A sensory bag is really an umbrella term that means a collection of items that children can either use to stimulate their senses, isolate them or soothe children in distress, and within this article we have used the term ‘bag’ to encompass other objects such as jars, bins, or even whole rooms. You could use a cardboard/plastic box that is full of items that children can touch or play with; it could be things that make different noises at different levels, or it could be ways that children can learn how to manage their balance and motor skills such as objects to climb or crawl under.  

All children need sensory input to develop fully, but for some, these objects can be a lifeline.  

In recent years, you may have noticed a burgeoning of information about sensory play, sensory issues and the importance of meeting the challenges of children who have sensory needs. There is no doubt that there is more awareness of the issues such as sensory processing disorder, which according to The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, affects at least 1 in 20 children’s daily lives in the US1. There is little incidence data and research in the UK but another population-based study2 suggests that 1 in 6 children experiences sensory challenges sufficient to disrupt their academic, social, and/or emotional development. 

The concept of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) has been talked about in clinical circles since it was first described in the 1960s by occupational therapist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, although it took until the late 1990s and the publication of Carol Stock Kranowitz’s “The Out-of-Sync Child” before clinicians really started to diagnose the condition.  

What is sensory processing? 

Sensory processing is how we all make sense of the world – our senses take in information from the world around us and our brains then translate the data allowing us to respond and react accordingly. It is a “subconscious and automatic neurological process that occurs in every person at all stages of life”. If you touch something hot for example, your sense of touch will relay this, along with a pain signal to your brain, which will then respond telling you to pull your hand away quickly. It usually happens in milliseconds and for most people, this process works well, keeping them protected and feeding them the information they need to move on and process other more intellectual or conceptual ideas.   

Our eight senses are: 

  • Visual (sight) 
  • Auditory (sound) 
  • Taste (gustatory) 
  • Smell (olfactory) 
  • Touch (somatosensory) 
  • Proprioception (muscle and joint movement) 
  • Vestibular (balance and head movement) 
  • Interoception (our sense of basic primary functions like needing the toilet or feeling hungry

      People with sensory processing impairment/disorder, may have difficulty with one or more of these, and their sensory processing may not develop as efficiently as it should. The child can then develop behavioural and social difficulties that can affect many daily activities such as getting dressed or walking down a street, which can then affect their experiences at nursery, school and their academic achievement.

      For sensory modulation disorders, children struggle to tolerate the level of sensory input that others do, so they may be oversensitive to some things, or actively seek out other sensory feelings to fulfil a sensory need. Many people who have normal sensory processing often find it hard to understand or empathise with people who have disorders, dismissing their distress as them being ‘fussy’ or unreasonable. However, most of us can understand the distress of hearing nails scraping down a blackboard, or having an itch which we just can’t scratch. Everything else seems to take second place, and if we wanted to focus on other things (like learning or schoolwork), we would have to either stop the input (i.e. the nails on the blackboard), or be soothed and satisfied (like the itch). Now imagine your world was full of things you either couldn’t stand or couldn’t be satiated by, and you will go some way to understanding the problems that children with sensory disorders face every day.  

      This is where sensory bags, bottles, jars and bins can help as they can provide stimulation or be soothing to the child. The important thing to remember here is that the individual needs of the child should always be taken into account and practitioners must have a good understanding of each child’s particular needs in order to meet them. That said, children with sensory needs may not have all received a full diagnosis or have a sensory activity profile/plan in nursery, so there is something to be said for experimenting and seeing what works best with each child.  

      Remember that sensory stimulation is not just for the children with sensory disorders too. All children need sensory inputs from a variety of different items and they will need you, the practitioner, to help them understand them.  

      Benefits of sensory bags 

      Using sensory items, children can: 

      • Build neural connections within the brain 
      • Develop fine motor skills handling and manipulating objects 
      • Learn social skills by sharing or playing  
      • Be calmed and soothed 
      • Fulfil sensory needs 
      • Maintain their focus and attention 
      • Practise skills (mark-making e.g. in sand, paint) 
      • Develop language skills and vocabulary – especially if they receive input from early years practitioners who can label objects, adjectives and feelings 
      • Develop maths/science skills by manipulating objects, measuring or counting for example 

      Sensory play 

      Sensory play is any activity that also stimulates a child’s senses, and can help them find their own sensory regulation levels but it doesn’t need to be limited to items you can put in bag. Playing music counts too, as would messy play or playing in the sandpit, and an all-time favourite of jumping in muddy puddles also engages many senses.  

      Make your own sensory bags 

      We have run different articles over the years that give you advice on how to make sensory bags, bottles, pathways and even sensory corners, rooms, and outdoor areas, some of which are relatively expensive and some of which are very cheap or can be made from recycled materials. They can be anything that is filled with items that stimulate any of the 8 senses. What’s important is that the children in your care have access to a range of sensory things to ensure that they develop their senses well or have therapies and interventions that can address any needs that they have, and it is often the practitioners interacting with the child that has the most benefit.  

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