close up of child playing with blue kinetic sand - sensory play activity

Sensory Activities for School Age Kids

When you hear the words “sensory activities,” do you think of water tables and rice bins? Sensory play is often associated with activities for toddlers, but the truth is that as children reach school age, their sensory needs stay with them. 

What Are Sensory Activities?

Simply put, sensory activities are ways of exploring the world, mainly through touch, movement, texture, smell, taste or sound. 

To understand why sensory activities for school-aged children are so important, let’s talk first about “self-regulation.” Occupational therapists introduced this term a few decades ago to describe how movement and sensory input can affect how we feel. Simply put, we all have a “Goldilocks zone,” which is not too much, not too little, but just right. 

Sensory input can include any kind of stimulation of the classic “five senses”:

  • Sounds, like music, conversation, traffic, construction, wind or the rattle of pipes
  • Scent, like fresh air, sweaty clothes, spices from the kitchen, car exhaust or soap
  • Touch, like cuddling a soft toy, splashing in the water, or mixing a sticky batter
  • Taste, like tap water, fizzy drinks, sour fruit, salty crackers, or bitter medicine
  • Vision, like the glow of a screen, a leaping dog, a colorful rack of clothes, or a cloudy sky

Sensory input also includes some very important but lesser-known systems:

  • Proprioception is how we feel our bodies move in space, maintain our balance and experience the pressure on our joints.
  • Interoception is the sense that tracks our body’s inner experiences, like pain, hunger, bladder fullness, arousal, or fatigue.
  • Vestibular input tells us how we are positioned, whether upright, hanging upside down, or spinning in circles. (Do you know that feeling you get when you’re in an elevator and you can sense that you have stopped moving? You can thank your vestibular system for that.)

As your children progress through school, they will probably spend more and more of their day seated at a desk, sitting still, or poring over worksheets, and so you might see their sensory needs spilling over in unexpected ways at the end of the day.

These unmet sensory needs can lead to all kinds of messy or risky situations at home. Children who persist in trying to meet their sensory needs are sometimes labeled “disobedient” or “careless” because they keep breaking house rules in the process or running away from chores and extracurriculars. Family dinners are complicated enough without arguing with children who are tipping their chairs back, tapping on the plates or kicking the chair legs. 

Fortunately, you do not have to run to the craft supply store or organize special bins to help your school-aged child enjoy more sensory play. In this article, you will find a feast of sensory activities that will help your child stay calmer and more regulated at home (without sacrificing their safety or your furniture.)

How Can I Tell if My School-Aged Child Is Getting Enough Sensory Activities?

Sensory activities are a wonderful way to explore the world and boost mood, but they can also be part of the essential process of “self-regulation.” With children spending more and more time indoors, under adult supervision, and on screens, opportunities for sensory play have become more limited. If your child could use more sensory play, you might notice your child doing unexpected things like climbing furniture, lying on the floor, ripping paper, chewing cloth, or making loud noises. In other words, they are seeking out their own sensory activities in an effort to manage their energy levels and their mood.

When your child is feeling comfortable and regulated, they will be able to shift from one activity to another and bring an appropriate amount of energy to that task. For example, when it is recess time at school, children are expected to “get their sillies out,” and run, shout, stretch out on the grass, throw balls, and chat with each other. When recess time is finished, the children might walk down the hall together to their music class, and the teachers will remind them to stay in line, walk (not run!) and stay very quiet. Children who struggle with self-regulation will often have difficulty switching from “high gear” (e.g., recess mode) to “low gear” (e.g., hallway or library mode.) 

At home, you might see your child struggling in the same way. Some children get stuck in “high gear,” which might look like constant movement, using the furniture as gym equipment, provoking arguments, asking anxious questions, and running into things. Other times, you might see your child stuck in “low gear” when confronted with something that requires energy and focus. This might look like a forehead resting on the table during homework time, lying on the couch when the family is trying to get out the door, or wandering around, unable to decide what to play with. 

For school-aged children with diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and Autism, sensory activities are especially important because their “Goldilocks zone” is likely quite different from that of the neurotypical people around them. Typically, people with ADHD  are easily “understimulated,” and so they have an appetite for intense sensory experiences. (Confession time: I usually start a boring task by looking for some kind of stimulation. Usually, that’s grabbing a cold, fizzy drink or turning on some noise in the background, but recently, I found myself trying to get focused by first clapping my hands loudly and scratching my arms before unloading the dishwasher!)

Many Autistic people report that they feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed in situations with high levels of sensory input, so choosing calming sensory activities (and avoiding unnecessary sensory input) helps them stay self-regulated.

Choosing the Right Sensory Activities for Your Child

Sensory play is a powerful strategy for helping with self-regulation, because it soothes the body in two important ways:

  • Sensory activities help children meet their needs and find that “Goldilocks” zone
  • Sensory activities help children to self-regulate and match the kind of energy required for the task at hand

For example, if your child is having difficulty calming down at bedtime, you can offer a calming sensory activity as part of your nightly routine. Similarly, if your child seems listless and floppy when it’s time to do chores or homework, you can set them up for success with a sensory activity that helps them feel more alert. The precise activity you use will depend on your child’s preferences and sensory needs, as well as how they are feeling when you offer it.

