What are Sensory Toys and How Can They Help Your Child?

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I have 3 daughters, work with hundreds of kids a week, and my wife teaches autistic kids. So, while I know the term sensory toys, I wasn’t sure exactly what they are, who they are for, or how they can help.

So I decided to research what sensory toys are so I would be better informed. Here’s what I learned:

Sensory toys are not just any toy. They engage a child’s brain using many of the 5 senses. They may light up, make noise, have textures, or have smells to engage the child on a deep level. While it can apply to normal toys, most are developed by therapists specifically for the needs of kids who will benefit the most.

But there’s a lot more to the world of sensory toys than just that, so let’s look at all the top questions and really dive in deep.

Check out my complete list of Recommended Sensory Toys (click to see on my site) which include some amazing and well-priced toys your kids will love!

Who are sensory toys for?

While many see sensory toys being exclusively for kids with autism, the reality is that there are many kids not on the spectrum with various sensory processing issues or even sensory integration disorder who can benefit from sensory toys.

While sensory toys do engage the senses, some kids with sensory issues can get overwhelmed with toys that have too much sensory stimulation.

Thus, sensory toys are designed to find the balance between engaging the child but not overwhelming them. You may also need to do some exploration to figure out what works best for your child.

What are sensory issues in a kid?

Some kids have what is called sensory processing disorder (SPD). 

These kids can sometimes react strongly or not at all to sights, sounds, and taste. This condition is still in its infancy, and not all doctors agree.

But many parents with kids with sensory issues know this is a real issue. 

Ultimately these parents seek out occupational therapists to work with their kids and help them work through the challenges that come with it.

Where I work in my day job, a large martial arts school with over 500 kids, we often get kids referred to us by occupational therapists, so we see the benefit of physical touch and contact and how it can help kids with sensory issues.

If you think martial arts might be a good outlet for your child, check out my comprehensive guide which walks you through how to select a good martial arts school (click to read my article), step by step.

What are sensory toys used for?

Sensory toys provide much-needed sensory input that many kids are starved for.

Autistic kids, in particular (but not exclusively) often need physical stimulation beyond what many toys provide.

Kids with sensory issues don’t always connect fully with others or with toys and other things that lack stimulation. Thus the sights, sounds, and textures of sensory toys are designed to capture our child’s attention.

When we can help our kids connect better to each other, to us, and to the world around them, we open up a whole new world of possibilities.

Unfortunately, Autism Statistics (click to read my complete list of stats) are on the rise across the globe, providing an ever-increasing need for the awareness of sensory toys.

Are fidget spinners sensory toys?

Ultimately, the answer here is maybe, but probably not.

Fidget spinners were all the rage a few years ago, but they remain popular today. They don’t quite meet the definition of sensory toy as they don’t engage with sound, smell, or taste.

Sensory toys are designed to stimulate a child and help them connect, focus, and be present to their surroundings.

Fidget spinners, on the other hand, might engage the sense of touch, and arguably sight if it creates a cool pattern as it spins. But ultimately we’re trying to help kids focus and connect and I’m not convinced fidget spinners do that.

Why are sensory toys important?

As we’ve said, sensory toys can help develop crucial motor skills, stimulate the senses, and help with sensory integration. 

When kids engage in the use of sensory toys and play, they learn to use all of their senses.

It helps foster sensory integration, which allows our body to understand and process all of the information we get from the 5 senses.

My wife is a master of sensory play (and, prior to the birth of our last daughter in 2017, was a teacher specializing in autism.

Her favorite thing, which we still do, is to use a giant sheet to protect the floor. Over the past 12 years, it is literally covered in paint, chalk, glitter glue, and many other things.

So it allows for the kids to have sensory play even when it’s bad weather outside, without getting the house messy.

What is sensory integration therapy?

Sometimes kids need more than we can provide for them.

For kids with sensory challenges, sometimes that means something called sensory integration therapy. While we introduce those concepts in our martial arts classes, an occupational therapist is the right place to get started.

By exposing kids to repeated sensory stimulation, over time, kid’s brains learn to adapt and process the sensory information more efficiently.

