Sensory Diets and Physical Activity

Every day we continuously process sensations: when we eat a sandwich, talk with friends, walk past an Abercrombie & Fitch, scan our social media, or take a class. For some people, the sensory signals from these and other activities are either not processed or are not processed correctly. This is called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). It can affect just one sense, such as sound, or multiple senses, such as sound, touch, and taste.

Recent studies have found that SPDs affect 5 to 16 percent of school-aged children (Ahn, Miller, Milberger, McIntosh, 2004 and Ben-Sasson, Carter, Briggs-Gowen, 2009). Symptoms can include hypersensitivity to sensations, poor fine motor skills, and high distractibility. Sensory experiences can go in and out of favor from day to day; one day the sound of a vacuum can be unbearable, the next it is sought out. 

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As Elysa Marco MD, a cognitive and behavioral child neurologist at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, has observed, “Sometimes they are called the ‘out of sync’ kids. Their language is good, but they seem to have trouble with just about everything else, especially emotional regulation and distraction.”1

It is important to remember that sensory and motor activities are crucial for social participation, self-regulation, and self-esteem & self-confidence. SPD can greatly decrease a person’s joy from life by negatively impacting a person’s ability to process and perform these activities.2

So What Is a Sensory Diet?

First and foremost, a sensory diet has nothing to do with food. A sensory diet is a tool to help children and adults with SPDs. Sensory diets are a part of sensory integration therapy, which is preferably overseen by a licensed Occupational Therapist (OT). However, even if you do not have access to an OT, you can still incorporate the ideas of a sensory diet as long as you are careful, deliberate, and remember to keep it person-centered.

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A sensory diet is intended to help balance a child’s sensory needs so that they are better able to focus, stay organized, and feel calm. It is developed by noting if and when a child is under-active or overactive, and providing activities to help them get to a “just right” state.3 By performing the activities that are a part of their sensory diet, a child can develop the skills to self-regulate their energy level, behavior, emotion and attention.4 In turn, these skills help develop independence.

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Sensory diets can include proprioceptive (heavy muscle work), tactile (touch), vestibular (movement), oral motor (mouth), visual (sight), and auditory (sound) activities. In this post, we are going to focus on physical activities: proprioceptive and vestibular. 

  • Proprioceptive: The sensations from joints, muscles and connective tissues that underlie body awareness. Activities include lifting, pushing, and/or pulling heavy objects, including one’s own weight
  • Vestibular: The sense of movement. Any type of movement will work, especially spinning, swinging, and hanging upside down. If vestibular sensitivities are a concern, be especially mindful about recognizing and preventing signs of nervous system overload

Keep These in Mind

There are some important points to keep in mind when designing and implementing a sensory diet:

  • It must be person-centered (considering the needs, history, and preferences of the individual)
  • You must carefully observe reactions to different stimuli and respect those reactions
  • Do not force participation in an activity
  • Consider and monitor the safety of activities
  • Watch for any sudden change in behavior or energy level; this may mean calming actions need to be taken (ex. wrapping up in a blanket, very slow rocking, big bear hug, snuggling in a big comfy chair, warm bath or shower)

The best way to approach these activities is to present some ideas to your child and allow their preferences to guide you. You may also find other similar ideas to add to your child’s list of personal favorites.5

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Sensory Diets at Home

As a caregiver, you can incorporate the physical aspects of a sensory diet for your child at home in many ways. Some example activities include: 

ErrandsPushing the cart
Carrying heavy items or bags
Putting items away
In the KitchenMixing ingredients
Kneading and rolling out dough
Carrying pots and pans
Tenderizing meat with the meat mallet
Around the HouseVacuuming
Moving the furniture
Carrying the laundry basket or the detergent
Moving wet laundry to the dryer
Taking dry laundry out of the dryer
Washing windows or tables
Raking leaves
Digging for gardening or landscaping
Photo by Jennifer Murray from Pexels
Play Time Walking with a partially full wagon or doll stroller 
Swimming in a pool or at the beach
Playing hopscotch, jump rope, or tug-of-war
Bowling
Playing on equipment in a park
Jumping on trampolines
Making up obstacle courses in the house/yard that incorporate crawling, jumping, hopping, skipping, rolling, etc.
Miscellaneous Spinning on an office chair
Riding a carousel
Running in circles
Going on amusement park rides that spin
Swinging on a hammock
Doing cartwheels
Dancing
Performing flips and somersaults while swimming
Doing jumping jacks
Giving or receiving big bear hugs
Climbing activities
Lifting age-appropriate free weights
Drumming
Rolling or pushing a ball up a wall
Performing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” or other songs that change head position
Log rolling
Riding a bicycle, tricycle, or scooter
Other jumping activities
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Sensory Diets in the Classroom

  • Allow the child to stand at the table while working
  • Provide lots of opportunities for movement
  • Play catch with a big ball or pillow
  • Provide recess
  • Have the child carry something heavy, such as books or a filled bag
  • Provide activities for pouring materials such as beans, rice, etc.
  • Have the child press against a wall or push a chair across the room
  • Let the child take brief walks at specified intervals
  • Jumping jacks, jumping in place, or push-ups
  • Allow opportunities to stretch, particularly after quiet activities
  • Incorporate yoga, Brain Gym (educational kinesiology a.k.a. movement therapy), or other opportunities for movement throughout the day, particularly before starting activities which will require the child to follow instructions or be still
  • Provide inflatable cushions to allow the child to wiggle when seated
  • Help the child learn how to use play equipment appropriately
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Key Points

  • A sensory diet helps a child focus, stay organized, and feel calm. It allows them the opportunity to develop the skills to self-regulate their energy level, behavior, emotion, and attention. In turn, these skills will help them to develop independence.
  • A sensory diet must be person-centered or uniquely fit for the particular child and their individual needs, history, preferences, and other factors.
  • A sensory diet is ideally created, monitored, and adjusted through collaboration with an occupational therapist, but can be incorporated into the school and home easily by finding activities that allow the child to move, create tension within their body, and can help them release energy before periods of quiet, focused time.
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

References and Additional Resources

1 Bunim, J. (2013, July 9). Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/07/107316/breakthrough-study-reveals-biological-basis-sensory-processing-disorders-kids

2 STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder. Latest Research Findings. Retrieved from https://www.spdstar.org/basic/latest-research-findings

3 Kelly, K. “Sensory Diet” Treatment: What You Need to Know [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/treatments-approaches/therapies/sensory-diet-treatment-what-you-need-to-know

4 Kid Sense. Sensory Diet. Retrieved from https://childdevelopment.com.au/areas-of-concern/sensory-processing/sensory-diet/

5 Miller-Kuhaneck, H. Home Activities. Retrieved from https://www.spdstar.org/basic/home-activities

Raising a Sensory Smart Child. Sensory Diet Activities. Retrieved from https://www.sensorysmarts.com/sensory_diet_activities.html

Special School District of St. Louis County. Sample of a Sensory Diet. Retrieved from https://www.ssdmo.org/cool_tools/inclusive/Resources/trying_to_make_sense_resources.pdf

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