Support Sensory Integration, Soothe The Fidgets

We are asking our kids to sit still and pay attention for longer and longer periods of time while their opportunities for physical play are shrinking. There is barely time for recess or physical education in a typical day at public school in the U.S. This wouldn’t be such a slippery slope if they were playing outside for hours after school each day, but they’re not. More and more of that would-be free-range time is spent indoors, largely stationary. Should-be downtime is often spent commuting, or shuttling from one structured activity to the next.

What Are Kids Losing?

The answer is sensory integration. Sensory integration makes it possible for us to learn, play, and function in the real world. There are actually seven senses, not five: touch, smell, sight, hearing, taste, balance (vestibular), and body sense (proprioceptive). When our senses are all developed and working together, we are able to modulate our levels of arousal (wakefulness) and attention to meet the situation we’re in.

When a kid’s sensory processing is not functioning optimally, it can look like fidgeting, squirming, chewing, slouching, clumsiness, distractibility, outbursts, or tantrums. These are all adaptations kids use to help them pay attention. Without opportunities to process and integrate sensory experience through movement, kids are less equipped to learn. Yes, to learn – to sit still, attend, and synthesize the information they are responsible for in school, even for a sensory-typical kid.

Sensory Integration Soothes the Fidgets

Increasingly, sensory processing is underdeveloped in kids, arguably because of the demands our 21st Century lifestyle places on them. This is why cutting edge classrooms allow kids to stand at their desks, play music during work periods, have soothing reading corners, sensory seats, and hand fidgets available. There is good cause for speculation that the rising numbers of ADHD diagnoses are actually about sensory integration. A fascinating blog post by a pediatric occupational therapist went viral a couple years ago because the issue of why so many kids can’t sit still in school resonates with so many of us.

While we may have kids or know kids who have “sensory issues,” sensory processing is not something that only certain kids need help with. All kids need opportunities to develop their senses and to synthesize them. Maintaining healthy sensory integration supports brain development and allows us to function in the world in a way that most of us take for granted. For a very clear and quick read to understand how sensory processing relates to function, check out this PDF from Socially Speaking, LLC.

What You Can Do

Short of scrapping all after school activities and spending afternoons in the woods or the playground where kids can climb, swing, dig in the dirt and hang upside down, what can we do to ensure our kids get the sensory opportunities they need?

  1. Prioritize proprioception and vestibular sensing opportunities. Research shows that kids’ core muscles are less developed than ever before. Get them moving! Rolling downhill, swinging, and hanging upside down are excellent ways to develop these senses. For older kids, aerobic exercise is important everyday – swimming and skateboarding are ideal to support these senses.
  2. Allow kids to make messes. This is really hard for a vast number of parents because it can feel out of control and takes time to clean up. But, your child needs the sensory input that goopy glop gives them. Try making paper mache or finger-painting with pudding. Clay, playdough, and cooked pasta all make great squishers for kids’ hands too. (You can even try these STEAM activities over the holidays!)
  3. Seize opportunities where you find them. Chores are a great way to kill two birds with one stone. These household activities support sensory integration:

Sweeping, carrying groceries, vacuuming, wiping tables, yard work, cleaning up clutter – moving items from one room to another, especially heavy objects like books, laundry or furniture.

For kids to be able to pay attention, they need more opportunities to integrate their sensory experiences. While there is an argument to be made for more unstructured time for kids, the demands of family life make that pretty challenging for many. In a world that is increasingly less hands-on, getting messy during chore time can actually help integrate all the sensory information kids process every day. Make chore routines, meal preparation, and family time sensory experiences – it will be fun for everyone!

Jenny Kepler, MA, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and writer who has been helping families navigate parenthood for over 10 years. Her office is in downtown Portland, OR where she does in person therapy with adults, couples and families. She also offers parent coaching over the phone for people who can’t see her in Portland.

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