The Importance of Making a Mess

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As a mom of two kids under the age of five, I know first-hand how mess making during mealtime can really drive a type-A mama like myself to the brink of insanity.  (Over and over again, every day.)  But as a pediatric occupational therapist, who specializes in sensory related feeding issues and picky eating, I also know that the benefits of letting my kids get messy when they eat, far outweigh the downfalls of messy mealtimes.

I’ve seen firsthand how many type-A moms like myself, delay letting their little ones self-feed during the food-introduction period, to avoid the mess.  The problem with delaying self-feeding and not allowing babies to explore foods with their hands is that it can, in some instances, lead to an interference with normal feeding patterns and can contribute to more selective eating patterns in the long run.

There are many ways that delayed self-feeding can contribute to the development of abnormal feeding and interfere with the development of oral motor skills (the skills that help the mouth, tongue, lips and cheeks work in a coordinated way to mash up and swallow food).

Babies Learn through Touch

It might be helpful to first take a look at how babies learn about the world around them within the first year of life.  Babies are naturally driven by their tactile sense and explore the world around them with their sense of touch.  They touch, feel and explore objects within their reach by bringing items that they’ve discovered to their mouths.  This helps them to understand more about their environment.

The fingertips and the lips and tongue just so happen to house more sensory receptors (cells that receive tactile or touch information to the brain to help us to understand what it is and what it feels like) than any other region in the entire human body.

Babies learn about accepting new textures in this very specific order of touch: first their hands, then their mouth (we call this proximal to distal sensory acceptance in the therapy world.) That is just the progression of tactile sensory exploration, the way that babies learn about the world around them.  Babies (and toddlers too) need to be allowed the opportunity to touch, feel and smell their foods in order to determine if they are willing to try it with their mouths.

I think if we understand that concept, we can appreciate why babies are constantly chewing on and mouthing everything they can possibly get their hands on.  I think we will also understand, then, why it is important to let babies explore different food textures with their hands and mouths.

Babies Naturally Crave Autonomy

Another important characteristic of babies is that they are naturally driven by a need for autonomy and independence (meaning they want to figure out how things work on their own).  This can describe why sometimes a toddlers very first words are often “no,” “myself” or “me” or “mine.”  Sure, some babies are more passive than others, but for the most part, kids want to do things for themselves.  This is especially important during the critical food introduction period, in my eyes.

It is important to let babies explore foods on their own terms, when they are ready and to not encroach on this innate drive for feeding autonomy.   This matters because feeding autonomy can set a framework for both 1) developing a healthy relationship with food and b) helping kids tune into their own internal nutritional cues.

The moral of the story here, is that the more that we let our children take the lead around the dinner table, the more comfortable they will feel with food and mealtime.

Issues With Spoon Feeding

While I have no problem with a feeding purees for a short period of time (1-2  weeks at the most), or helping babies spoon feed with more difficult food items (like soup, for example), I do think that long term spoon feeding of puree’s can encroach on a babies natural drive to explore and learn through their sense of touch and it also takes away a babies innate drive for autonomy.

Often parents choose to spoon feed purees for longer period of time because they fear choking.  The irony in this is that the longer a baby or child goes without learning the concepts of how foods feel and how to go about manipulating, biting, chewing and then swallowing these foods; the more likelihood they will have an actual problem with an over-reactive gag, poor tolerance to different textures and choking.  This is because the more times the gag reflex (a protective mechanism that inhibits aspiration of food being lodged in the airway) is elicited, the quicker the body self-teaches more efficient movement patterns within the mouth. 

An example of a more efficient oral motor pattern would be learning how to swipe food from the airway with the tongue and move it into the molar region. 

Furthermore, many children who throw up often during mealtime (with no underlying medical causation) have an over-reactive gag-reflex, which has been set in motion due to a lack of experiences with real foods in the first few years of life.

Getting Messy Helps to Desensitize the Tactile System

Over-protecting and over-sanitizing has taught children that being messy is not okay.  Because many children in this generation have had limited exposure to the natural elements of nature (like sand, mud, etc),  they are generally lacking in real life experiences with different textures.

