Hallelujah! IKEA is opening up it’s first store in Croatia in a few days. It was about time. Nobody happier than me! Yeah, I am an IKEA fan, big one. Of course, no doubt I will be making a sensory room filled with IKEA items for my little 6 month old boy. This is my top 3 list of IKEA items that will surely find a place in V’s room. I’m adding a short Pro ‘n’ Con feature for each of the three when used for sensory integration.
Swing Pro: Great for balance stimulation. You can swing your baby left-right and in circle for balance exercise, front-back for relaxation; you can put your baby to sleep on it. It’s very durable and easy to clean (red fabric can be unzipped and washed separately). Great for proprioception stimulation when slightly bounced off of the surrounding (softly padded) walls. Con: You cannot leave your baby and a small child unattended on that swing. And definitely put some mats, cushions or something else soft around and below the swing.
Balancing bench Pro: Great for stimulation of balance for older kids. Might get them off of your couch arm rests. Perfect for those kids who need visual / spatial stimulation as it gives the higher perspective. I like it also as an obstacle that your kid has to crawl under, walk over etc. Aside from the sensory benefits, I like it as a bench kids can use to sit on and because it’s so thin, it can be stored easily. Con: safety hazard
Tunnel Pro: I love how it enhances the body awareness as it slightly decreases the visual system. Kids need to learn the boundaries of their bodies to be able to go through the tunnel without feeling scared. It’s also great to use it with the tent, which you can fill with small plastic or soft balls for a more proprioceptive stimulation. Both items easily washable. Also great to use as an obstacle or a link that connects the two parts. Con: If used reasonably, no cons.
At my workplace, we suggest parents to bring their kids to therapy twice a week. We do an individual evaluation so the frequency is not the same for all the kids, but in most cases it turns out to be twice a week. The sensory room is big, has many things and it can be a lot for certain kids to handle. But that’s therapy. And it’s great. But if you ask me, sensory integration should be looked at as lifestyle. No matter if your child is “healthy” (of a typical development), or has some developmental difficulties. Two hours a week is simply not enough. Just knowing a thing or two about what it is and how kids respond to the stimuli can give you a lot of insight into why kids do things the way they do. For instance, why do kids walk on the arm rests and frames of your living room couch, why they slide down 100 times and still want more, why they can spin around in the park for 5 minutes and you want to puke just by looking at them?
If parents knew just a little bit about the SI, it would not be such a mystery and I am sure parenting would be even a bigger joy. It is to me, anyway.
I love seeing my little boy exploring his body. I don’t get all first-time-nervous-mom on him, but I am a relaxed parent as I understand what my baby is going through.
SI is great for your child but is also good for you. Your brain is not as easy to “change” as the child’s, but is not impossible. When I started working in the sensory room I would get nauseas within three to four rounds on the swing and now I can do at least 10. I also couldn’t write texts or read messages on my phone while in the moving bus, and now I have no issues with that whatsoever.
Other than that, as a parent you get more creative because you need to find ways to offer your child the stimuli they need in different ways: e.g. Proprioceptive stimulus can be acquired by jumping, rolling, pressing, bouncing off of something such as a mat.
Last, but definitely not the least is the fact that one or two hours a week is really not suffice. Can’t emphasize that enough.
And that old excuse “I don’t have so much time to play with my child because I have to ____________ (enter your reason why)” is not applicable any more if you make SI your lifestyle. Because if you live SI, then you do it all the time, becomes a way of living and communicating. But have in mind that even if you apply the SI concepts, you should still be the child’s parent and go for the hour or two of therapy with a professional. Doing it at home does not mean stopping it with the professionals by any means.
I am not very traditional, but the one tradition I am going to turn the world upside down for is going to the seaside in the summer. The air on the island is clean, the flora is amazingly beautiful, colorful and scented, people lead a calmer life here and above it all is – the sea! It is blue and green, so crispy clear and clean, of a perfect temperature for one to refresh him or herself and it just heals me inside out; it charges my batteries.
This year is moreover special as I am bringing my son to this particular place for the first time. I was his age (around 5, 6 months old) when I came to this house for the first time. So, before I get all sentimental let me tell you what I am doing with him on an island (where you can barely find a person, let alone an OT or a sensory room) that is sensory friendly. You can do this at a lake, river or any other place with water suitable for dipping. I mostly use water as my medium and I try to reveal most of his skin so he gets a lot of the tactile input, too. He was a winter born baby so for the first four months he was in thick socks and three layers of clothing.
