Sensational Summer – Sensory and Movement Activities to Reduce Stress and Improve Sensory Processing
In my last blog post, Coping with Changes in Routines, I talked about ways to support an autistic person with changes in the summer schedule and routines. Summer is also a great time to explore the outdoors, try new sensory activities and enjoy a more relaxed pace. Let’s explore some sensory activities that can help reduce stress while improving sensory processing and quality of life.
Introduce Seasonal Foods Through Cooking and Gardening Activities
There are two activities that we had our autistic son, Marc, do that changed the scope of his diet. One was volunteering for 9 seasons at a local farmer’s market where he got to meet the growers and get close to a variety of fruits and vegetables without the sensory overload of seeing them in a grocery store. He began associating eating fruits and vegetables with the pride he felt in having the job.
The second thing was enrolling Marc in a horticulture class. He grew his own fruits and veggies, harvested them, and made seasonal recipes. A soup and salad eater was born – two things I was never able to introduce successfully before this class.
Gardening can also help improve fine and gross motor skills. Here are some examples of activities you can do:
- The Wheelbarrow – moving dirt, rocks, or debris counts as heavy work and can build muscles in both arms and legs.
- Digging – build endurance and hand dexterity; can also reduce tactile defensiveness.
- Pulling Weeds – develops arm and hand strength and postural stability.
- Raking – good for bilateral coordination.
- Watering with a watering can – good for bilateral coordination if using two hands strengthens arms.
- Planting Seeds – fine motor coordination.
- Pinching Plants – the pincer grasp is used to pinch off dead leaves or flowers.
- Picking – depending on what you are picking, a different touch and gradation will be needed. Raspberries require more delicacy, apples need more coaxing.
- Pulling – vegetables that grow in the ground will need more strength to get them out like potatoes and carrots.
Outdoor Sensory Play Ideas
There are loads of inexpensive ideas for outdoor sensory play. You can also engage in messy play without too much fuss outside.
Sandbox – Sand play is great for digging, dumping, pouring, building and creating things like roads, towns, castles, and pretend pies. There are many clever, simple ways to create a sandbox. For different ideas on what to do with sand or rice for those who don’t like sand, have a look at this article.
Water Play – Most children love playing with water. It’s a gentle, quiet medium and feels wonderful as it runs through your fingers. Have a look at these 25 water play activities.
Blowing Bubbles – Blowing bubbles works on oral motor skills by strengthening the mouth muscles. Popping bubbles is great for hand-eye coordination and finger isolation. You can also practice social skills like turn taking or requesting. There are so many different kinds of bubbles available and they really appeal to children.
Velcro Ball Toss – This game is great for hand-eye coordination because of the tossing and catching of the ball. It also takes hand strength to pull the ball off the Velcro pad.
Sidewalk Chalk – Most kids find sidewalk chalk so much fun they won’t even know they are practicing skills like handwriting or drawing shapes and lines. You can draw a Tic-Tac Toe game to practice tossing and aim, a hopscotch board for movement on one and two feet and much more!
Zoom Ball – This is a great activity to work on bilateral skills. One person holds one end of the zoom ball, and another person hold the other end. While holding the handles, one in each hand, one partner spreads his arms out to the side and the ball slides down the rope to the other partner. You can do fast and slow movements.
Spray Bottle – Fill a spray bottle with water to improve fine motor strength. Water plants, clean off sidewalk chalk markings, wash windows or shine up the car.
Physical activity reduces stress and anxiety. Engaging in movement is an important part of supporting regulation. Here are some ideas to get moving:
Obstacle Course – You can target all kinds of skills with an obstacle course depending on how you set it up. It can involve running, jumping, climbing, crawling and all sorts of gross motor skills.
Hide and Go Seek – A classic childhood game for both indoors and outdoors or a combination of both.
Marching Band – This one can be a bit noisy for the neighbors, but it’s still great fun. You can combine the outdoor marching band with an instrument making activity.
A Treasure Hunt – Arm kids with a map or simple visual clues to find the hidden treasure throughout the yard. You can incorporate lots of movement depending on where you hide things.
Cycling – Riding a bike is a great physical activity, but not everyone can master the balance or think of all the road rules quickly. We ended up buying tandem bikes in order to ride safely.
Sports for the Backyard or Driveway:
- Bean bag toss
If a person is not used to moving and you need some ideas to start physical activity, think about trying:
- Walking to the corner store to get a few things.
- Walking the dog.
- Walking to school or the library.
- Creating a family routine like shooting some hoops after dinner or walking to a nearby park.
- Introducing little body breaks throughout the day – 5 minutes on a mini-trampoline in between activities, running on the spot during a TV commercial, set an alarm on a phone to get up and move for a few minutes every hour.
The ideas here are inexpensive and easy to implement – they also build skills, support sensory integration, and keep learning happening. Just remember to provide structure for activities so that the expectations of what and how to do the activity are clear. You can put outdoor activities into your visual schedules and make them a part of a child’s day. Outdoor activities are also a great way to practice contingency plans because if the weather changes, you have to be prepared to go to plan B.
Being outside can reduce anger, fear and stress, and contributes to physical well-being by reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones such as cortisol. Outdoor activity can also support a better sleep at night.
I wish everyone a safe and sensational summer! I’ll be taking a writing break and will be back to blogging later in August.
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