What are Sensory Activities? - Benefits & Importance

Instructor: Elizabeth Diehl

Elizabeth studied to be a special education teacher at Regis University, and received her masters in 2014.

Have you ever noticed a student who tips his chair back on two legs during math class, but he is following along when he does? Or a student who was really rattled after a fire drill? These students both demonstrate why sensory activities are important and beneficial in the classroom.

What is a Sensory Activity?

Anything that engages a person's senses can be considered a sensory activity. The senses most often engaged in a school setting are hearing, touch, and sight, but even one's sense of balance can be utilized in a sensory activity. Another sense is proprioception, which relates to the sense of where your body is in space. For example, you know how to organize your body so that you can cross your legs under a table without looking at them.

Sensory activities can be grouped in several ways to benefit many students' needs, but for the purpose of this lesson, we will put them into two broad categories: calming or energizing. It is important to remember that some activities might be calming for one student but energizing for another.

Who Benefits?

All students benefit from sensory activities. Engaging activities that use the senses develop neural pathways in young children's brains. For students of all abilities, using a procedure or tool in a classroom that engages their senses can make a lesson more meaningful and memorable. All students may have different moments when they might need helping calming down, or maintaining focus, so learning how sensory activities can be included will only enrich your classroom.

There are populations of students who find sensory activities especially beneficial, such as students with autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorders. For students with sensory processing disorders or autism, they might be over responsive or under responsive to certain stimuli or experiences. For many students with these diagnoses, their brains are wired so that they feel or experience certain things at a stronger degree, or at a much lesser degree, than the typical person.

Using calming or energizing activities helps their brains wire new pathways and learn how to cope. This will help the student learn how to advocate for themselves, and as they adjust to more routine levels of response, it should reduce behavior outbursts. These students might have sensory activities specially planned and already written in their Individualized Education Plan, so check there first. Another resource is the school's occupational therapist, who might even be able to connect you with specific tools for your classroom.

Calming activities

Playing in the sand is very calming for many people.
hands in the sand

Sometimes the activities happening in a busy classroom can ramp a student up, or make them feel stressed. Some students feel sensory situations so strongly that they need some time to rest from the experience, such as a child who was overwhelmed by the fire alarm. Calming activities include a wide range of experiences and can be adjusted to fit the needs of the individual and the situation. Sitting in a bean bag chair to read can be calming. Many young students find playing with their hands in water or sand to be calming. Older students might enjoy watching and listening to a small waterfall. The goal of a calming activity is simply to help the student relax tension and calm themselves down so that they can get back to learning.

Energizing activities

While some students need outlets to return to a calm equilibrium, other students need more stimulation to keep their brains going. For many students with ADHD, using a small fidget item at their desk can keep their brains engaged in the class discussion. Many students who balance their chairs on two legs are trying to engage their sense of balance in this way as a coping skill. Their bodies do not want to be still. And so, these actions help students maintain focus when they might be easily distracted or want to slow down.

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