What are Common Signs of Sensory Issues?

We don’t have to look very far to see signs of sensory issues. These issues can take on many forms. Some children are overly sensitive to incoming sensory information and may become easily overwhelmed by sensory experiences. Others are under responsive and require more extreme sensory input to elicit a response. Some are sensory seeking and are constantly looking for more sensory input. Sensory issues can also take on less obvious forms such as difficulty planning movement and lack of balance and/or coordination. Even beyond these, sensory processing issues can be contributing factors in emotional regulation issues, anxiety, decreased attention to task, and even at times, emotional outbursts or aggressive behaviors. These are issues that are on the rise in today’s kids and though some children do have more extreme diagnosable issues with sensory processing, all children can benefit from sensory rich experiences. The focus of this blog will be on how we can utilize outdoor play as a therapeutic tool to help children with sensory regulation and ultimately to assist them in leading happier, healthier lives.


What is Sensory Integration and What are the Sensory Systems?

Sensory integration is a person’s ability to take in stimuli from their environment (through the sensory systems), process it, and give an appropriate response. The sensory systems consist of the vestibular system (having to do with balance and related to the fluid in your inner ear); the proprioceptive system (stemming from receptors in our muscles and joints and relating to utilizing the “just right” use of force to complete a task); the tactile system (sense of touch); visual (sight); auditory (hearing); olfactory (smell); and gustatory (taste).


Why are Children in Recent Years Having More and More Sensory Issues?

One reason children are having more sensory issues has to do with our increasingly sedentary and indoor lifestyles. Children are often required to sit for long periods of time at school and choose to sit more frequently than past generations due to the use of cell phones, video games, and television for entertainment. For some of these same reasons, children are also playing outdoors much less often and are lacking the benefits of outdoor play.


How Does Lack of Physical Activity Negatively Affect the Sensory System?

When children sit for long periods of time and do not get the benefits of outdoor play, their vestibular system can be negatively affected. When children “sit still” the fluid in the inner ears does not get a chance to move around. This movement of fluid in the inner ear is critical to the development of the sensory system. The vestibular system is critical in an individual’s sense of balance and place in space. Lesser known is the connection between a well- developed sensory system and the ability to pay attention and regulate emotion. The vestibular system also supports the adept use of all 6 eye muscles. The vestibular system can be improved by giving children ample opportunities to move throughout the day. Opportunities to spin, hang upside down, roll, and climb are essential.


What are Other Sensory Benefits of Outdoor Play?

When children play outdoors there are a multitude of benefits to the sensory system. The proprioceptive system is developed as children have the opportunity for what occupational therapists call heavy work. That is the input to muscles and joints that occurs when children engage in activities such as pushing a friend on the swing or pulling a rope in a game of tug of war. Furthermore, nature offers a full sensory experience. Multiple senses are engaged when you play outdoors. Think of the smell of fresh cut grass, the sound of the birds in the sky, and the feel of the wind on your face. Even the smell of certain trees is connected with decreased cortisol (stress hormone levels).


How Much Time Outdoors is Needed to Reap the Benefits?

Research suggests that children need at least an hour outside to reap the full benefits of outdoor play. Children require 45 minutes before entering into deep play. The ideal amount of recess for a typical school day consists of 1-2 short, 15-minute sessions and one longer 1-hour outdoor session. For most schools this is perhaps unrealistic, but this fact only increases the importance of parents and caregivers actively promoting these daily outdoor play experiences.


What are Some Ideas to Enhance Outdoor Play?

There are some principles for enhancing your child’s outdoor play experience. First of all, give children both time and space. Safety is important, but try not to be overly restrictive. Allow room for imagination and exploration. Also, allow children to be free to get dirty. One suggestion for promoting free play is to provide “loose parts.” These include items such as planks, baskets, and see-through curtains. Other sensory rich outdoor play ideas are therapeutic listening (lay in the grass and listen to the sounds of nature), going barefoot, playing in the dark, digging in the dirt, swinging (spin, stand, or lie on your belly), spin on a merry go round, climb or roll down a hill. Summer is upon us and the opportunities to get outside are almost endless!

At Niagara Therapy, we provide both indoor and outdoor sensory integration experiences for children through our play occupational therapy services. Hopefully you have been inspired to develop some of your own at home!

Information from a continuing education seminar by Angela Hanscom (Pediatric OT).

Angela is the author of the book “Balanced and Barefoot,” and the founder of Timber Nook, which offers programs that promote outdoor experiences for children.

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