My Top 10 Sensory Toy Picks
In the beginning of my older son’s journey with SPD, I bought any and every sensory toy that presented even the tiniest possibility of being helpful. Anything H’s PT and OT used during therapy, I bought. Anything another mom recommended, I had to at least try.
As the toy pile threatened to take over our family room, my husband worried that our already crowded house was turning into a disturbing combination of a toy store/gym and that our bank account was taking quite a hit. I paid no attention (sorry, A!). If there was something that might help H, I was going to get it and, I reasoned, at least we were putting our Amazon Prime account to good use!
Well, hindsight is 20/20. Like my obsession with reading books on SPD, my penchant for buying sensory toys was a bit excessive. And much to my husband’s dismay (read: extreme irritation), many of those toys ended up being donated or given to friends.
To (hopefully) prevent your house from looking like Toys R Us/Kidsville and to keep your bank account out of the red, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten sensory toys we used (and some we still do) for both my sensory-defensive older son and my sensory-seeker younger son.
The Time Timer
This isn’t a toy, but it is a must-have tool for any parents of children who struggle with transitions. We use it for everything- any transition (playing to getting dressed, playing to eating a meal, etc.), quiet time, screen time, special time and any time we have to leave the house. First I give my kids “the plan,” - “you have 20 minutes to play before we have to go up and get ready for school.” Then I set the timer and place it where it’s in clear sight. “The timer is set, when you hear it go off, it’s time to go upstairs.”
The beauty of the Time Timer is the red disk that appears in a clockwise direction when it’s set which gives your child a strong visual of how much time is left. Once it’s set, I give verbal cues to remind the kids to check in with the timer, making sure they realize it’s the timer (not me) who’s in charge of the time- “Alright guys, the Time Timer says you have 5 minutes left before it’s time to brush teeth.”
The Timer Timer won’t eradicate transition difficulties, but using it consistently has noticeably decreased my kids’ transition-induced meltdowns.
For many kids with sensory processing challenges, proprioceptive input (“prop”) is calming and organizing. A fantastic and easy way for kids to get prop is jumping. Bonus points if you have a crash pad they can fling themselves onto. When you notice your child’s body needs to be “woken up” or that he’s showing signs of being dysregulated, direct him to the trampoline and let him have at it.
For an easy DIY crash pad, try calling a discounted fabric store in your area and ask if they have bags of scrap foam you can purchase. If you live in San Diego, try UFO Upholstery. Then purchase a duvet cover, have your kids help you stuff it with the foam (another great prop activity), and voila! You have yourself a nifty crash pad.
Sit 'n Spin
If you were born any time after the 70’s, chances are you remember this classic toy. This is a great choice for kids with vestibular processing issues. If your child is over responsive to vestibular input, like my older son, H, take it slow. Let him explore the Sit ’n Spin at his own pace and check in with his OT for tips on how to incorporate it into his daily play.
We bought this for H when he was one year old and he still loves it. He’ll be in the middle of building something with his Legos and will randomly bust out the Sit ’n Spin, take a few spins, and go back to building. It cracks me up! He wasn’t always like that-it took several years of working on his ability to tolerate vestibular input for him to seek it out on his own.
Helpful tip for over-responsive kiddos- Follow vestibular input with a proprioceptive activity to help keep their nervous systems regulated.
Did you know that your jaw is your strongest muscle? Me neither! Crazy, right! That makes it an excellent source of proprioceptive input. Whether your child is under or over responsive to prop, Chewy Tubes are a must-have. Chomping down on these suckers is an excellent way for your child to get that calming proprioceptive input.
We bought these when H was a baby and at 6 years old, he still uses them regularly. I keep them everywhere- in the playroom, in my purse, in H’s room- so he can just grab them when his body needs the input.
Another great activity for vestibular and proprioceptive input. There are tons of ways to use the scooter board for sensory integration. My boys’ favorite is to lie on top of the scooter board on their tummies, grab onto the handles of a jump rope, and then giggle uncontrollably as I grab the other end and pull them across the floor (has to be hardwood or linoleum). At least once a day, one of my boys requests this activity. I have to admit, I’m kind of jealous, it looks really fun!
Like the scooter board, there are endless possibilities for using a yoga ball to promote sensory integration. Here are my boys’ favorites:
- Child sits on top of it and bounces (little ones will need your help to do this)
- Child lies down and you roll it over his body (great for calming if you do it slow and with firm pressure)
- Child lies on his tummy, you hold on to his hands and rock him back and forth
- Child lies on his back, you hold on to his hands and rock him back and forth
- You sit on it, have child sit on your lap, either facing you or facing outward and you bounce together
- Child does a “plank” pose with legs on ball and hands on the ground
Click here for 10 more ideas.
Great for providing tactile input. If you have a tactile defensive child (like H), start by having him drive his toy cars/trucks through the sand or encourage him to stick objects in it ( toothpicks, buttons, lego figures, etc). Over time, he will gain the confidence to touch and play with it and then the fun really begins! This stuff is amazing- it oozes, melts, and moves through your fingers but can also be molded into shapes. So cool!
Fabulous for providing vestibular and proprioceptive input, strengthening your child’s core, improving bilateral coordination and overall motor development, the balance board is another one of our staples. Here are a few ways to incorporate it into your child’s play:
- Just stepping on it and trying to balance is great therapy in itself
- Your child balances while shifting weight from right to left
- Your child tries to balance while you throw him bean bags
- Your child balances while throwing a bean bag up in the air himself and trying to catch it
- Your child balances while transferring a bean bag back and forth between hands
Aim for 5-10 minutes a day, five days a week. Don’t worry if your child isn’t interested at first or tries it for a minute and then gives up in frustration. Be consistent about offering it as a fun game to play and eventually he’ll warm up to it. It took H forever to become interested in playing with it. Now he loves it and has become a balancing pro!
Many kids with sensory processing disorder had difficulty crawling as infants- either delayed crawling or a “funky” crawl, as H’s was described. Unbeknownst to most of us, crawling is an extremely important part of your child’s development. It plays a role in the development of his strength, balance, spinal alignment, visual-spatial skills, and social-emotional development. Who knew?!
Having a tunnel set up in your playroom is an excellent way to promote crawling in young children- they love crawling through, especially when you’re on the other side cheering them on. When H was a toddler, I would entice him with stuffed animals or cars for him to crawl after. He was scared and tentative, but after lots of repetition he grew to love it and “tunnel time” became a daily part of his play.
Pop tube set
Disclaimer- these are noisy and can be quite annoying for parents! But, kids love them and they’re great for providing tactile and auditory input, promoting bilateral coordination and improving fine motor skills. My boys are obsessed with them.
There are gazillions of sensory toys out there and these certainly aren’t the only ones that are great to have, but they are the ones my boys have used and benefited from the most. What are your top picks? Leave a comment below, the Sensory Mom readers and I would love to hear from you.