Sensory development and activities for children older than 2 years

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Read about the sensory systems and how your child may be influenced by sensation. Activities and games such as listening to music, hugging, gentle rocking, swinging and movement input are provided.

Key points

  • Children have 8 sensory systems through which they gain information from the environment around them.
  • Understanding how children perceive and react to sensory input such as loud noise or fear of movement, helps adults choose appropriate activities to ensure they are comfortable to play and learn.

Every child develops at their own pace and may feel differently on different days. A child’s behavior can tell you what they need to feel safe.

The 8 sensory systems

Children take in sensory information (e.g. what they see or hear) from the environment around them, make sense of it and use it to help them understand themselves and how they can influence that environment. This helps them to participate in everyday activities such as play or sleep.

There are 8 sensory systems through which children gain information about their environments:

Boy playing in ball pit

Tactile system (touch): Provides information regarding shape, size, texture, temperature.

Girl laughing on swing

Vestibular system (balance and movement): Provides information about where our head is in relation to gravity and about the speed and direction of movement.

Child pushing toy shopping cart

Proprioception system (body awareness): Provides information from muscles and joints, tells us where our body is in space and about how much force to use for activities (e.g., we do not have to look to know our legs are crossed).

Girl sitting and reading a book

Visual (sight): Helps children to discern colors, shapes and social cues.

Boy holding and smelling a basil plant

Olfactory (smell): Helps children recognize and enjoy good food and avoid bad food.

Child and adult playing guitar at a picnic

Auditory (hearing): Provides information on the quality and direction of sound.

Boy eating raspberries

Gustatory (taste): Works with olfactory sense to help recognize foods that taste good and bad.

Girl lying down holding abdomen

Interoception (sense of pain, hunger, temperature): Provides information from the body (e.g., thirst, sleepiness).

For example, gentle touch (tactile system) can be calming as opposed to tickling which can be alerting; slow rocking (vestibular system) at bedtime can be calming; running and climbing can be alerting or organizing and help us to attend (pay attention/concentrate) and learn.

How children perceive sensory information

It is important to understand how individual children perceive sensory information. With poor processing, children may bump into objects or classmates (vestibular and proprioceptive systems), not having developed a good awareness of where their bodies are in space.

Some children may overreact to sensory input. For example, they may become more agitated or distressed than other children when they hear loud noises or are at parties, or in reaction to clothing labels (tactile) which may feel like knives cutting into their skin.

Other children may underreact to sensation. For example, they do not notice pain (tactile) after being burned or bumped into. Some crave more calming input such as slow rhythmical movement (vestibular) while others may crave more aggressive and alerting input such as rapid movement and wild swinging.

Observe your child to learn what they avoid or seek. There are no rules that apply to everyone. Individualized programs are necessary. Children may feel and behave differently from one day to the next. Follow your child’s lead and progress slowly to help them become used to sensory inputs that may be perceived as uncomfortable. Ensure their environment is safe to encourage them to develop.

Sensory activities

Organize the suggestions below around typical daily routines so that they are easier to carry out. Watch for reactions to play. If your child becomes wild or unsafe, they may be over stimulated. Deep hugs or pressure, and slow rocking (calming) are useful strategies to try at such times.

Choose an activity based on your child’s individual needs. Vary play and ideas. Set up the play space to ensure the safety of your child. Always stay nearby and watch as your child climbs, runs and jumps.

