Supporting Sensory Development

Our world has changed dramatically in the past several months. Scheduled

activities outside the home are no longer driving our days. The sudden lack of

social engagements and predictable routines has left many of us struggling,

along with our children. But even in the midst of such a widespread crisis, we

can find opportunities to help our children thrive in perhaps once unexpected



Even in the midst of a crisis, we must find

opportunities to help our children thrive.

Young children develop best through directly engaging with their world,

moving and exploring with their senses and taking in information from their

environment. While we generally think of ourselves as having five senses, we

actually have seven: vision, hearing, taste, smell, tactile, vestibular, and

proprioceptive. Think of your vestibular sense as your body’s ability to

manage its balance and motion in space, while the proprioceptive sense

processes information on how individual parts of your body move, particularly

muscles and joints. Both of these operate at a subconscious level.

When we are born, our senses are present, but not yet fully organized and

developed. During the first 6 to 8 years of life, our brains learn how to filter a

continuous bombardment of sensory information, determining which pieces

pose a threat or serve another larger purpose. This process is known as

sensory integration (SI), and its coordination occupies more than 80% of our

nervous system. The result of this integration process is an organized brain,

which forms our perceptions, behaviors, and learning. If all goes well, by the

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time a child is in early elementary school, his senses are integrated

effectively enough to allow him to learn, attend, and self-regulate.

Children who can’t effectively regulate all of this sensory input or who are still

learning how to manage ongoing sensory stimulation often struggle with

related challenging behaviors. As educators and caregivers, we can help

children of a variety of ages fine-tune and maintain their sensory health.

Whether in a school or home environment, adults can provide tools to

promote healthy sensory development, thus guiding our children toward the

ultimate goal of self-regulation.

Young children are constantly exploring with all their senses, taking in information from

the environment.


Start with Movement

Children are internally driven to move.

A logical place to begin promoting SI is by providing frequent opportunities for

movement, ideally whole-body, unstructured play multiple times a day.

However, a variety of movement opportunities is also important. Children are

internally driven to run, jump, swing, climb, balance, and spin, especially

outdoors. They need to be upside down, to bounce, to crawl as well as walk,

and to stretch, slide, and use active tools such as bicycles, scooters, and

skates. And yes, sometimes this can mean they even need to take

developmentally appropriate risks in active play. Why? Learning to evaluate

and manage these risks will help them to develop confidence, problem solving

abilities, and resilience.


Particularly during this time when many children are engaging daily with

screens for educational purposes, parents may find that helping their children

physically engage with their environment is more challenging than ever.

Provide a dedicated time each day for children to move, fully separated from

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electronics. Here are some ideas for materials and activities that can be

utilized at home, both inside and outside:

A climbing rope, tree swing, or tire swing allows children to climb, spin,

and swing at home.


Mini trampolines, spinning toys (such as a Sit’n Spin), balance boards, or

hopper balls encourage bouncing and balancing.

A hanging bar or indoor swing (such as a cuddle swing, rocker, or swing

chair) can help children both expend energy and settle down, especially

on days when you have to be inside.

A child-sized wheelbarrow with a shovel inspires “heavy” work. Two-liter

bottles (filled with water) or an old set of encyclopedias, books, or

magazines are easily accessible items that children could move or carry.

(Be sure to structure the activity appropriately for your child’s size and


A sensory table could be made with 1 or 2 dishpans filled with materials

that you can change each day—e.g., sand, dried beans, pasta, rice,

shaving cream, water, beads of varied sizes, popcorn, shredded paper,

packing peanuts.

A variety of fine-motor and art materials, such as clay or dough in

multiple textures, painting and drawing (vertically on a wall or easel as

well as flat on a table), and practical life activities (stringing beads,

pouring between two containers, transferring using tweezers or a spoon)

should be provided and periodically rotated.

Give opportunities for both structured movement (such as yoga, a dance

class, sports, or an obstacle course) and unstructured, active play time when

children lead the way. Movement periods don’t always have to be lengthy;

taking short “brain breaks” in the midst of other activities can help children

(and parents) reset attention and come back ready to re-engage.

Children need whole-body, unstructured play multiple times a day.

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Look at the Physical Environment

At home, you have the flexibility to think about the

needs of your particular children.

