The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Diets - Activities, Templates, and More

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC November 24, 2020

Everything you need to know about sensory diets

The term "sensory" is all the rage right now on social media and in the classroom. But what does that even mean? Does it apply to you or your child?

What do you need to know about sensory diets to help your child thrive across all environments?

Let’s Talk about Sensory Processing Disorder

Are you the person chewing gum or fidgeting with a pen during a meeting at work? Do you ever take a walk or drink coffee to stay alert and make it through the afternoon? Maybe you bounce your feet under the table or have a serious commitment to working out?

When you do these things, you’re providing your body with the sensory input it needs to remain focused and attentive throughout the day.

Who would have thought?

It’s our natural instinct to regulate and do what we need in order to feel most alert and focused.

For children with sensory processing challenges, they might need more oral input than just chewing gum. They might seem like they’re bouncing off the walls. They might refuse to touch "normal" things that could get their hands or face messy. Without exposure to the input they need or refuse, they will likely struggle to demonstrate expected behavior, remain alert, and keep their bodies organized and in control. They might become overstimulated and hide from sensory input as well.

According to the Star Institute, “Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) exists when sensory signals are either not detected or don't get organized into appropriate responses.”

We like to think of these signals as roads throughout the body. When there’s a lot of traffic, maybe a traffic jam, and the cars aren’t able to efficiently drive where they need to be, it causes quite a conundrum!

Unfortunately, SPD is not a recognized diagnosis in the DSM-5… yet! We are hopeful that one day it will be. However, it’s important to note that anyone can have sensory processing challenges without an official diagnosis.

If you'd like to learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder, we wrote a longer post breaking it down: The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder.


How can you help a child with sensory processing challenges?

The first tool to help children struggling with sensory processing is empathy. Recognizing and understanding that what they’re feeling is REAL. They need to feel validated and heard, and they need to know that you're there to help them.

Imagine the sound of nails running down a chalkboard. You know that feeling you get in your spine? Goosebumps. Maybe your shoulders elevate and you can’t tolerate it for more than a second before you get up and walk away.

That’s a good representation of how individuals feel with SPD and sensory processing challenges. That’s why we say empathize!

But we have to remember, EVERYONE has a sensory system and we all process those messages uniquely to our own nervous system!

We like to say, “Put your sensory goggles on!” There are sensory experiences to be aware of in every moment of every day. When you start to see the world with your Sensory Goggles on, you will appreciate the sensory system so much more!

Some people can tolerate other people chewing nearby. Others have to leave the room. Some people can tolerate pumpkin guts touching their hands when carving a pumpkin, others will gag. There’s a difference between having some sensory quirks and having true SPD.

Child with SPD

Sensory processing challenges will affect each person differently. When a person is "diagnosed’ with SPD (remember, SPD isn't a true diagnosis, but more of a description of the person’s needs), they often don’t recognize or understand the sensory input they need to regulate their body and mind. When a person simply has a sensory quirk or some sensory processing challenges, it likely won’t impact their ability to function on a daily basis. They can give their body what they need, such as chewing gum or fidgeting with a pen, like we talked about earlier.

When the sensory challenges significantly impact the person’s ability to get through daily tasks, such as getting dressed, eating meals, going to the bathroom, or brushing their teeth, it becomes an issue that needs to be addressed. 


When Occupational Therapy Comes into Play

An Occupational Therapist (OT) and an Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) will evaluate your child’s sensory system and create a treatment plan for the child receiving services. Based on a variety of standardized tests, clinical observations, and rapport building, a sensory diet can be created for the child.

So you’ve heard the term "sensory diet". But what the heck does that even mean?!


What is a Sensory Diet?

A sensory diet has nothing to do with food!

A Sensory Diet is a treatment plan full of sensory activities which tailored to the child so they receive the specific sensory input they need. The idea is to get the body and brain into a “just right” state of arousal.

If you’re familiar with The Zones of Regulation, this would mean being in the Green Zone. Check out The Zones of Regulation! If you use the Alert Program, this would mean being in the Just Right section.

    Children with sensory processing challenges typically need more input than they receive on a daily basis, which is why we see “behaviors”. These children are oftentimes labeled as the “naughty” or “bad” kids.

    Sensory Diet Activities

    A Sensory Diet is designed to give the child the input they need, at different times throughout the day for specific activities -- school, homework, meal time, and bedtime. The idea is to incorporate these different physical and sensory activities into the daily routine, throughout the day.

    They need to be fun and motivating to the child -- so the child doesn’t refuse but instead feels HAPPY and CONFIDENT. We want the child to recognize how great they feel when they are regulated and how beneficial these activities are for them.

    Frequency is important to help the child’s sensory system maintain that “just right” state while also not getting overloaded.

    Intensity of various activities depends on the child and how much input their body needs.

    Sensory Diet activities should:

    • Be goal directed
    • Incorporate specific “stops” and “starts”
    • Incorporate a variety of sensory input including movement and heavy work
    • Incorporate other senses such as touch, taste, scent, hearing
    • Be choice based - allow the child to choose preferred sensory tasks
    • Utilize a visual tool or schedule

    The OT and/or OTA can help design a sensory diet specific to the child.

    Creating a sensory diet for your child

    Children with high arousal levels may need lots of proprioceptive based activities. Proprioceptive input is calming to the sensory and nervous system. Things that involve pushing, pulling, or "heavy work" are considered good proprioceptive input.

      Children with low arousal levels may need lots of vestibular based activities. Vestibular input is alerting to the sensory and nervous system. Things that involve swinging, jumping, spinning or running are great vestibular input.

        By the age of 10, children can do well with 10-minute breaks about every 2 hours. This means completing a sensory diet routine every 2-3 hours.

