You’ve heard of “book smarts” and “street smarts,” and you’ve probably seen lots of tips on how to boost each one. But now, a growing group of experts is urging parents to work on something even more fundamental: what nationally prominent author and occupational therapist Lindsey Biel calls “Sensory Smarts.” A child’s “sensory” development, she says, is so vital that without it, every other kind of “smart” is in jeopardy.
So what is sensory development? For starters, explains Biel, people don’t have five senses—they’ve got seven. In addition to hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch—remember them?--we need our “proprioceptive” sense (the awareness of where our feet, hands and other body parts are), and our “vestibular” sense (the ability to handle moving around and staying balanced.) And how do they develop? With lots of natural, physical practice: running, swinging, banging around and sticking fingers into new things (stopping short, of course, of live electrical sockets).
But by the time they hit kindergarten, some kids still have lots of trouble with routine tasks, whether in handling play structures, listening clearly, or gripping a magic marker. To make matters worse, says Biel, kids are getting less chances than ever to stretch their senses. “Most children now spend hours in front of the television and in front of the computer instead of using their bodies to explore the world.”
In her practice, Biel works with children who have a variety of diagnoses, including autism, cerebral palsy, and learning disabilities. Some have sensory issues and some do not. She makes it clear, however, that “all children,” whether typically developing or not, “benefit from sensory-rich activities, because learning doesn’t just happen in the head.” Together with writer Nancy Peske, she co-authored Raising a Sensory Child, a resource for parents. We consulted with both Peske and Bell. Their advice for fostering sensory smarts in your child?
- Encourage a balance of sensory activities every day. Just like adults, kids thrive when they can experience a variety of sensations. Don’t worry—this doesn’t need to mean a stressful Total Day Makeover, says Peske. “Look at what you and your child do every day and see where you can make modifications…if your child needs to work on tactile input, can you involve her in food preparation, gardening (handling dirt, for instance), or dealing with clothes (folding, touching wet laundry). Can you make the sensory activity fun?”
- Go Outside. “Get your child to the playground or park every day, even when the weather isn’t great,” says Biel. Virtually every part of a park offers kids chances to nurture their senses, whether it’s lifting buckets of sand, (proprioceptive awareness), or riding swings (vestibular sense). There are plenty of opportunities to add some learning on the fly-- whether small motor practice or hands-on science discovery. And besides, she says, even just good old-fashioned play is very beneficial, since “kids work very hard at school, and they really do need an opportunity to play and have fun every day.”
- Let them learn with their whole body. In today’s standards-driven classrooms, the pressure may be on for kids to read, write…and sit. In addition to seeking teachers who use “multisensory” methods, you can extend your child’s learning with fun sensory activities at home. Is your kid learning letters? Try tracing them in shaving cream or rice, or making them with glue and pasta. For early counting, try drawing a hopscotch board on the sidewalk and counting your way to ten.
Of course, every child will have her own special needs and styles. If you're concerned about your kid, an occupational therapist can provide a formal assessment and work with you to figure out the best approaches to use at home. Peske, whose son Cole was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder at the age of 2, knows this balance from personal experience. As a toddler, Cole met regularly with Biel for occupational therapy sessions. But, says Peske, following through with “sensory smarts” at home was crucial for his progress. The three-year-old who threw his crayons and screamed at the rough texture of his towels has now become a thriving third grader, happy to go to school and ready to learn.