The longer the child works on sensory integration therapy, the more challenging and complex the therapist will make the activities.

A good occupational therapist will first evaluate your child to determine their specific needs. Then they will work with them over a period of weeks, months, or sometimes even years engaging them in an ever-increasing challenge level of sensory activities.

The goal is that through touch, sights, and sounds, the occupational therapist will essentially re-wire the brains of the kids they see.

Do bear in mind that sensory processing disorder is NOT officially recognized by the traditional medical community. Thus, psychiatrists will not typically suggest this for treatment.

That being said, in my day job, I’ve seen hundreds of kids benefit from both our work with them as well as that of occupational therapists.

What are the different types of sensory issues?

Every child is different, and every diagnosis of a sensory issue may be different.

Thus, it’s not uncommon for experts, teachers, and occupational therapists to see the following:

  • Sensitivity to sound (or other senses)
  • Kids who have a ton of energy or extremely low energy
  • Speech delays
  • Motor skill & coordination challenges
  • Lack of spatial awareness

In my house, my middle daughter has a sensitivity to sound and has since a young age. Loud music, such as a concert or sporting event often challenges her nervous system. She also faced some speech delay challenges at a younger age and to this day still speaks very quietly.

But in the other categories, she really excels. All that is to reinforce the idea that sensory challenges show up in different ways with different kids.

How to help a child with sensory processing challenges

Noise sensitivity

If your child struggles with a sensitivity to noise, as my middle daughter does, try and give them as much of a heads up as possible when loud noises are about to happen. You can also try discrete earplugs at concerts and sporting events.

While headphones can work too, since feelings of awkwardness can sometimes accompany sensory challenges, I would steer clear of anything that might make them feel more self-conscious.

Interestingly enough a white noise machine (or just one of the hundreds of videos on YouTube can be soothing for kids with noise sensitivity.

Visual sensitivity

Bright lights can sometimes challenge kids with visual sensory challenges.

Thus, if this is happening in your house, consider colored light bulbs and dimmer switches. Sunlight can also present some challenges, so curtains, blinds, or window tint in your car and house can be great solutions.

At school ask your teacher to move your child’s desk away from the windows. While you could get them to wear sunglasses, that too will draw attention to them which has its challenges too.

If your child has the reverse condition and needs more light upgrade light bulbs to brighter ones, add lamps and consider one of those night lights that show a scene on a wall (often Disney related).

Make sure their bedroom has a lot of organizers and cabinets so that everything has its place. Also, avoid going crazy on paint colors and posters so that the room is soothing and not over-stimulating.

Touch sensitivity

Kids with touch sensitivity may react strongly to odd feelings and textures.

Thus, for example, if you are going to wash their hands, give them a heads up about water, water temperature, and soap.

Sometimes these kids don’t like touch and may not be very affectionate.

For us parents, this can be really hard and hard for us to not take personally. Always make sure to ask for permission before hugging and if they don’t want to hug, find an alternative gesture that signifies their affection for you.

That could be a high five, a gentle squeeze on their forearm or some other small gesture.

As kids get older and the physical expectations increase (and their awareness of them), that can be really stressful.

Give them tips and tools to help them communicate their preferences in a funny or loving way such as “I’m not a hugger, grandma, but I love you a lot!”

Believe it, or not, but something like wrestling (the Brazilian Jiujitsu we do at my martial arts school) is incredibly beneficial for kids with touch sensitivity. They need that heavy touch.

What are the benefits of sensory play?

As our kids mix, dig, connect blocks, finger paint, and other sensory methods of play, they learn concepts like:

  • What makes something tall or short
  • Empty or full
  • Smooth or rough
  • Loud or quiet

Kids are also starting to learn really basic math concepts in addition to language even self-regulation (getting frustrated when things don’t go as planned).  

While it may not be calming to parents, messy play such as finger painting, drawing with chalk on a sidewalk, is essential for kids with sensory issues.

It’s arguably essential for ALL kids.

