Not being able to go to our favorites places and enjoy our favorite activities is frustrating for anyone. Now consider the perspective of children on the autism spectrum, who rely on schedules and routines to navigate their days. Suddenly, their structured school days became chaotic, their favorite places to get out their sensory needs were closed, and even their therapy sessions were paused or changed. What can a parent do during these times to find quarantine activities for these kids?
Luckily, I work for a hands-on learning company and found great new resources that helped in three key areas:
- Extending school learning (academics) through play
- Making preferred activities more educational
- Create a calming space
1. Extend school learning (academics) through play
One of the challenges of having a nonverbal child is the ability to effectively communicate and understand feeling and emotions. Feelings and emotions are something that we work on in school, in social work, and in therapy. Without those traditional outlets available, we wanted to work on this important skill at home in a fun way. The See My Feelings Mirror is a great tool to help kids on the spectrum identify and practice emotions.
The most encouraging part of sharing this new toy with my son was that he was engaged immediately and made the connection to his schoolwork. Upon opening the mirror, he immediately recognized the emotions, opened his iPad application about emotions, and started matching the emotions to his school worksheets. It was wonderful to witness how excited he was by adding a little fun into his education.
My tip to extend learning through play would be to pick a skill or topic that you want to work on and find games, toys, or create your own activity to reinforce what your child has been learning. There are many math games, alphabet toys, and word games available to purchase that may match your child’s educational needs. Otherwise, you can always create your own activities like setting up your own pretend store to work on math skills and social cues, playing bingo, or creating your own trivia game.
2. Make preferred activities more educational
My son loves water beads! They are one of his favorite sensory toys. I know they are part of his “sensory diet” and he craves the sensations of the water beads through his fingers and their squishiness. As a parent, I am always looking for ways to combine educational activities for kids with sensory activities. I was looking for a way to be more involved in playtime and make play more meaningful. Then, I discovered the Squishy Water Beads Science Lab.
This kit is the perfect mix of sensory play and arts and crafts. It combines fun, sensory activities for kids with STEM projects to design cool creations like a sensory bottle, stress ball, and a mood lamp. All these creations could be made with household items, but it was convenient to have the instant fun of having everything together in the kit. Building this together was great quality time spent with him and was also just fun in general. Plus, we made the time more meaningful by commenting on our observations and connecting them to academics. For example, we talked about how the light moved through the water beads with water versus without water, and we estimated the number of beads that would fit in the stress ball.
Look for ways to extend your child’s favorite activities or favorite characters into an educational activity. It should be a natural extension. Simply asking open-ended questions (Who? What? Where? Why?) during play can help with problem–solving and critical–thinking skills.
3. Create a calming space
One thing that we are really missing during the closures is the chance to get our wiggles out through sensory play! At school, there is a sensory room filled with swings, weighted vests and blankets, and other equipment to help kids regulate themselves when they get anxious. In the community, we usually visit parks, pools, waterparks, and other places where we can run, jump, and get some energy out. Without these options available this year, we tried to replicate a sensory room at home to provide a calming space to relax.
One of the best ways that we have found to introduce a calming influence is to use sensory tubes. Sensory tubes seem to help my son focus and provide a soothing effect for his senses. A smooth, intriguing pattern that will engage their visual attention seems to be the key for an effective sensory experience. If you aren’t feeling adventurous enough to create your own sensory tubes at home, the Sensory Fidget Tubes from hand2mind make a great gift for any child on the spectrum.
To make your own sensory room at home, start with a quiet space, low lighting, and calm colors to create a relaxing environment. Add some visually appealing mood lighting, sensory tubes, and other calming visual effects. Allow kids to feel safe and “nest” in the room with weighted blankets, pillows, compression clothes, bean bags and other items to make them comfortable. An idea for calming activities for kids is to create sensory bins. At our house, we have play bins filled with pinto beans, sand, Playfoam, water beads, and more! It’s amazing to watch the engagement and pleasure kids receive by simply running their fingers through the bins and experiencing the sensations. Also, be sure to make fidget toys and other sensory play activities available in this room. Anything that kids can safely squeeze, pull, stretch, and squish can help regulate their bodies and emotions.
Everyone is pivoting to find innovate ways of doing things during our new normal. While every child and parent are feeling the stress and impact of quarantine, families with special needs children may feel especially vulnerable. Hopefully these tips of extending learning through play spark some ideas for sensory play at your home. While many of the special services and facilities that we rely on may not be available special needs parents will have to do what we do best and adapt to our unique situation to support our kids the best we can.
Chris Truby is the dad of two boys and “Dadvocate” for his youngest son, who is on the autism spectrum. For almost 20 years, Chris has been in the education industry helping schools find resources to support teachers and students. He also likes to spend time playing drums and volunteering for Autism Speaks.