by Elise Spronk, Occupational Therapist
Does gift giving at Christmas bring you joy or stress you out? As more options have been added to toys and gadgets, the task of finding a great gift that is both fun and beneficial can be daunting. The desire to give the perfect gift can sometimes be stressful & take away from the joy. Thus, I compiled a list of Sensory Development gift ideas 2 years ago for all of you who want to not only bring joy to the kids on your list this Christmas season, but also desire to give something that will be beneficial to their developing brains and sensory systems.
These are organized by sensory system categories and are not meant to be an endorsement for any particular brand. So, in other words, I’m not getting a kick back from a company to promote their items. I’m just a mom and aunt who also happens to be an occupational therapist who gets to play with toys every day.
The movement (vestibular) sense gives us a physical reference that helps us make sense of visual information, particularly where we are in relation to other things. It builds the foundations for handwriting, bilateral coordination, and most physical activities. We even move to listen better as movement stimulates the listening centers of the brain. Kids with vestibular processing problems may need to move more. Children who cannot process movement must use their vision to compensate. They might be clumsy, fall out of chairs, be slow to complete work, or appear disorganized.
- Trampoline: There are a variety of indoor and outdoor models that are great. One client’s mom recommended the Skywalker Trampoline for indoor play. It has a safety net that can be removed as the child grows and no longer needs this feature.
- Outdoor play set: Gross motor and pretend play are both developed during play with a backyard play set. I especially love the ones that also include a fort, probably from fond memories of making mud pies as a child.
- Dizzy Disc: This helps develop balance, coordination, spatial awareness and sensory stimulation for children 3+ years of age. The Dizzy Disc is very durable and can be used for kids up to 200 pounds. A Bosu Ball flipped upside down can be a great option as well.
- Lycra tunnel: I prefer the homemade versions of these tunnels because they are way more economical… if you know someone who sews. I purchased a 10-foot-long piece of lycra/cotton blend fabric and double stitched the ends together to make a tunnel. Kids love to crawl, do animal walks, push balls, and even just hideout and relax inside these tunnels.
- Swings: Indoor and outdoor swings are a great way to provide calming sensory input. I especially love pod swings for calming, and platform swings for sitting on while doing other fine motor activities.
- Foam building sets: Building obstacle courses is great for boosting creativity while promoting gross motor skill development. A set such as Costzon 4-in-1 Unique Shapes Convertible Climb and Crawl Foam Set can provide hours of fun as the possibilities are endless.
- Experiences including memberships and tickets to places such as the zoo, science center, trampoline park, local recreation centers make a great gift that keeps on giving all year long. If you’re local to the Des Moines area, you can get a year long pass to the Blank Park Zoo and Science Center of Iowa for $178.
The tactile sense comes from how we interpret information from the receptors on our skin. When you feel something, your nervous system helps you sense the object’s pressure, texture, traction, and other tactile qualities. Some kids experience difficulty processing tactile information. You might notice your child is over-reactive if he avoids certain textures, doesn’t like getting messy, avoids certain foods, or doesn’t like certain clothing items. On the other hand, some kids are under-reactive which is evident in behaviors like loving to touch and be touched, fiddling with objects in their hands, or fearlessly touching everything they see, even if the object might be dangerous. These gifts help promote a healthy tactile system.
- Kinetic sand: This can be purchased or make your own following our recipe! Even older kids like to play with kinetic sand as it is very calming. It’s not that messy so kids with tactile sensitivities can explore without aversion.
- Water beads: Walmart sells a large jar for around $10, often in the craft/color section of the store. This is a great bargain as a medium-sized container can be made with only a few tablespoons of the small beads. If you can’t pick this up at your local Walmart, you can order this pack online. A trick I’ve learned is to add salt and keep the lid off to preserve freshness. I also hide small beads in the water beads for kids to search and then string.
- Sensory socks: Similar to a lycra tunnel, these also provide movement, as well as deep pressure input and can be so calming for kids.
- Squigz: These small rubber toys have become a new favorite among kids of all ages. Younger kids love placing them on and pulling them off objects and older kids create patterns and arrange them in countless ways. And the sound they make when pulling them apart is so fun!
- Kits to make homemade slime: I prefer using homemade recipes from Pinterest but you can also purchase a slime kit like this one.
- Soft fleece homemade blankets and weighted blankets: DIY weighted blankets should be 7-10% of the child’s weight. Fleece tie blankets are easy to make for the non-sewers and add a personal touch since you make them yourself!
Vision helps us process, understand, and take action in our environment. Most kids develop a strong visual system simply by participating in activities that encourage visual exploration in their everyday environment. These gifts will help promote a healthy visual system!
- Spin Again by FatBrain Toys: This is great for toddlers as it is similar to a stacking game but has the added visual stimulation aspect of the pieces spinning down to the bottom.
- I Spy Dig In: This game could fall under the tactile and visual category as it has tiny objects (for fine motor/tactile development) to match to pictures on a card (visual perception).
- Liquid motion bubbler: These liquid motion bubblers are small, fascinating toys that can provide visual stimulation for a child and are a good alternative to technology.
- Light-Brite: This is an oldie but a goodie. I prefer the slanted Light Brites that may be considered “vintage”. The angled board adds the benefit of improving fine motor coordination training with encouraging wrist extension. This is a fun, entertaining way to work on eye-hand coordination skills.
- Spot It, Kanoodle, Q-Bitz Extreme: These three games are some of our favorite visual perception games to use in the clinic, especially with older kids.
A healthy auditory system allows for children to respond appropriately and naturally to sounds. Your child might be struggling with auditory processing if they are distracted by unimportant noises or if they miss out on important noises, such as directions from a teacher. If your child has outbursts as a result of noisy environments or tries to avoid noisy environments, he is likely hypersensitive to noise. If your child seems like she doesn’t hear things around her or doesn’t respond appropriately to auditory input (like her name being called), she may be hyposensitive to noise. These gifts help with a child’s auditory system.
- Bop-It: This is a fun game that allows kids to follow auditory cues to complete a specific action. It promotes listening, using 2 sides of the body together and cooperation with others.
- Rain stick: Encourage imagination, motor skills, and auditory stimulation with a rain stick!
- Simon: Another toy that’s made a comeback that has both auditory and visual sensory benefits is Simon. Simon works on reaction time, auditory-visual-and hand coordination. Kids can play alone or with a friend.
I hope that this list offers you some additional options to make your Christmas gift giving a joy-filled experience. Nothing beats the look of a child’s face on Christmas morning, whether it’s the gift inside or the box it came in. 😉 Hopefully these gifts will provide fun and growth all year long.