What is a Sensory Diet?

Much like how food helps our bodies function on a daily basis, a sensory diet provides the input that our sensory systems need to stay regulated and alert. Every person takes in information through the senses, and the brain processes this information to generate an appropriate response. But what happens when there’s a miscommunication in the system?  We might see the child who crashes their body into every piece of furniture- and their peers. Or maybe there’s the child who can’t tolerate messy textures. What about a child who can’t sit still long enough to sing the “Hello” song during circle time? Enter: the sensory diet.

A sensory diet is a set list of activities designed to provide the body the input it needs in order to participate in everyday tasks. The child who crashes too much might need to be squished between two pillows to get that deeper pressure to their joints and muscles. The child who won’t touch paint might exhibit less avoidance after receiving a hand massage to desensitize their touch receptors. The child who can’t sit still might be able to sit for all of circle time after jumping on a trampoline for 10 minutes.

An occupational therapist can help you determine the exact type of input your child’s body needs. However, the activities listed below can be trialed at home to serve as a starting point. I typically like to encourage one activity from the first list followed by an activity from the second. This allows a child to receive alerting movement input followed by calming deep pressure/heavy work input. This list of activities includes items that are typically found in most homes or playgrounds so they can be easily implemented at home.

Movement-Based Activities 

  1. Running (e.g. around the block, playing tag, at a playground)
  2. Swinging- focus on back-and-forth swinging (as opposed to swinging in circles)
  3. Slide
  4. Log rolls
  5. Jumping on a trampoline
  6. Rollerskating/rollerblading
  7. Being pulled in a wagon
  8. Riding a bike
  9. Bouncing on a therapy ball
  10. Scooterboard
  11. Movement games- Red Light/Green Light, Simon Says
  12. Stretching (with or without Theraband)
  13. Somersaults, cartwheels, laying with head upside down
  14. Playing catch with a ball or balloon
  15. Jumping jacks

Deep Pressure/Heavy Work Activities 

  1. Yoga
  2. Have child lay on stomach, roll therapy ball over body while providing continuous pressure
  3. Lotion massage (can be incorporated into bedtime routine)
  4. Pulling a wagon
  5. Carrying a laundry basket
  6. Wheelbarrow walks
  7. Animal walks (e.g. frog, crab)
  8. Getting rolled between two pillows (“Making a taco”)
  9. Laying on tummy on scooterboard and propelling with arms
  10. Climbing
  11. Crawling
  12. Blowing bubbles
  13. Chewing gum (or chewy candy)
  14. Use a weighted blanket
  15. Wall push-ups or “pushing over a wall” (hold for 10 seconds)

Ideally, a sensory diet is designed to be implemented throughout the day so children are provided input before dysregulation occurs. However, this can be difficult with so many demands placed, particularly at school. If you notice your child is having an especially hard time remaining focused or seated, focus on activities from the second list. If the child is appearing less alert and engaged, focus on activities from the first list. There is no perfect science behind a sensory diet but rather adjusting activities based on what a child’s body is telling us.

The increased push towards seated work and technology within our school systems means that many, if not most, children are not getting the input their body needs to function at their highest capacity. It can also make accomplishing tasks at home more difficult as children have been forced to sit all day and need to move! I encourage everyone to build some sensory activities into their homes routines in order to promote learning and engagement on every level!