        Keep track of how the child’s affect changes. Are they more focused? More dysregulated? This will help the OT/OTA determine if changes need to be made to the Sensory Diet.

          Younger children and those with cognitive impairments may need input more frequently. Sensory Seekers typically need longer breaks- sensory diets with a longer duration- than Over-Responders or Under-Responders.

          For more information on the subtypes of Sensory Modulation, check out this podcast episode!

          Here’s a list of some of our favorite Sensory Diet Activities for each sensory system!

          Proprioceptive Input:

          • Animal walks (bear crawl, seal walk, lizard crawl, frog hopping, etc)
          • Wheelbarrow walking
          • Pushing/pulling a laundry basket full of books or toys around the room
          • Climbing a rock wall
          • Steamrolling with a therapy ball or cushion
          • Wearing wrist or ankle weights
          • Vibration
          • Weighted blankets
          • Weighted vests
            Vestibular Input:
            • Jumping on a trampoline
            • Swinging
            • Rolling down a grassy hill
            • Somersaulting
              Tactile Input:
              • Sensory bins full of a variety of textures (shredded paper, corn, pudding, etc)
              • Messy play
              • Vibration
              • Slime or putty
                Auditory Input:
                Oral Input:
                • Chewing gum
                • Blowing-through-a-straw games
                • Bubble mountain
                • Drinking smoothies through a straw
                • A variety of food flavors- sour, sweet, spicy
                  Olfactory Input:
                  Visual Input:
                  • Wearing sunglasses or a baseball cap
                  • Spinning Tops
                  • Eye Spy games
                  • Sand Timers
                  • Games like Spot it

                  Here’s a list of some of our favorite products we use during sensory diets:

                  • Move Your Body Fun Deck Cards 
                  • Sensory Diet Flash Card Deck 
                  • Upper Body and Core Strength Flash Cards
                  • Yogarilla Exercises and Activities 
                  • Yogarilla Fun Deck
                  • Arks Z-Vibe Single
                  • Arks Z-Vibe Kit
                  • Body Sock Sensory Sack
                  • Bean Bag Chair
                  • Compression Pants
                  • Compression Shirt
                  • Chewy Lego Chew Necklace
                  • Harkla Hug
                  • Lycra Tunnel
                  • Textured Chewy
                  • Too Tarts Sugar Free Sour Candy Spray
                  • Warhead Super Spray Candy 
                  • Therapy Ball
                  • Weighted Vest
                  • Weighted Blanket
                  • Vibration Ball
                  • Spot It
                  • Vibrating Ankle Bands
                  • Painters Tape - yes painters tape! There are tons of ways to stimulate the senses with this one product. We have a Mini Activity course that helps.

                  For more in-depth information on sensory diets, make sure to check out our podcast and our Sensory DietCrash Course.

                  These books are also a must read. They are full of helpful information and activity ideas:

                  • The Out of Sync Child 
                  • The Out of Sync Child Has Fun 

                    Helpful Sensory Diet Resources and Tools

                    Creating Sensory Diet Cards

                      We love using the Brainworks Sensory Diet creator tool to make specific Sensory Diets for our clients. Simply drag and drop the sensory diet picture card, print, laminate, add velcro dots, and you have yourself a sensory diet! They also have pre-packaged and printed resources to use as well! Here’s a free webinarto help get you started!

                      Sensory Diet Checklist

                      Keep in mind, your child can have severe adverse reactions to sensory activities without knowing what their sensory needs are. Here’s a simple sensory diet checklist you can fill out to learn more about their unique sensory preferences… and yours too!

                      Sensory Challenges Quiz

                      Unsure if your child has sensory challenges or not? 

                      We created this Sensory Challenge Quiz to see if your child may have sensory challenges which a sensory diet may help with!


                      Sensory Diet Digital Course

                      If you're really ready to dive deep on Sensory Diets then our sensory diet course is a great place to start.

                      We run you through the different types of sensory inputs and how to tell which one your child needs right now. This is the best way to start implementing a personalized sensory diet at home for your child.

                      Or, if you're an OT, COTA, or educator looking to expand your sensory toolbox, this course is very helpful for that!

                      Click here to learn more about the Sensory Diet Course!


                      Want to Dive Deeper? Listen to Our Podcast Episode on Sensory Diets

                       Listen & Subscribe on Your Platform of Choice:

                      Don't miss this helpful video about our Top 5 Sensory Strategies On-The-Go!


                      We've also created a video all about Sensory Thresholds

                      If you'd like to learn about meeting the sensory threshold, make sure to watch our video!



                      Closing Thoughts

                      There’s no one size fits all approach to sensory diets. It takes consistency and patience to identify if a protocol is working or not. We suggest trying one sensory diet consistently for 2 weeks before modifying it or giving up completely.

                      Before you start implementing a sensory diet, we HIGHLY recommend consulting with an Occupational Therapist, like we discussed earlier. If your child’s sensory challenges are impeding their ability to get through daily tasks, they could benefit from the resources an OT has to share with you.

                      Make sure you’re working to reach your child’s sensory threshold! If they’re jumping off the walls and seem out of control, give them a structured activity that gives them that same input, rather than implementing an activity to try to calm them down.

                      Their sensory system is telling them that they need more input, more jumping, running, crashing, etc. Once you’ve provided the sensory input and met their threshold, then you can implement more of the ‘just right’ or ‘calm down’ activities to regulate their system.

                      If you've had success with using a sensory diet to meet your child's needs, we'd love to hear about it!


                      Related Sensory Articles on Harkla

                      If you found this article useful, you may like our other articles about Sensory Processing Disorder:


                      Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC
                      Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

                      Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC and Jessica Hill, COTA/L both Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA). They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Rachel and Jessica specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Rachel and Jessica are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Rachel and Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.

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