A child who lacks basic experiences with textures on their hands and has never been exposed to messy textures in nature can become over-sensitive to tactile information (these children will cry or scream if they get their hands or face messy or will refuse to walk in the sand or grass.)  Sensory-related diagnosis’ are on the rise more than ever before.  We need to teach our children (and retrain ourselves as mothers, too) that being messy is okay and a very crucial part of play and child development.

Babies and kids need to be allowed to get messy and feel their foods with their hands because this important part of sensory play promotes a tolerance to a wider variety of textures.  The more textures they are allowed to explore with their hands (and feet too), the more they can put a name to different textures like “mushy” “crunchy” “lumpy”, etc.  The more we broaden their understanding of different textures, the more likely they will allow these textures into their mouths in the form of new foods.

Self-feeding Promotes Age Appropriate Hand-eye Coordination + Fine Motor Skills

The last but certainly not least important reason that getting messy benefits babies during feeding is that it enhances the development of both hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.  These hand skills impact a child’s performance in many life-related skills and school.  A few examples of life skills that depend on refined hand-eye coordination are things like dressing, handwriting, shoe tying, utensil use and cutting.  The building blocks for hand-eye coordination begin in the hand to mouth exploration phase, which is typical from 6-18 months of age.

Getting Messy Positively Impacts Older Children too

Because so many children today have had such limited exposure to the naturally messy textures and elements of nature, it is no wonder that many older, school-aged children display signs and symptoms of tactile sensitivity or becoming over-sensitive to tactile information.

These are the children who have a meltdown if a food on their plate is a certain texture they disprove of, become anxious during messy crafts (ex: when glue, paint or markers get on their hands) or need to wash their hands immediately during any messy cooking activity (like rolling dough balls).

These children are showing signs of tactile sensitivity and these signs and symptoms are giving us a signal that their sensory systems need help in this area.

If we can give these older children back the tactile experiences they may have missed out of in younger years, we can be an integral part of the process in helping these children to regulate their sensory systems. As parents, we can help our older children be able to tolerate a wider variety of textures (which is called desensitization, by the way), and this can translate to more foods being accepted and less anxiety during sensory experiences.

Here’s a few real life sensory experiences you can encourage your older child to enjoy to help desensitize their tactile systems:

6 Activities to Desensitize + Integrate the Tactile Sensory System

  1. Allowing children to walk barefoot in different natural elements such as sand and wet grass. Anytime when your child can safely walk barefoot, allow it.

  2. Making room for regular, extended unstructured time in natural elements. This can include anything from jumping in puddles to making mud pies to building sand castles at the beach. You would be surprised at how much older children enjoy these activities too!

  3. Baking is a great way to expose the hands to different sensory information. Baking cookies and dough with their hands (rolling cookie dough balls, rolling out dough, using cookie cutters to cut dough) and making rice crispy treats, are all great places to start.

  4. Making kitchen “mixtures!” This is one of my favorite activities for older children with sensory challenges. Start with basic mixtures like yogurt with berries and then get more adventurous as you go, adding in things like granola, bananas, etc. Pizza, sandwich and salad mixtures are other examples. Allowing two foods to be “mixed” together is huge for sensory kids. Getting them involved in the physical process of mixing the foods together helps tremendously.

  5. Fingerpainting and shaving cream play is a challenge for tactile sensitive kids, but it can also be really fun!

  6. The Willbarger Brushing Protocol is a dry brushing technique, used with children with sensory challenges, that can be implemented at home to provide calming proprioceptive input to the tactile system. It involves brushing the body with a small surgical brush throughout the day. Typically an Occupational Therapist, who is trained in this technique, is the best person to train you for at home use of this protocol.

-Ashley

Christmas Tree Kits -Sensory Play Travel Boxes for Kids

Help your child get into the spirit of Christmas with these fun, Christmas tree making playdough kits! They are the perfect mix of sensory and fine motor fun to keep littles hands busy on any given occasion but especially good for car rides, airplanes, restaurants or plain old toddler quiet time.