First I give V. an oil massage throughout his whole body rubbing his arms, legs, tummy and back. I use coconut oil as per Indian tradition (oh, look at that, another tradition I use), but olive oil, almond oil etc. will do. Then I dip him in the sea (gustative: salty water), or in a small pool (gustative: fresh water). His whole body feels the water (tactile), the water temperature and pressure when he is moving (proprioceptive). There are many visual stimuli such as water splashing, kids playing around, sun shining and reflecting against the water surface etc. There are auditive stimuli such as hearing the water splash, waves hit the beach, boat engines and kids’ screaming, people talking, etc. What is hard in this kind of situation is the ability to concentrate on pleasure the water gives us or on mommy being happy her big boy is swimming while your whole sensory body is super busy staying regulated and let’s face it, alive.
After a swim, there’s nothing better than a nice ice coffee. But how to go about it when your 5 month old does not want to stay peaceful in his stroller. Well, babies loooove proprioceptive games. What’s easier than a push/pull game? Leave the baby in his stroller or put him on the ground if socially acceptable and get a toy or something like a scarf, tissue… Let the baby hold it and while verbally motivating the child, try to pull it out of his hand. Do it in different rhythms.
Other proprioceptive games include you slightly bouncing the baby while holding them tightly, of course. Also, do it in different rhythms and give your baby a second to start anticipating. What can help is you saying:” I am going to bounce you now. Oneeee, twoooo, threeee. There we goooo!!!” Try doing it in an enticing voice.
While your baby’s regular play time (don’t forget the importance of tummy time!) you can include some different kinds of toys. I actually gave my son a toy for dogs. It’s a hedgehog. I love that it’s small enough to fit in his hand and spiky to give some tactile stimulation on his palms.
If you don’t have anything like that, it’s ok. Don’t rush to the store. You can take a walk with your baby and let them touch the branches or even daddy’s hair or beard.
My son is also teething terribly. His first tooth started coming out when he was barely two months old and now he is a 5 month old baby with 5 white poky dots in his mouth. Needless to say, he is cranky and loud! Keeping a stash of Gengigel and him occupied is a must, so having some good sensory activities in a place where there is really nothing around but nature is a life saver!
I love summer for its practicality when it comes to sensory activities and the creativity at this time of the year is endless. Here’s my top 5 sensory activities for the summer season:
Sea: if you are planning a trip to the coast, this might be a great sensory experience for your child. Not only swimming, but walking through the shallow water, touching the sand or pebbles with bare feet or just splashing it around is good.
Bathing in the tub: You can prepare baths for your child in the yard or the balcony like I did with my son. My 4 month old loves to bathe and splash water everywhere. During the hot days I take his tub out in the balcony and give him a coconut oil massage first (as per Indian tradition) and afterwards we dip. If your child is a bit bigger, fill the tub with some plastic balls for the kid to play with while bathing.
Color: You can use some food coloring and color the water for your child to play with. Throw in some cups and toys, too. Tea party? Sounds great!
Dry sand: put a lot of sand in a box, hide some small toys that your child loves inside and have him or her search for the toys. Take a cup and slowly sip the sand through your child’s hands, arms, hair, legs and feet. See if they like it in one place more than the other. I worked with a few kids who didn’t like to touch sand or seeds but they loved when I sipped it through their hair.
Wet sand: you can of course take molds and make different shapes and build it up to a castle or a road for your child’s favorite car.
You can bury your child’s feet or hands in the sand so they feel its heaviness (proprioceptive stimulaiton) or tie up some sand in a bag and around your child’s feet, on top of his shoulders or even around his waist.
if your child has a tendency to put their hands in mouth, perhaps you should use an edible version of a shaving foam such as whipped cream. Again, you can color it with food dye for more visual attraction, you can have your child put the foam all over the body, starting with foamy mustache or role play “how does mommy put her facial cream on her face?” or “how does daddy shave his beard?” and continue onto legs and arms. Add some natural scent (orange, lemon…) if you are using an edible version for the olfactory and gustative stimulation.
you can dip your plastic toys and give them a nice foamy bath and rinse them in water afterwards.
all of these can be done outdoors, while child sitting in a tub or on the pebbles.
if you don’t have pebbles around your house, consider using grass or other unstable surfaces such as a balance board.
summer is a great time to be barefoot. There is very less chance your child will get a cold due to walking barefoot in the summer season. Exactly the opposite, walking barefoot could do a lot of good to your child so use at least this season for that. If your home heating system is good enough, you can have your child barefoot even during the winter inside your home.
opportunities are endless: walking on the sand, pebbles, small stones and if you are brave enough, you can have the child walk on the pine tree needles (be careful, some insects like to hide in there!), shallow part of the sea or lake and through the grass!
you can have your child be barefoot in a park too, if you find that socially acceptable.
