The Ultimate List of Sensory Toys

by Cara Koscinski MOT, OTR/L May 24, 2017

The Ultimate List of Sensory Toys

Every human deals with stress and responds to information received from the environment differently. Some of us chew ice or hard candy to keep from dozing off in a meeting, others tap their fingers or feet when feeling bored or impatient. The current "spinner" craze demonstrates how many of us need to fidget in order to pay attention. Each of us reacts in different ways because we integrate and process the information we obtain from our senses on an individual basis. Many of us process information we receive without thinking about it. For example, when we touch something sticky we simply lick it off of our hands or wash it off. On the contrary, children and adults with sensory processing disorder may experience pain or discomfort when getting messy, with un-expected touch, during movement, and in noisy situations. 

What is Regulation?

One of the jobs of occupational therapists is to help people with SPD to regulate their body for optimal function. Self-regulation is the way we receive messages through our nervous system and then turn them into movements and behavioral responses that fit the situation we are in. For example, many people with sensory processing difficulties have trouble with touch. When someone unexpectedly brushes up against them in a crowded area, a danger signal may be released. A panic-type reaction can occur. On the other hand, there are people with SPD who crave sensory information and often crash or bump into objects. Either way, the response to touch does not ‘match’ the situation or as a result, behavioral issues can occur. Some people with SPD may have difficulty controlling impulses and delaying what they want to do so that they can adapt to their environment. It’s not until we are regulated and paying attention comfortably that we are able to access learning and higher functions of the brain. It is for this reason that we cannot teach children or even reason with them when they are having a behavioral issue or tantrum. We must wait for them to get to a calmer state so then can truly hear what we are saying.

Our daily lives are full of changes and unexpected situations that we must deal with. If we become stressed or upset when the slightest change occurs, we will not be able to function and can experience a meltdown. This can come when we are either over-stimulated or under-stimulated. For example, if you feel sleepy during your work day, you may drink a cup of coffee or go outside for some fresh air. Children cannot go outside when they want to during their school day so we can help them to become more alert by giving them movement breaks to increase oxygen to the brain. Sensory Processing Disorder can occur in any person on its own or can come along with (be co-morbid with) many other disorders such as autism, ADHD, learning disorders, and brain injuries. One study states that one in twenty children have SPD. Some individuals with SPD are "seekers", or need a great deal of sensory stimulation and input, and others are "avoiders", or tend to be super-responsive to any sensory information. Remember that some people are seekers in some sensory areas, such as needing movement and making noise with their mouths BUT avoid areas such as avoiding touch and have very limited diets. To help with changes and transitions between activities and to make sure  individuals keep their emotional state in a state of being ‘ready’ to learn, sensory activities completed on a regular basis are recommended. 

How Do Sensory Activities or Sensory Diets Help?

You may have heard of a sensory diet. It’s not a food diet, but a regular set of activities designed to regulate or keep the sensory system organized in attempt to avoid drastic ups and downs in response to the world around us. Both children and adults can benefit from regular activities peppered throughout the day. In fact, when use our senses together, we are more likely to learn! (Fifer, Barutchu, Shivdasani, & Crewther, 2013). It’s important to remember that no activity should be forced upon anyone so the activities need to be fun. An occupational therapist specializes in creating a personalized sensory diet designed to fit a person’s needs. The point of the diet is to use specific types of input to the eyes, ears, hands, body, for movement, position in space, nose, and taste. The activities are completed throughout the day to release brain chemicals on a regular basis to maintain regulation or organization. Many have reported improved focus, learning, less tantrums, better behavior, calmer feelings, and increased attention among many other positive benefits.

The following list contains activities you can add every few hours to a child’s daily schedule. Mix and match to make sure you keep things interesting and fun. Most of the items on the list can be purchased on Amazon, at local craft stores, or on many of the therapy catalogue websites. Simply complete an internet search for the name and choose the safest and most affordable option. Keep in mind that a sensory activity diet must be designed by an occupational therapist to fit your child’s specific needs. Therapists know if your child is a sensory seeker, avoider, or mixed. There are also many types of SPD that involve coordination, motor planning (making a movement plan and carrying it out), and postural/stability concerns. Specific activities placed strategically can help improve these skills as well. Ask your child to help choose each item’s color and involve them as much as possible in planning the sensory diet. 

Activities for the Hands (Touch/Tactile).

  • Play-Doh
  • Therapy putty
  • Bins filled with:
    • Kinetic sand
    • Cut up pool noodles
    • Dried/uncooked rice
    • Water beads
    • Soil
    • Pom-poms
    • Shredded paper
    • Foam pieces
    • Sticky slime
    • Sand/water table
    • Easter grass
    • Salt
    • Ribbon
  • Brush skin (not too hard) with soft brushes (commonly called surgical brushes pictured to the left)
  • Spaghetti balls
  • Stress balls
  • Tangle fidgets
  • Jacob's ladder
  • Wooden puzzles that are designed for fidgeting
  • Light-up squeeze balls
  • Balls or balloons filled with beads, sand, or other smooth smaller items
                 