When teachers design a classroom environment, they have to support a

broad range of learners. At home, you have more flexibility to think about the

needs of your particular children, but you also need to support them over

multiple years of their development. Take a look at your own home as you

consider some of the following environmental factors, and then think about

some small adjustments you might make for your particular child(ren).

Room layout: Is there space for children to be noisier / quieter, to work

individually / with others?

Variety of activities: Do children have choices of activities, whether in

level of stimulation, physical engagement (e.g., gross or fine motor,

standing or sitting), or interaction with others?

Visual organization: Are toys and materials clearly organized and

accessible by children without adult assistance? Do walls and other

surfaces have a balance of filled and empty space, to allow for visual

rest? Are both natural and incandescent lighting available, at a variety of

heights and levels of intensity? Can children help maintain their own wellordered


Seating considerations and “time in” options: Do children have chairs,

stools, and / or floor seating available, some specifically designed for

their size, and in a variety of textures, heights, and levels of firmness? Is

there a quiet, individual space where the child can choose to go to

“reset”, perhaps with a rocking chair, headphones (with or without music),

fish bowl, and hand-size fidgets (e.g., squeeze balls of varying textures

and firmness levels)?

Whatever your environment, providing your child with daily routines, clear

expectations with age-appropriate supports, and well-planned transitions

(with advance, repeated notice, particularly for younger children) will give

predictable structure to the day and help your child know what to expect. Just

as we adults feel more in control when we know what is coming, so do our

children. Transitions become less of a struggle when children are prepared

for them early and often.

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Children also need places and times of quiet to “reset”.

Promote Independence and Responsibility

Independence, balanced with responsibility, is an

incredibly useful tool for children.

One opportunity available to us particularly during this unusual period is

promoting independence in our young children. Our 21st century American

culture typically has us running from place to place and activity to activity,

with all too little downtime for both ourselves and our children. Ageappropriate

independence, balanced with responsibility, is an incredibly

useful tool for children, one that ties intimately to the self-regulation required

for them to be successful in school, and ultimately in life. Both independence

and responsibility must be developed sequentially, consistently, and over an

extended period of time in which the child can direct and manage her own


As you begin thinking about how to promote independence at home, once

again consider aspects of both your environment and your child’s ability to

freely and purposefully move. Here are some places to start. You will need to

adjust as appropriate for your child’s age and developmental stage—but

remember that young children are generally much more capable than we give

them credit for!

Can my child provide for his own needs, such as access to water, healthy

snacks, and bathroom facilities, without my assistance?

Does my child have a quiet place to go to be alone, whether to enjoy

solitary activities, just sit and daydream, or to reset if needed? Does she

have access to this place whenever she desires or needs it?

How often does my child get uninterrupted time to himself to explore

activities that he chooses? For how long at a time?

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Is my child’s living and sleeping space structured so that she can access

and maintain it herself, from choosing clothes to wear to making her own

bed each day?

When my child has a challenge, does he have the opportunity to solve it


Children need uninterrupted time to explore activities of their own choice.

These do not mean that our children need unlimited freedom and

unsupervised or uncontrolled lives. Children have limited judgement, and we,

as the adults, are responsible to care for them and ensure their safety. But we

are able, with careful, conscious forethought, to help set up prepared

environments which support children’s developmental needs. Ultimately, this

will help them move toward an independent adulthood and prepare them for

future challenges.

Curious about other ways to support your child’s sensory development,

growing independence, and sense of responsibility, or to cultivate selfregulation

and resiliency? Please share those thoughts, and we will look for

opportunities to explore them further in future blog posts. In the meantime, I

hope that you are able to capitalize on this most unusual time to help your

children reconnect with simpler pleasures which will provide dividends for

years to come.

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Supporting children’s developmental needs ultimately helps prepare them for future



By Alicia Noddings

Topics: Physical Development, The Power of the Environment, Family


Date: June 16, 2020


Alicia Noddings, Ph.D., is Associate Dean of the School

of Education and Associate Professor of Education at

Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, MO, where she

teaches courses in classroom management, curriculum and instruction,

and educational psychology. Her dissertation work focused on

integrating sensory-promoting practices from occupational therapists

into PK-12 classrooms. Formerly, she has been a Montessori teacher

and teacher educator, early childhood music teacher, information

technology consultant, and principal and head of school.