Your three-year-old keeps leaving the crowded park after many warnings not to.

Your five-year-old bangs their head against the floor when they are very upset.

Your toddler refuses to use anything but the swings when you take them to the park.

Your preschooler hits their classmates when asked to sit still for circle time.

Your four-year-old will not eat unless the TV is on.

What’s going on here?

It’s frustratingly common for things like this to be blamed on a child’s poor behavior or lackluster parenting, but a similar thread runs through all the above examples: sensory integration. As children’s brains develop, they go through immense growth in how they interpret information and respond to various experiences.  

What is sensory integration?

As we absorb information in our daily lives, our brains work hard to organize it all. Adults often come to a point where they no longer notice the hum of the refrigerator, and might be able to listen to a podcast while washing dishes. These are examples of the ways our brains decide which things are important to notice and what can be ignored, and many of these processes happen without much conscious thought. This is sensory integration in action; the brain taking in information from our many senses and generating an effective response.

For young children, this is an immense undertaking. As they learn more about the world their brain must determine where to direct their attention and how to respond. Their ability to do this usually improves over the years but will also inevitably fluctuate day-to-day. In a moment when children’s senses are integrated well, we likely see them engaged in meaningful play and learning. They are often able to communicate their wants and needs, play with other children, and participate in a wide variety of activities.

As parents, we can also call to mind moments when our children’s senses (or even our own) were not well integrated. It might be a moment where a child can’t stop crying at a loud and crowded birthday party, or when we have to put on earplugs in order to focus on a work project while the kids are playing. In these moments, we’re experiencing sensory overwhelm. At other times, we may find our children or ourselves seeking sensory experiences to help with regulation. We might put on loud music while stuck in traffic, or our children might rock back and forth as they fall asleep. In these moments, we’re resolving sensory underwhelm. Over the years, our children learn more skills for coping with many different sensory experiences; like us they develop preferences such as listening to music or silence while they focus. They eventually learn how to determine what they need in any given moment, and how to communicate those things.

Supporting Sensory Integration

We can support children’s sensory learning by providing them with a variety of rich experiences that engage their senses. In the classroom you can see this in multiple areas like the sensory table, the music that we play, and the room décor. At home you might try offering activities like playdough, finger painting, or water pouring. You could also try adding music or audiobooks to certain daily routines, like bath time.

One of the biggest ways to support children’s sensory integration is to observe when they are experiencing too much or too little sensory input of any kind and adjust as needed.

When it’s just too much…


  • Dim the lights to reduce visual overwhelm
  • Reduce visual clutter by tidying, organizing, or minimizing decorations
  • Hang curtains or create a fort to create darkness & a small space


  • Offer headphones or earplugs to reduce volume
  • Eliminate extra noise by turning off background music or fans
  • Use a white noise machine or calming music to drown out more overwhelming sounds


  • Remove irritating tags from clothing
  • Offer clothing in preferred textures
  • Offer a bath
  • Suggest gloves for messy projects or sensory play
  • Place messy sensory materials in plastic bags to explore without getting dirty


  • Avoid perfumed soaps, detergents, etc.
  • Use a distracting scent (like a lotion) to smell instead of something unpleasant
  • Offer a mask to reduce the smells coming in

Taste & Oral Sense

  • Offer bland foods or water as a pallet cleanser when the meal features strong flavors
  • Avoid pressure or shame around trying new foods
  • Remember that texture can also be an element of taste which children avoid

When they might need a little more…


  • Offer visual sensory items like mirrors, kaleidoscopes, and seek & find books
  • Add colored or twinkling lights as décor
  • Provide high contrast art and materials to explore


  • Play a variety of music either with speakers or headphones
  • Put on an audiobook or podcast
  • Offer a variety of musical instruments and items to make noise with
  • Create a space where yelling, singing, and screaming are acceptable


  • Offer sensory activities that involve using hands or feet with a variety of materials like water, playdough, beads, and other items
  • Provide toys for fidgeting
  • Try a bath, a weighted blanket, or a compression suit


  • Make ‘smelling bottles’ and other activities that contain scents to explore using spices, herbs, and other substances
  • Use scented lotions or lavender filled stuffed animals

Taste & Oral Sense

  • Offer spices and condiments that children can add to meals themselves
  • Offer crunchy foods or other interesting textures
  • Offer items for chewing like silicone chewers or frozen washcloths

Going beyond the five senses

Most of us learned extensively about our five senses during our own childhoods: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Additional senses exist that we don’t always think of, like the sense of where our body parts are as we move in space (proprioception), our sense of movement (vestibular), and our sense of our internal sensations (interoception). Playing with these senses is just as important as the big five we all know.

Physical play and movement are the best ways to offer children opportunities to explore vestibular and proprioceptive senses. At school we spend as much time as possible outdoors and in large motor spaces where children can run, spin, hang, swing, flip, and flop on the ground. All of these movements are essential to children learning the sense of where their body is and how it feels to move. For many children, the few hours they get of this play each day are simply not enough; they require more movement in order to regulate, learn, and play.