Some sensory toys also provide benefit for kids with ADHD. They work by improving focus and concentration with kids who struggle to listen and connect unless their hands are occupied.

Whether ADHD or autism or other sensory challenges, each child is unique, making it all but impossible to us a one-size-fits-all approach.

But sensory toys that spin, light-up or are bendable are definite favorites with many kids and experts.

Sensory toys are just one of the many things we parents can do to help Treat ADHD Naturally (click to read my article). While medication is certainly necessary, there’s a lot we parents can try first. And aren’t our kids worth it?

Are sensory toys just for kids with autism?

Middle Class Dad What are sensory toys? young child playing with digging toys in a small box filled with sand

The short answer is no.

There are a great many sensory challenges come up for kids that lend themselves to working and playing with sensory toys.

Whether a child has ADHD, sensory processing disorder, or even just some sensitivity with one of more of the senses, they can see a tremendous benefit with sensory toys.

Of course, kids on the autism spectrum can also benefit significantly too.

If you have a child on the autism spectrum, it might surprise you to learn that not all countries are equal in terms of the rise of ASD. If you’re curious, check out the 15 countries with the Lowest Rates of Autism (click to read my article which lists them all).

It just might surprise you!

What toys are good for autistic kids?

As with ADHD and kids with sensory challenges in general, there isn’t a one-size approach that works with helping kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Toys also vary in age-appropriateness too.

That being said, there are some great examples of sensory toys that would make a great addition to your child’s collection:

  • Sound Puzzles – These amazing puzzles from Melissa & Doug encourage problem-solving and are designed to engage kids with sound as well as sight. When they place a puzzle piece in the correct spot, they hear the sound that corresponds to the image on the puzzle piece
  • Sensory Brushes – Simple little scrub brushes that are “effective for sensory processing disorder or autism spectrum disorder allowing for a decreased fear or discomfort from being touched and improved self-regulation during daily activities.”
  • Adventurous Mind Stretchy String Fidget Sensory Toys – Multipacks of “different squishy fidget toys”. BPA and latex-free, for ages 4 and up.
  • Harkla Kid Pod Hanging Indoor Swing – This autism swing (soothes) an individual’s (spatial awareness and body movement) with a swinging sensory input. Holds up to 150 lbs and comes with all the hardware. Lifetime guarantee!

Check out my complete list of Recommended Sensory Toys (click to see on my site) which include all of these and more!

What are the best sensory toys?

As with anything else, “best” is very subjective.

That being said, we can check with experts, read reviews, and see what the best-sellers are to get a pretty good gauge of the best sensory toys.

The following sensory toys all have terrific reviews, are well-priced, and many are recommended by top experts:

  • Tangle Textured Fidget Toys – Link them together and twist and turn to create different shapes. Hours of fun!
  • SANHO Yopo Dynamic Movement Sensory Sox – Essentially a giant pouch your child climbs inside of (does not cover head). Designed to “help to improve self-calming, balance, increased body and spatial awareness, and heightens movement creativity.”
  • Dizzy Disc Jr. Spinning Disc – “This durable toy creates hours of fun for kids to spin and release pent up energy for many years. Adjustable spin angle to increase the difficulty. Teachers and therapist nationwide use the Dizzy Disk Jr. to help kids develop strength, balance, coordination, spatial awareness and motor skills.” 
  • Jarrby Sensory Toys – These pre-k and kinder STEM 3-D puzzle pieces have been featured on all major news sources and will “boost their cognitive development, reasoning, problem-solving and fine motor skills.

Check out my complete list of Recommended Sensory Toys (click to see on my site) which include all of these and more!

Did I cover all the questions you had about sensory toys?

In this post, we took an in-depth look at the world of sensory toys.

We looked at exactly what they are, who they are for, how they can help, and exactly what they do. Specifically, we answered the question “what are sensory toys?” so we can be better informed and ultimately be in a better position to help our kids.

What has been your biggest parenting challenge?

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Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell is a husband, father, martial artist, budget-master, Disney-addict, musician, and recovering foodie having spent over 2 decades as a leader for Whole Foods Market.

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