A sensory look at the child who won’t engage in messy play

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When I was a teenager, my mother was the head of an early years setting close to our house. I remember my disdain at 14 as she stuck her own fingerprinted painting to the fridge with magnets. Whose mother does finger painting – insert teenage eye roll here – and hand printing! God, will I ever live this down? Our backroom was a wealth of playdough, cornflour mulches and shaving foam experiments. Yes, I have had a rich sensory upbringing – thank you, Mum (and sorry for all the teenage grumpiness).

My own little boy (3 years old) is currently growing up amidst the gak, moon sand and pearl clay of my work. Your settings will be full of these experiences, old and new. And doubtless, from time to time, you will meet a child reluctant to get their fingers sticky. Sometimes these children have inherited an almost pathological fear of mess from parents who sponged them clean with antiseptic wipes at the slightest sign of mess in their early years, managing to maintain a house far cleaner than my own. But although this explanation is easy to reach for the vast majority, cleanly kept children will relish the opportunity to get messy if an adult is foolish enough to let them.

You will also have met the child who will only eat beige things from packets. The incredibly fussy eater. We are going to talk about this child in the next blog.

Both of these children are likely to be experiencing some form of sensory processing difficulties. I discussed the rise in prevalence of sensory difficulties in my previous blog, so I won’t repeat that here. Instead, we are going to consider what we can do to help these children.

First off: never force them or insist they take part in an activity. Doing this is likely to backfire on you and increase their fear of the experience.

Next: aim to repeat experiences in a predictable way and allow the child to increase their engagement to a level they feel comfortable with on each repetition. The more predictable the experience, the easier it is for them to increase their engagement. So I imagine, currently, you set out a richly different set of resources from week to week. For the child who struggles with these experiences, each one is a new and unique challenge. By repeating an experience, you can help them to get used to it over time.

Better yet, put the experience into a structure of some sort so that there is a predictable route through it; you could include within this something that they love. This structure could be a simple routine, or a rhyme, or even a sensory story! The added benefit of encasing the challenging experience within a structure is that it gives the child a sort of warm-up for the event. Rather than being launched headlong into the challenge, they have a preparation routine and the continuation of that structure after the event lets them know that it is going to be over. Think of something you fear – if it just happened to you, how alarming would that be? If you were forewarned, however, would you consider yourself forearmed? You would be able to ready your mind and your concentration to better cope with the event. Think of that thing you fear again. If it is happening now and you do not know how long it is going to last for, that is a very different kettle of fish from if it is happening now but you know that – no matter what – in two minutes it will be over. That is far easier to cope with. By creating a routine, a structure, around a challenging sensory experience, we give children this support.

Some children will never be able to adjust their sensory processing such that it can deal with sensory experiences they find challenging. These children still benefit from the structured repetition of experience but instead of expecting increasing engagement over a series of repetitions with these children, you will need to teach them coping strategies to help them deal with the experience. For example, for a child who struggles with the sound of other people chewing, you might teach them how to put on ear defenders during snack time and work with them until they can fetch the ear defenders for themselves and put them on when they need to. The precise nature of each coping strategy will depend on the need in the child and this is where your own creativity comes into play, as you work out the solutions they need to cope with the world as they experience it.

I do not want you to lose the wonderful variety of sensory play you currently offer to the children in your setting. Instead of making everything the same, what about developing a couple of sensory songs? The children you support love to repeat favourite songs. Adapt a verse of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ to include something squelchy and when that verse is sung, bring out your little pot of goop and pass it around for everyone to squish their hands into. Little and often like this is far more likely to be a route to better sensory processing than one-off, enforced activities.

About the author

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, Trainer, Author, TEDx speaker and Founder of The Sensory Projects.

Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and diverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities. 

Joanna’s books Sensory Stories for children and teens and Sensory-being for Sensory Beings sell globally. She has a further five books due for publication within the next two years, including four children’s books. 

Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn. 

 

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