During times when large motor play is less possible, we strive to offer the kids ways to move their bodies. Circle time often includes lots of opportunities to move and dance, and during moments where sitting is necessary, we use wiggle seats and cushions so that children can move as needed. Some kids even eat their meals on a wobble stool!

Providing for children’s vestibular and proprioceptive play at home can definitely prove more complicated when you account for wider age ranges of siblings, limited space, and concerns about damaging walls or fixtures (especially if you’re renting). Here are some recommendations you might consider:

  • Walk or run together; in the yard or at a nearby park
  • Make time to go to a variety of parks & play spaces; some will involve lots of time on swings or spinning toys, while others might be all about climbing logs and jumping off of rocks
  • Have dance parties
  • If you’re able, consider adding some sensory equipment to your home such as wiggle stools, stepping stones, small scooters, a small trampoline, a tunnel, or a swing

Interoception, on the other hand, is our sense of what’s going on inside our body. Noticing that we are cold, hungry, or upset is a complicated process that requires children to notice subtle internal feelings, label them appropriately, and process a solution. Many of us are familiar with just how hard this can be if we have helped a child through toilet learning.

One of the most powerful ways to help children build their interoceptive sense is to label the things we notice and gently support them making decisions that meet their needs. This might be pointing out that a child probably feels hungry when they’re melting down before dinner, checking on a child who can’t stop wiggling to see if they might need to use the toilet.

With practice, this sense can also be used in an incredibly powerful way: to identify their own sensory needs. Children can notice the frustrated feeling they get when things are too quiet, or the wiggly feeling of needing to move, and can process a solution to that issue like turning on an audiobook or going to their rocking chair. When we support children’s interoceptive sense, we are helping them ultimately integrate their various sensory needs across the board.

For more information on interoception, check out this article!

Back to the top…

So what’s going on in the five vignettes above? Click through each drop down item below for some ideas about the sensory connections that might be underlying in each situation!

Your three-year-old keeps leaving the crowded park after many warnings not to.

Is the playground too noisy, or too crowded? This child might benefit from wearing headphones or coming back on a day when there are less people. It’s also possible they are seeking walking/running that aren’t possible on playground equipment that is full of other children. You might try going on a walk or jog instead.


Your five-year-old bangs their head against the floor when they are very upset.

Identifying upset feelings is an aspect of interoception, and it’s not uncommon for children to seek vestibular input like pounding on things when they’re having a strong emotion. You can offer vestibular items like weighted blankets, or safe items to pound, while also labeling the emotion your child may be having. When the meltdown is over, you might be able to suggest some solutions for next time.

Your toddler refuses to use anything but the swings when you take them to the park.

Swings provide fabulous vestibular input! Children’s drive to explore this sense can be almost insatiable at times, and most just need time to use it thoroughly. If pushing the swing is getting exhausting, you can try directing them to other vestibular play or setting up a low-height swing they can use themselves.

Your preschooler hits their classmates when asked to sit still for circle time.

Sitting still is simply an impossibility at times, and the discomfort of being understimulated can lead to various frustrating behaviors. Accommodations like wobble stools, standing for circle, fidget toys, and lots of movement breaks can help children meet their sensory needs while also engaging in community rituals.

Your four-year-old will not eat unless the TV is on.

For some children, this might be a sign that they are understimulated and need something to process in addition to their meal. For other children, this may be a coping strategy for feeling overwhelmed by the experience of eating. They might be relying on the TV as a distraction from the multitude of smells and tastes that come with mealtime. If you are hoping to move away from pairing tv with family dinner, you might consider putting on music or an audiobook, having them sit on a wiggle seat, or even offering a fidget toy to use throughout dinner.

“The essential function of challenging behavior is to communicate to adults that a kid doesn’t possess the skills to handle certain demands in certain situations.”

Ross W. Greene

When should I be concerned?

All young children struggle with sensory integration to some extent; it’s simply a part of their brain development. A good benchmark for checking in is around 3 years old; by this age, most children will be at a point where they can process a wider variety of sensory input most of the time.

You may want to talk to your child’s teachers or their doctor if their sensory needs are:

  • Making it difficult to engage with other children
  • Preventing them from participating in many activities
  • Making it difficult to meet their other needs (eating, sleeping, avoiding injury, etc.)
  • You need help coming up with ways to meet their sensory needs

As children approach school age, having a good idea of a child’s sensory needs and building our own advocacy tools becomes essential to help them thrive in formal educational settings like Kindergarten. School teachers can meet children’s needs best when we are able to frame them from the neurological and physiological perspective of their senses. And if a child’s needs result in a diagnosis or qualification for an IEP (Individual Educational Plan), their rights to necessary accommodations are then legally protected.

Regardless of the level of support they might need, all children benefit when the adults around them can provide care in a sensory-aware way. When we can recognize that frustrating or confusing behavior may be rooted in their sensory needs, we are able to change the way we view the child. Instead of seeing a child who is acting out or misbehaving, we can see a kid who needs help and support in processing or coping with something.

Reaching out for help:

If you are curious about sensory development, need ideas for creating a sensory rich environment at home, or have concerns you’d like to share, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Your child’s teachers and our administrative team (Matt, Jenn, and Rebekah) are happy to chat any time.

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