Gifts for kids with special sensory and motor needs purchased from a specialty retailer can be expensive. But sensory-beneficial playthings need not be “clinical-strength” equipment.  Here are a few gift ideas–including several that can be made at home–which can be both fun and functional.

First it’s important to keep in mind the recipients particular sensory profile. A child who is easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli may not get the same enjoyment or benefit out of an item suited for a sensory-seeking child and vice-versa. Talk with the child’s parent or occpuational therapist (OT) for some suggestions.

Wonderfully Weighted
Heavy items provide deep touch pressure and proprioceptive input. An easy and inexpensive option–especially if you’re handy with a needle and thread–is to purchase a floppy stuffed animal, remove some of the stuffing, and insert beanbags or a fabric bag loosly packed with fish tank gravel (use the white kind as colored gravel can bleed when washed). Depending on the child, this toy can be great for snuggling, laying under or placing on his or her lap to provide the grounding input some kids crave. Even simpler: Some slightly heavy beanbags and a two play buckets can also be the start of carrying or tossing games.

Calm, Cuddly & Quiet
Think of items that can be used to build a kid-sized, quiet sensory space: sleeping bags, fun shaped or printed throw pillows, a play tent, an area rug with an unusual texture. A few items like this can turn a space in a child’s room or other living space into a favorite place to relax and regroup.

Treasure Hunt!
Fill a 16-ounce (or larger) plastic storage tote three-quarters full with dried red beans, available in bulk from the grocery store. Bury small toys–plastic dinosaurs, toy cars and the like–in the beans and dig for treausre. Throw in some beach toys for scooping. This is a favorite activity that OT’s have in their clinics, but it’s easy to replicate at home for not much money. Note: it’s a good idea to place a large blanket or bedsheet on the floor while playing with beans to catch any that come out of the tote.

Bright Lights, Big Colors
Lava lamps aren’t just for dorm rooms! Black-light or other colored lightbulbs, flashlights covered with cut-out cardboard silhouettes, and the old dorm-room standby lava lamp can be great for kids who seek visual stimulation. Likewise, items like aquarium lamps (which mimic the look of fish swimming in water) or glowsticks can be fun and, depending on the child, quite calming. Keep in mind that bigger items like lava lamps are often made of glass and can get hot, so choose light-up items with the child’s particular situation in mind.

Swing, Swing, Swing!
Most kids love to swing, and it provides valuable input into the vestibular system located in the inner ear. For families who have an outdoor swing-set, it’s easy to make a stretchy hammock from six or nine yards of heavy-duty lycra spandex material, ususally available at fabric stores. With a couple large carabiners from an outdoor store, the fabric can be tied into a large loop and suspended from the existing outdoor swingset or between two large trees. For indoor use, we recommend a doorway swing support bar, which is available from therapy stores for under $100. Before setting up swings or other suspended equipment, talk with an OT for guidance on how to set up and play with a doorway swing safely.

While a doorway swing bar is not cheap, it can be extremely useful in places where weather prevents kids from going to outdoor playgrounds. Providing easy access to an indoor swing is good for kids who need intense vestibular input, and great for parents and caregivers who would prefer not to dash through the snow to an indoor playgym.

Speaking of playgyms, membership to an indoor play space is a great gift for kids with sensory needs. Some incorporate imaginative and physical play, while others cater specifically to gross-motor activities such as swinging, jumping, sliding and bouncing. Memberships can be extremely valuable not just because of the access to a safe play environment; members may also find they have more access to a wider variety of playtimes and activities.  At times these play places may be overstimulating for sensory sensitive children, so check with the child’s parents to see if this is a good match.

No matter what you choose, check with the child’s parent or occupational therapist for feedback before selecting and purchasing a sensory gift. Happy holidays from everyone at the Spiral Foundation at OTA-Watertown!

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