If you’re not sure where to start, think about your child’s current movement patterns and hobbies:

  • What do they gravitate toward when they are really excited?
  • What do they do when they are worn out?
  • As you try sensory activities, be sure to notice which activities had them yelling and laughing and which activities resulted in quieter voices and calmer bodies.

Ideas for sensory play for school-aged children

When it comes to finding sensory toys and activities for school-aged children, I have good news: they are everywhere and easy to find (even if your child is a big fan of screens and electronic devices!) You don’t even have to focus on one sense at a time (unless you really want to.) There are so many possibilities; you just need to know where to look. 

Some children will naturally jump right in, while others need some help as they experiment. Try these out with your child, and if they enjoy themselves, you can encourage them to continue on their own or with a friend.

Sensory Activities in The Kitchen

Don’t worry, you don’t need a lot of equipment or special ingredients to find a sensory activity for your school–aged child in your kitchen. Here are some simple activities to get you started:

  • Make “oobleck” from cornstarch and water. Stir it slow, then scoop it fast. Let it drip off the spoon and look at it melt back into a glassy surface. Draw lines in a shallow layer and watch them fill in. 
  • Transform your fruit. Got lemons or oranges? Carefully slice them and squeeze out the juice, then sweeten to taste. The rinds of citrus fruits have an amazing aroma, so don’t forget to get a sniff! Only apples in the fridge? No problem: applesauce makes an amazingly enriching sensory activity too.
  • Mix, match, and taste test! Your kitchen is probably full of sauces, spices and syrups, so why not mix up a (little) batch of something new? Your child could try out a new drink recipe or a dipping sauce for raw veggies.
  • Do you have an old family recipe for bread? If you’re not a fan of making bread with yeast, there are still so many ways to play with flour, including bannock, tortillas and chapati. Making dough can be an extremely useful skill, and even better, it’s a totally captivating sensory activity.

Sensory Play from The Couch

Not ready to face the day yet? The couch is an excellent jumping-off point for sensory activities, whether you are looking for an energizing experience or a wind-down.

  • Make a kid sandwich with the couch cushions. Now you are a human heavy-blanket (and providing proprioceptive input.) 
  • Back scritches. Is your child very ticklish? Do they ask you to scratch harder? This activity can tell you a lot about what kind of sensory input your child prefers (and you might even get a back scratch in return!)
  • Foot fight. Sitting toward each other, place your feet sole-to-sole with the other person. Does your child enjoy the challenge of pushing very hard against you? Maybe your child prefers just gently “walking” on the pressure from your feet. Physical contact and moving in coordination can be a powerful way to “co-regulate.”

In the Hallway Sensory Play

If your child is suspicious of “activities” or materials set up on the table, then you may find some handy sensory opportunities in the hallway. It’s perfect for a little “sensory snack” when you are in transition from one task to the other. You can set up a friendly competition or cheer each other on!

  • How long can you stand on one foot? Can you do it with your eyes closed? Putting extra weight on one leg can create a calming sense of pressure.
  • Wall push-ups. Stand at arm’s length from the wall, and place your palms on the wall in front of you. Gently lean forward as you bend your elbows, and then extend.
  • Funny walks. Make up anything you want, as long as it’s silly. Bounce, crab-walk, high-kick or slither– it’s all going to add up to a little extra sensory activity in your day.

Craft Drawer for Sensory Play

If your child just wants to curl up somewhere cozy, there are still lots of opportunities for sensory play. Craft activities provide satisfying sensory experiences while building fine motor coordination and creativity as well.

  • If you don’t know how to knit or sew, you can still play with yarn or embroidery floss. Remember friendship bracelets? Finger-knitting? Even braiding can be a soothing way to enjoy a tactile and visual sensory activity. 
  • Paint some rocks. From holding the cool surface of the rock to feeling the paint glide across the surface, this is more fun than an ordinary doodle. If you or your child would rather avoid the mess, you can use a gel pen, a paint pen, or even a chalk pen to create your designs.
  • Wool felting has made a comeback, so if you are looking for an excuse to hit the craft supply store, pick up a felting needle and some roving and let YouTube guide your first steps.

More Sensory Activity Ideas

  • Make smelling jars to guess different herbs and spices.
  • Scented playdough is a winning activity for any age.
  • Do a taste test and practice describing words.
  • Set up an ‘ice cream shop' (with clean snow in the winter).
  • Plant an indoor or outdoor garden. 
  • Writing practice in shaving cream, rice, or sand.
  • Learn about the rainforest and make rain sticks. 
  • Making homemade instruments like oatmeal container drums and rubber band guitars.

As you can see, the more we explore our surroundings, the more opportunities for sensory play we can find. Screen time has absorbed some of those daily moments, but once you know what to look for and what your child needs, sensory activities will be there as a support for your school-aged child.