Down to earth with sensory processing...
Dec 06, 2016
This year I've had the pleasure of visiting a local Montessori daycare on a regular basis. And as far as daycares go it is quite different. Toys are often wooden, are realistic or real objects. Sensory input is natural and includes sand, the garden and plants, water, and cloth. The children have uncluttered, beautiful, inviting play spaces and it's one of the calmest settings I've seen. I love going there because it reminds me of the sensory inputs that I think are important for children, families, and learning settings. And in thoughtful settings like this sensory processing meets natural, down-to-earth materials on a daily basis.
Lets back track a moment and explore what sensory processing means. It obviously incorporates input from your five senses (vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell) but it also incorporates sense of movement and body position (vestibular system).
People who have challenges may be hypersensitive and aggravated by some types of sensory input e.g. they may find some types of touch or sound really disturbing. Others may be "sensory seeking" where they are continually seeking various input to make sense of and interact with their world e.g. they may be moving or fiddling a lot of the time. In treating the vast array of sensory issues we may come across, occupational therapists use a range of sensory techniques. And they work very well in helping the sensory systems become more organised and regulated, and in helping a person function better in their daily lives.
Because of my passion for down-to-earth, natural strategies I began to question some types of activities/inputs that were commonly chosen in therapy. I believe everything we do should be good for the whole person. So I made slightly different recommendations to other OTs. For example, a common recommendation for people who seek oral sensory input is to chew gum. Now I know that chewing gum isn't actually that good for your digestive system. It gives your stomach a message that food is coming, digestive enzymes and acid are secreted but the food doesn't come. So over time the body produces less of those important enzymes/acids in response to chewing and we end up creating digestive issues. There is no way I could join in with recommending chewing gum as a strategy!
Likewise, many therapists recommend a range of highly processed, very fake junk foods to improve sensory tolerance of textures of food for children who have sensory issues with eating. I know that this food is just terrible for our gut health so I can't standby while we make harmful recommendations!
So I considered sensory input and therapy from a different perspective. I considered natural, healthy foods and their sensory input in making my recommendations. And I broadened this to seeking out natural, back-to-basics input in regards to other types of sensory play.
I intentionally source materials that feel earthy, have a beautiful texture, are handmade, and have vibrant but natural colours. For example, one of the most popular activities in my sessions is using modelling beeswax. It is made from beeswax so it has a light honey scent. And it feels real and lovely to play with. It's so different from the usual theraputty.
Things children touch should be real, as close to nature as possible because we are wanting to ground them. We are wanting them to reconnect with nature, with other people and with themselves. Although enticing, screens, plastics, and brightly flashy items don't bring that grounding and connection. Now I'm not saying we need to eliminate those things from our lives or even from our therapy sessions. But we need to be intentional about our choices. When we are using screens we need to be in the mode of "voluntary attention" and intentionally active. When we engage with plastic we can be mindful of the textures and colours we choose so that materials feel good to our fingertips, and so that the colours are those that really resonate with us. When we are looking at flashy/noisy things we can notice how that feels compared to more earthy tones. It's time to think of the whole person when we think of sensory input.
It's time to think of the textures that remind us of love... a crocheted toy might remind us of crocheted baby's blankets and grandma...sounds of wood on wood remind us of the noises of a walk in the forest... walking on sand and playing with rocks reminds us of a special time at the beach... Providing these types of materials for our children when we are wanting to meet their sensory needs will go far in grounding them, settling them and reorganising their sensory processing systems the way nature intended.
A comment by a client earlier this year about my garden inspired me to take a few steps to revive the neglected areas with sensory processing in mind, and so The Whole Child has a sensory garden which can be incorporated into sessions. There is a balance stepping stones area with wishing stones. There are brightly coloured flowers to discover, scented herbs in the vegetable garden, and different textures of stones, wood, stepping stones and grass to walk on. I've had enormous amounts of fun with my own children and with children in sessions out there.
Making the effort to make sensory input special and natural values children in a very deep way. It says to them "you're special enough for me to go the extra mile, to think outside the square, and to explore natural, loving ways of meeting your sensory and developmental needs".
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