Sensory systemSensory activities
Tactile (touch and deep pressure)
  • Skin-to-skin contact, touch with different textures
  • Daily gentle massage with oils, creams
  • Peek-a-boo under a blanket
  • Provide touch input during daily routines, such as bath time and diaper changes, by naming body parts
  • Provide nice back rub as child prefers
  • Play with various textures (e.g., sheepskin, screening, bubble paper, velvet)
  • Play with sand, water, hide objects in beans
  • Place shaving cream or corn starch on a tray for your child to draw in or find hidden objects in
  • Put shaving cream on a mirror to hand, finger or foot paint
  • Squeeze play dough
  • Tunnels to crawl through (made of lycra)
  • Tents with sheepskin to sit in
  • Lycra cape
  • Lay or sit on a therapy ball or on parent’s lap while parent sits on the ball
  • Gently spin or swing child while holding at waist, or sitting in swing, then play I Spy to follow with an organizing activity
  • Play with a toy that vibrates
  • Older children can use a 'squiggle wiggle writer' for drawing
  • Sit in a rocking chair
  • Play on a mini trampoline/rebounder
  • Mattresses to jump on, crawl across, roll across like a log
  • Jumping or climbing from one surface to another or one height to another (mats, pillows, trampoline, balance beam, crash cushions etc.)
  • Play in a ball pit
  • Try to stand or sit on a balance disc
  • Wheelbarrow walk (adult should support child at hips rather than ankles to avoid injury)
  • Dance to music
  • Crawl in and out of and through different sized boxes
Proprioception (Heavy work with muscles and joints)
  • Push pull kind of movements and games (e.g. tug-o-war)
  • Sit in a bean bag chair
  • Make a pillow sandwich. Squish your child gently between pillows. Add on 'ketchup' or 'chocolate frog’s legs' by rolling a ball down their body using medium to firm pressure (use pressure according to how comfortable your child is). Similarly, do this after rolling child in blanket, head out of blanket.
  • Move a chair or toy along floor – can add weight to make it slightly heavier
  • Move through an obstacle course
  • Move through a body sock (lycra tunnel to crawl through that provides resistance work)
  • Play with weighted objects
  • Perform hand gripper exercises
  • Perform seated push-ups
  • Use a weighted vest. This can be calming, but effects only last approximately 20 minutes (child becomes used to the weight and needs a break)
  • Use a weighted blanket with supervision
  • Parent pretends to be a horse and child rides on the parent’s back, with subtle shaking according to what the child feels comfortable with
  • Make eye contact when you smile at your child, or read and sing to your child
  • If you need to carry your child, turn them so they can see where they/you are going
  • Play in front of mirror propped on floor
  • Look at books (even if your child can’t read yet they can look at the pictures and text)
  • Play with a rain stick
  • Play with/blow bubbles
  • Alter lighting between bright to dark
  • Place items in small plastic bottles with cheese cloth on top for child to smell, (e.g., coffee, lemon, vanilla, cinnamon, vinegar, mint, onion) or crush different herbs or plants and put them into envelopes. Identify good and bad smells.
  • Smell different scented oils
  • Use scented crayons, markers, stickers
  • Play with toys that squeak, make noise
  • Listen to music, sing songs
  • Adjust volume and animation in your voice to affect level of alertness desired
  • Read books
  • Listen to white noise or classical music
  • Talk to your child, narrate your day, point out objects while you talk, etc.
  • Play with toy keyboard, drums or other musical instruments
  • Use headphones (noise canceling) to minimize stimuli in loud settings
  • Warn child before loud noises, such as a fire alarm, if they are sensitive
  • Loud music or music with a deep base may be alerting
  • Imitate and engage in vocal play

Give your child different foods to stimulate their taste buds:

  • Sweet – fruit, candy
  • Sour – lemon
  • Salty – chips
  • Chewy and sweet – licorice
  • Crunchy – cereal, crackers, carrots

Encourage oral-motor stimulation in your child with different textures and flavours:

  • Thick liquids to drink with a straw
  • Chewing – crushed ice, frozen fruit, freezies
  • Chewies (toys)
  • Crunchy foods – carrots, celery
  • Sour candy and spicy foods can be alerting
  • Vibrating toothbrush (vestibular)
  • Alter the texture of foods
  • Attend to your child’s physical needs (e.g., cuddle with them, keep them warm)
  • Attend to environmental input (e.g., bright lights should be dimmed for sleeping)

Calming versus alerting activities

Be aware of what calms your child versus what wakes them up or alerts them.

Calming activities:

  • Slow rocking, or swinging; calm rhythmical movement
  • Heavy work with muscle and joints such as crawling through lycra tunnel, pushing a heavy weighted toy
  • Joint compression; massage; weighted lap animals
  • Finger-fidget activities: Koosh ball, fidget balls, therapy putty
  • Vibrating pen or toy
  • Mat or pillow sandwich (child is in sandwich, and pulls self out when done)
  • Bean bag chair
  • Soften or dim the lights
  • Soft music, classical, white noise, decreased noise
  • Calming essential oils (e.g. lavender)
  • Sucking and chewing
  • Sitting in tent or under table with blanket draped over it
  • Lycra clothes
  • Warm bath
  • Proprioception and deep pressure activities

Alerting activities:

  • Jumping, bouncing, swinging, climbing, running
  • Fast movement
  • Loud music, rock music
  • Eating crunchy or sour food
  • Bright lights
  • Alerting essential oils (e.g. grapefruit)
Last updated: September 14th 2020