Hot & Cold: You can give your child some ice (be careful!) to play with, see it melt or spread it on his body. You can also dye it with some food colors for more visual fun. To make it even better, use some fruits to color it and you ask the child to lick it as Popsicle. On the other extreme, no, I am not suggesting you should have your child play with fire, but let them feel the warmth by walking barefoot in the sun (don’t let them burn their feet though! Concrete floor and stone can get pretty hot so be careful. Try it yourself before letting your kids do it). Let them put some ice on a hot surface (again, be careful and always around your child for safety measures!) and see it melt. Let them see you cook and try putting their hand high above the cooking pot so they feel the vapor but can’t get hurt. Can’t emphasize the safety measures enough for these ideas!
Summer is great because even if your child spills something, it will get fried quickly. Oops! Lapsus calami. I meant, dried! This just tells you what temperatures we’re currently having in Croatia. Kids can spend most of their time outdoors and enjoy the natural sensory play. I’ll keep adding activities as I do them myself with my niece, nephew and son.
A mother of a boy with autism asked me once right there in the middle of a session: “What’s the point of him swinging so much, I can do that with him in the park?” As I went deeper and deeper into explaining the concepts of sensory integration and why her son needed the vestibular input and how swinging would help him in school, a parallel train of thought started unwinding in my head. Does this lady see the big picture here? There she was, a gorgeous, polished and relatively young mother of this boy. She was always very polite and in the mood for at least a small talk. She rarely stayed in the sensory room but when she had questions, she would stay inside and I would take some time from the session to talk to her and make these concepts a little bit more close to her. So, after many years of explanations from my boss, and a couple of extra years of explanations from me, she kept asking the same question: “Why are you letting him swing so much, I can go to the park and let him swing there for free.” Now, let me just be clear about this, she was definitely not a stingy lady, just the opposite. So, for all those who can’t see the forest for the trees… What’s the point of sensory integration therapy?
Sensory integration has practically one ultimate goal, with small goals in between. The ultimate goal is to help children with any kind of developmental disorder or delay learn. When a child has sensory deficits, they find learning to be very tiring, tough, uninteresting etc. One very important goal that helps us getting to the learning process is the (self)regulation. This is a very tricky one. It is the one that is very individual and rarely you will find a nice and simple equation to get to the regulation and self-regulation point in a child. One day jumping and rolling on the floor will be a bingo, but tomorrow that might cause a tantrum.
Piaget nicely indicated that play is the work of children. They learn a lot better when actively participating as oppose to being told what to do. So, what’s a better way of helping children in their journey to the land of knowledge than the sensory smart play. I follow the child’s interests, observe their sensory appetite and I try using that to help them learn new things; whether a skill, or a word. Some children can only function and learn while getting their stimuli whereas some children are ok with being stimulated first and then afterwards successfully getting the task done. So, in order to get the cognitive tasks done which are on a higher level, we need to sort the basics that our body needs first.
I’ll try making this even more clear. In order to successfully learn, you need to be ok with your sensory self. You don’t need to be perfect and rarely somebody is. But people and children with a more substantial sensory disorder will find learning very tough. However, we can learn to compensate our sensory deficits to be able to function normally with every day challenges (taking a shower, putting clothes on and getting out of the house, getting a haircut, sitting in a class, having coffee in a crowded mall, cooking a spicy dish, reading a book, writing a paper, etc.). So, this is the big picture: settling the sensory basics for the higher cognitive tasks such as learning.
And just an FYI… If you ask me, sensory integration, yes, it can be a therapy, but I would rather if parents and adults used it as a lifestyle. Think, breathe and live (and play!) in a sensory way. Don’t wait for those one or two hours a week for your OT to work with your child and help them regulate. Talk to your child’s therapists, learn from them about your child’s sensory needs and implement them all the time: while the child is eating, when the child needs to brush his teeth and go to bed, on your way to the preschool, etc. I don’t think a parent should necessarily acquire a role of a therapist, actually better if not, if possible. But, hopefully you play with your child anyway, why not making it sensory friendly in your own home or a park. So, to answer the question that a patient’s mother asked: if I let your child swing as much as his brain needs, that will regulate him and thus he will learn better. And yes, I would love it if you would take him to the park to swing more, whenever the boy wants and needs (I only assume his biggest need would be before and after his classes).