Sensory Smart Tips for the New Year

How have your first few days of 2017 gone? If they’ve been a little less smooth than you’d hoped, you’re not alone. Many families struggle with the transition back to school after a week or two off. During school breaks, structure tends to go out the window. The temptation is to relax and enjoy, stay up late and sleep in, eat whatever we want, and let school-week rules slide. If that’s how you spent your holidays, don’t be hard on yourself. We all need a break from routine once in awhile, and less structure can create space for precious moments of family bonding and fun. If this week has been a tough one in your house, take notes on what’s gone wrong -- that way, when the next break comes around, you’ll know what to look out for, and what to avoid.

Since we know this can be a challenging time of year for parents and kids, we enlisted the guidance of Lindsey Biel, Occupational Therapist, TMH Advisory Board member, and author of the books, Raising a Sensory Smart Child and Sensory Processing Challenges: Effective Clinical Work with Kids & Teens. She has a one word cure to get you and your family back on track and off to a happy and healthy 2017: MOVE.

“We forget how important it is to incorporate sensory rich movement into our daily lives,” Lindsey says. During vacations, kids (and adults) often spend a lot more time sitting than normal -- on planes, in the car, or just relaxing at home with the TV or computer. This means that after the holidays we need to jumpstart our bodies back into a routine of healthy movement. Here are Lindsey’s top tips to build your conscious movement habit for 2017.

  1. Take the stairs. Choose the stairs instead of the elevator to help build essential lower body strength, get the lungs working, and the heart pumping.

  2. Shuffle it up. There are several fantastic card decks that turn movement into a game. The Move Your Body game from Super Duper Publications is great for younger kids, and Yoga Spinner is popular with older kids.

  3. Blend screen time and active time. While it’s important to get time away from screens, there are also some fabulous movement-inspiring video and computer games. These are especially helpful for those kids who are tough to tear away from their electronics. Video game classics like Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution, can be played alone or with friends. The website Go Noodle, has a variety of movements to either activate and energize your sluggish child or calm down an overly bouncy child. Brain Gym is another wonderful movement program, with many of the videos of the exercises available on Youtube.

  4. Jump. Kids of all ages love to jump. Lindsey recommends getting a mini trampoline like this one from Pure Fun, putting a mattress on the floor and jumping on it, or just doing some jumping jacks.

  5. Create an at-home jungle gym. Ideally we’d take kids to the playground no matter the weather, but that doesn’t always happen in the grey, cold, wet days of winter. If you can’t make it outside, bring the fun indoors. Take cushions off the couch and put them on the floor. Use everyday household objects to build an obstacle course. Have fun and get creative.

  6. Dance. Put on your favorite upbeat music and turn your living room into a dance party. Dance is excellent aerobic exercise, listening to the rhythmic beat of dance music is organizing and calming, and the vibrations if you play the music loud are good sensory input.

  7. Use the weather as a tool. We often think of winter weather as inhibiting when it comes to staying active, but the season is full of fun opportunities to move. Take advantage of snow days by incorporating movement-rich play -- making snow angels, building snowmen, or sledding. Even rain can present possibilities for play -- stomping in puddles, dancing with umbrellas. Use the weather as an opportunity to try something new.

  8. Take the bore out of chores. While most kids resist cleaning up their room, Lindsey has found that many love the activities of polishing, shining, and wiping down furniture and other surfaces. She recommends keeping  a spray bottle handy and to  enlist young helpers, encouraging kids to use large arm movements. This can be great exercise, very organizing, and give kids a sense of accomplishment. If the child is a sensory-seeker, vacuuming, with the vibrations and sounds, can be very fun; shoveling is a great option if the snow isn’t too heavy; and even pulling wet laundry out of the washing machine helps build upper body strength. Or try giving your child the job of pushing a younger sibling’s stroller or the shopping cart at the grocery store. Not only are all of these activities opportunities for physical activity, but they can deepen the child’s sense of responsibility within the family.

It’s also important to re-establish healthy eating and sleeping habits at this time of year. If you got off track with sleep schedules during the holidays, transition back slowly. Instead of expecting your child to immediately adjust back to an 8pm bedtime after going to bed at 10pm every night during break, allow for an adjustment period by putting him or her to bed 15 minutes earlier each day. You may also need to make changes to your family’s diet based on the season. In the winter months, you might consider a supplement of vitamin D -- which we only get from sunshine and which and which has been shown to improve immune function -- and extra vitamin C to help ward off sickness.

A new year is the perfect time for forging new family habits, and moving more each day is a straightforward and doable resolution that the entire family can commit to. Kids and adults alike benefit from daily exercise, both in terms of our physical health as well as mood, stress levels and concentration. Now it’s just a matter of which one of Lindsey’s tips you’ll try first!

If your child struggles with sensory processing difficulties we encourage you to visit Lindsey’s website, which is full of resources on the topic.