Your child will love using these items to create and decorate their own mini Christmas trees using handmade playdough and lots of fun decorations!

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Top 10 Sensory Tools to Increase Classroom Focus

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There is no greater way to increase students "readiness to learn" than creating a sensory smart classroom environment.

With the back to school frenzy in full effect, I've got SENSORY TOOL's on the brain.  I want to share with both moms and teachers of children with sensory needs all of my FAVORITE sensory tools for increasing classroom attention and compliance.

I kid you not, these tools have the capability of making or breaking the school year for your child and/or your classroom. I have seen them work wonders for the sensory kiddos I see in the clinic and I have used many of them with my own children as well. 

If you've followed me for any amount of time, you know that I am a huge proponent for more unstructured play in the school system, more opportunities for movement and extending recess allotment times.

Call my a crazy recess mom, but I feel strongly that the decline in play (and coupled decreased opportunities for movement and sensory input) are at the root cause of poor learning, attention and childhood depression and anxiety.  Limited outlets for play are causing spikes in sensory processing deficits, OT referrals and over-diagnosing of ADHD.  I'll try not to go off on a tangent, but I will leave you with this interesting fact: prisoners are offered a minimum of 1 hour of free unstructured outdoor time a day.  If you want to read some compelling research about what movement does to the brain and how it can help increase classroom attention, check out Movement & Cognition: How Movement is an Important Precursor to Attention and Learning Readiness. 

Since recess extension isn't always a practical option for teachers (due to time constraints and school politics) we MUST come together as parents, as educators, as therapists and teachers to fight against the deprivation of sensory input in the school system.

How Does Sensory Input Prepare the Brain for Learning?

Sensory input is simply what our senses (sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing) take in and send to our central nervous system in order to help us create appropriate responses to challenges in our environment.  Engaging different sensory systems can significantly impact a child's academic performance, arousal level, self-regulation and attention to task

The autonomic nervous system is the part of the brain that regulates an individual’s ability to adapt to environmental changes through modulation of sensory, motor, visceral, and neuro-endocrine functions via its parasympathetic and sympathetic branches. (1) These branches function together to promote adaptation and self-regulation in response to internal and external environmental demands. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system modulates immediate phasic responses to events, such as the fight-or-flight reaction, while the parasympathetic branch modulates the visceral and the neuro-endocrine systems to maintain homeostasis and self- regulation, as well as to regulate recovery from a stressor/challenge (Nance and Hoy, 1996 ). (1)

Simply put, sensory input can be either stimulating/alerting or calming and organizing.

Alerting/stimulating sensory input correlates with increased attention and readiness to learn (via the sympathetic nervous system), while other types of sensory input can help to calm an overly anxious or rambunctious child down (via the parasympathetic nervous system pathways). 

Sensory input tells us how to respond to our environment.  It's why gentle rocking and tight swaddling can soothe a crying baby to sleep.  It's why loud sounds can make your heart skip a beat.  It's why cold showers wake you up in the morning.  Its why you turn the music up loud and let the wind blow in your face to help you stay awake during a long drive. 

In the event that movement is restricted, which is typical since most classroom environments offer 20 minutes or less a day, children will innately seek to meet his/her sensory needs in one way or another.


Ways Kids Meet Their Own Sensory Needs When Movement is Restricted

  • Bouncing in their chair or falling out of their chair: engages the vestibular and proprioceptive systems
  • Kicking their feet against something: engages the proprioceptive system
  • Chewing on their pencils: engages the proprioceptive system and provides calming oral motor input
  • Banging their head on the desk: engages the vestibular and proprioceptive systems
  • Rocking back and forth: engages the vestibular system
  • Making strange noises with their mouths: engages the auditory system
  • Spinning: engages the vestibular system
  • Touching others: engages the tactile system
  • Touching everything: engages the tactile system

The good news is there are some AMAZING and WONDERFUL sensory tools on the market for your little sensory seekers. 