  • Squigglets fuzzy fidgets (see above photo)
  • Finger paints                                      
  • Pop-Toobs
  • Rainbow noodle balls
  • Therapy band
  • Stretchy men, animals, shapes                                 
  • Silly bands
  • Popping pepper frog
  • Erasers of all shapes and sizes
  • Guidecraft’s feel and find set
  • Pieces of fur
  • Felt pieces
  • Learning resources gears
  • Rubber keychains
  • Wooden and other lacing beads
  • Straws and connectors
  • Tinker toys
  • Wikki sticks
  • Awesome flakes disc building set
  • Bubble wrap
  • Pencil topper fidgets (come in many shapes and types)
  • Pop-it toys
  • Ones cubes or any cube that can be found at a teacher supply store that snaps together
  • Legos
  • K’nex
  • Erector Sets
  • Pick-up sticks
  • Marble runs
  • Squigz

Activities for the Whole Body

  • Trampoline
  • Air cushion seats
  • Jump rope
  • Hula hoop
  • Push-ups
  • Sit-ups
  • Wall and chair push-ups
  • Pool noodle (when cut in half can serve as a balance beam)
  • Twister game
  • Cranium Hullaballoo game
  • Swimming
  • Toss/catch a ball
  • Bubble baths
  • YOGA
  • Wagon
  • Scooter/Skateboard
  • Scooter boards
  • Sliding board
  • Animal walks
  • Tricycles/bikes
  • Swings of ALL types
    • Remember that linear (back and forth swinging) is generally calming and rotary (circular like a tire swing) is alerting and can really stimulate a child. Pictured is Harkla’s Hanging Pod Swing  
                

                                 
       
    • Lycra body socks or sewn in a circle so kids can push against it
    • Crawling through play tunnels
    • Hop-scotch
    • Sports
    • Karate
    • Moon shoes
    • Monkey bars
    • Plasma car
    • Balance boards
    • River stones

     

     

    • Bilibo seat (see above photo)
    • Hopper balls
    • Therapy/exercise balls

    Auditory Products


    • Earplugs
    • Flarp (noise putty)
    • Musical instruments
    • Drums of all shapes and sizes
    • Sacred Earth drum CD
    • Music for mindfulness/YOGA/meditation to calm
    • Classical music
    • Boomwhackers (see photo)

     

    Oral-Motor (for kids who need to chew or kids who are picky eaters)

    • ARK therapeutic makes many chews
    • Chewbeads
    • Chewelry
    • Chew Stix
    • Blowing bubbles 
    • Encourage kids to play with their food. Even a lick or taste is better than resisting or gagging at the sight of a specific food.
    • Whistles and horns
    • Drink through small straws
    • Electric toothbrushes
    • Z-vibe
    • Each therapy company makes their own brand, type, color of oral-motor products for all ages
    • ARK’s bear cup kit

    Visual Products

    • Water beads (see photo below)

                 

    • Ooze tube
    • Zig Zag water maze
    • Liquid motion water toys
    • Spirograph
    • Light Bright
    • Puzzles
    • Mazes
    • Eye-Spy activities
    • Lava lamps (be careful, they get hot!)
    • Light and movement projectors
    • Bubble tubes

    Smell/Olfactory

    • Essential oils *Be careful with lavender as it’s been known to cause breast/hormone issues in young men
    • Scented dough
    • Shaving crème play
    • Messy food play
    • Scented markers
    • Smencils
    • Loomi Bandz (see photo)

                 

    • Scented bubbles
    • Scented ARK chewies
    • Scented lip balm/chap stick

     

    Light and Deep Touch to the Body

                 

    • Weighted blankets (see photo for Harkla’s exclusive blanket)  
    • Weighted lap pads
    • SPIO compression garments (ask your OT for wear times/schedule)
    • Under Armor or snug-fitting t-shirts and undergarments
    • Ball Pits
    • Massagers that vibrate (can be found in therapy catalogues in all shapes and sizes for kids and adults see photo)
    • Rolling massage tools
    • Roll tennis ball on back and all over body
    • Scalp massager (looks like an egg beating kitchen tool)
    • Back scratchers
    • Cozy-knit of seamless clothing
    • Weighted vests (ask your OT for wearing times)

    Conclusion

    Remember that your child’s behavior is a form of communication. A qualified occupational therapist can help to tease out SPD issues in order to help improve behavior. SPD can stand alone or co-exist with many medical, cognitive, and stress-related conditions. When provided correctly, and if the child’s system responds well, sensory integration therapy can significantly help people live with an improved quality of life. Read our article about Sensory Integration Therapy (SPD) here

    It’s important to understand that everyone’s system responds differently to each of the products we’ve listed. Never force a child to engage in a sensory activity that they are resistant to. Child-driven play is critical with the sensory integration theory. Your reaction, as well as your child’s, will vary depending on experiences, genetics, and sensory processing skills. The most important thing is to have fun exploring together!

    Cara Koscinski MOT, OTR/L
    Cara Koscinski MOT, OTR/L

    Pediatric occupational therapist, Cara Koscinski, MOT, OTR/L, author of The Pocket Occupational Therapist Book Series, is a veteran clinician of 20+ years specializing in Sensory Processing Disorder, reflex integration, trauma informed care, and autism. She obtained her Master of Occupational Therapy degree in 1997 from Duquesne University. In addition to her longstanding work as a private practice OT, Cara is a successful entrepreneur, having started two companies. Her products can be found in special needs catalogues and websites across the US and UK. Cara’s latest venture is The Pocket Occupational Therapist Book Series. As an author, Cara brings her expertise as a pediatric occupational therapist and mother of two children with autism to parents, caregivers, families, and educators in an easy-to-read, easy-to-follow format. All five books are available at The Pocket Occupational Therapist website at http://www.pocketot.com and on Amazon.


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