or squat down low. They jump and run after the bubbles to catch or pop them.

  1. Obstacle course 

Finally, we saved the best for last! Obstacle courses are such a fun and versatile way to engage your child’s gross motor skills. Obstacle courses can be made indoors or outdoors and can be super complex or straightforward. You can use household objects or purchase different items from the store! Whatever you choose, make it fun!

For example, let’s say you wanted to make a four-step obstacle course indoors. You and your child could:

  • Roll or catch a ball while sitting
  • Do crab walks
  • Dance for 3 minutes
  • Walk over four pillows that are lined up!

It’s just that simple! Get your kid’s body moving and allow them to explore! With this four-step obstacle course example, your kid just practiced reaching, sitting, standing, stomping, bending, twisting, squatting, balancing, jumping, and so much more! This is why I believe obstacle courses are the best gross motor activity!

They allow your child to build multiple gross motor skills simultaneously. There is no limit to how much your child can grow, learn, and develop.

All it takes is a little time and creativity!

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