As a mother of a sensory seeker myself, I have learned that you have to advocate for the sensory needs of your child and often it's really just a matter of finding out which sensory tools work best for your child.  It can be a game of trial and error at times trying to figure out which sensory tool is best but the biggest piece of advice I can give is to think about the child's past history. 

What types of activities have helped them calm down in the past?  Were they pacifier suckers? Maybe they need an oral sensory tool.  Were they the type that likes to go alone in their room to calm down? Maybe they need a quiet corner in the classroom with books and some noise cancelling headphones. Were they the type that likes big hugs? Maybe they would benefit from using a pressure vest.

So without further ado, here are my top favorite sensory tools for the classroom.
*Affiliate links below

Top 10 Sensory Tools for the Classroom

1. Flexible/Alternative Seating Options

Did you know that school-aged children need 4-5 hours of movement a day to support their developing central nervous system's sensory needs?  That's quite mind boggling to consider, since children are in school ALL day long! 

That is why flexible and alternative seating is ESSENTIAL for learners and why its at the TOP of my list.  Different seating (or standing) options give the learner the opportunity to move their bodies and engage their vestibular and proprioceptive systems, which can quickly turn on all the right attention buttons.

  • Wiggle Cushions 
  • Standing Desks
  • T- Stools
  • Therapy Balls
  • Floor Seating in Bean Bag Chairs
Here's a cozy option for a reading nook or calm down center:   Over-sized Beanbag Chairs by Flash Furniture

Here's a cozy option for a reading nook or calm down center: Over-sized Beanbag Chairs by Flash Furniture

 
The Brick Stick by ARK Therapeutic  is my all time favorite Chewelry

The Brick Stick by ARK Therapeutic is my all time favorite Chewelry

2. Oral Sensory Input

An easy way to ensure adequate oral sensory input throughout your child's day is to send send a variety of consistencies for your child's lunch and snack.  Vary the texture and flavors and be sure to include something crunchy, which provides good proprioceptive input to the mouth.

For kids who crave more oral sensory input, chewelry is a wonderful choice.  These little wonders have come in handy so often in my practice and my own kiddo uses one too.  

Chewelry is a fun and discreet jewelry design for kids who are naturally sensory seekers.  Chewelry provides calming and organizing sensory input to kids who:

The Brick Stick by ARK Therapeutic   is my all time favorite Chewelry

The Brick Stick by ARK Therapeutic is my all time favorite Chewelry

  • constantly fidget or have a hard time sitting still
  • seek out sensory input in all sorts of ways (rocking, tapping, jumping, bouncing, spinning)
  • have difficulty with self regulation or self calming (especially within the classroom environment)
  • chew or suck on everything including fingers, shirts, blankets, pencils, etc
  • need help paying attention + focusing at school or during homework
  • are transitioning off of the pacifier or bottle and still craving calming input to the oral cavity
  • who drool excessively or display low muscle tone in the oral cavity
  • who don’t have age appropriate oral motor skills (for speech or feeding)

    ARK Therapeutic also makes these fun chewable pencil toppers for kids who tend to chew on their pencils. 

 

3. Deep Pressure for Calm Focus

Pressure vests offer quick and effective calming input to the little learner.  The pressure vest is like a big, wearable hug that provides steady proprioceptive input (body awareness) with deep pressure and balanced weight. The effect is so gentle, calming and reassuring, kids even ask to wear it.  It is helpful for kids with hyperactivity, extra sensory needs or those on the autism spectrum.  It is great for creating a calm but attentive environment during circle time or seated work!

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This one by Fun and Function has the option of adding weights (depending on child's needs or preference)


Weighted Blankets + Lap Pads are key to helping overactive children calm down and settle for nap time or even just calm down for seated work after a period of over-excitement (like music class or recess).  The deep, calming proprioceptive input can take an over-stimulated child into a state of calm and regulation.  Guided deep breathing can also be a great addition to the weighted blanket.
 

6. Tactile Input: Fidgets + Manipulates

Children are naturally kinesthetic learners, meaning they learn optimally when they can touch, feel, participate and DO!  Any activity or craft where you can get their little hands involved can turn on the tactile sensory system and increase attention and spark interest.  You can learn letters with playdough, learn science by doing experiments, learn counting and math with something tangible like shiny coins or even regular dried black beans!

There are also those kids who need a little extra tactile input throughout the school day.  These are the kids who are constantly touching and feeling everything, whether you like it or not.  These types of children would benefit from a tactile sensory board or a tactile hand fidget.

While fidgets catch a lot of flak for being too distracting, I have seen them used successfully in classrooms where the teacher has a written and mutually agreed upon rule system when it comes to hand fidgets.

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I love the discreet design of these Bookmark Hand Fidgets by ARK Therapeutic


7. Auditory Input

Routine songs and familiar rhymes/rhythms can prompt children through transitions and classroom expectations.  They can also help the sensory child learn new information and know when to expect the end or beginning of an activity.  Use familiar songs to your advantage but try to eliminate over-stimulating sounds or background noise distractions to improve focus.

Children can also struggle with auditory input in different ways.  Some students are easily distracted by background noise or children talking nearby and cant focus for tests and desk work when there is anything else going on nearby (a problem with auditory filtering).  Others become over stimulated or frightened with loud sounds like the roar of a cafeteria (typical for children on the autism spectrum).  

Noise cancelling headphones are a simple but effective sensory tool for children who struggle with auditory input in any way.  They are great for loud or frightful situations and also helpful for homework time, desk concentration and test taking.
 

8. Visual Input

Visual input is simply how the child learns and takes in through the visual system via sight.  Busy classroom decorations on the wall can be very distracting for any child, but especially a child who is having difficulty focusing and attending.  Create a calm and natural classroom environment and eliminate loud or busy decorations or bulletin boards.

Slant boards help to bring the written paper more upright and closer to the midline visual field.  They can also decrease strain on the eyes, assist with handwriting (more stable and improves pencil grip position), assist children with visual deficits and even eliminate slouching.  They are extremely helpful for children with low muscle tone, weak pencil grips and resistant handwriters.  They are easy-peazy to make yourself with a 4 inch 3-ring binder, some velcro adhesive and a large clip.

A small but not to be overlooked sensory tool, enter the all time therapist favorite, a visual timer.  Visual timers can assist in a variety of ways within the classroom:

  • help to ease transitions to and from centers or activities
  • increase student productivity
  • decrease need for constant verbal promting
  • extremely helpful at improving positive classroom behavior and regulation for sensory children


9. Sensory Deprivation Area

Because schools and classrooms can be noisey, over-stimulating and overwhelming at times, a designated "calm down corner" is SO necessary for the typical student and sensory seeker alike.  Noise cancelling headphones, a t-pee or a book nook with a bean bag chair are all good ideas for calm down corners.  Make sure to keep the visual stimuli on the walls to a minimum.  You can place visual calm down jars or tactile boards in this area as well.

10. Movement + Heavy Work

I saved the best and most important for last!  Incorporate movement in the classroom in any way you can.  Use movement prior to any seated work, activities that require sustained attention or tests.   Research shows that movement alone is one of the most effective tools to increase learning and attention in young children.  Why? Because it turns on the vestibular system! 

Songs that incorporate movement are a great way to start the day!

Heavy work activities turn on the proprioceptive system and have a calming but organizing affect on children.  Pushing heavy boxes, lifting heavy books, stacking chairs, dry erase board erasing and door holding are all heavy work that can be used throughout the day for your sensory seeking kiddos.

Fidget kick bands are one of my favorite tools for classrooms.  Why? Because they offer calming and organizing resistive heavy work during seated tasks.  They also increase upright desk sitting and posture AND offer an outlet for movement/vestibular input for sensory seeking kiddos in a discreet way.
 

For more information, check out Movement & Cognition Part 2: 12 Ways to Incorporate Movement in the Classroom (for Increased Attention) 



-Ashley


 

 

 

Resources:

1) Nance, P. W., and Hoy, C. S. (1996). Assessment of the autonomic nervous system. Phys. Med. Rehabil. 10, 15–35