Sensory Processing – What Is It?


We all experience the world through a variety of senses.  Sensory processing is the effective registration (and accurate interpretation) of sensory input in the environment (including one’s body). 

It is the brain’s ability to receive, organise and respond to sensory stimuli.

There are 3 things that need to happen for sensory processing to be completed effectively:

  • Receive
  • Organise
  • Respond

We have to receive the sensory input.  This happens through our eyes (visual), ears (auditory), skin (touch) muscles, joints and tendons (proprioceptive), tongue and taste buds (taste), nose (smell), sense of balance (vestibular) and internally (interoception).

We will eventually learn all about all of them but first, it is important to understand how they all come together and why sensory processing is so important anyway.

This pyramid is so important because babies live a lot in the first part of this pyramid in the first year of life.  The foundations they lay in that first year determine the quality of the higher brain functions.  So giving your child opportunities to process successfully in the first year of life helps to determine how they will read, how they will move and how coordinated they will be in later life.

So Why Is Sensory Processing So Important?
When babies are first born, the input they experience is not organised in the brain.  They have the sensory stimuli hitting their body but it has no meaning to them.  In order for the brain to put meaning to it, they need more practice at receiving.  More sensory input means the brain can start to organise and give meaning to that stimulus.

As more meaning is given, performance starts to improve and you see babies starting to develop skills.  They start to be able to process and manage more than 1 input at once (whereas they can’t when they are first born without getting overwhelmed easily).

This then means they can appropriately modulate responses and their processing becomes more efficient, leading to skill mastery.  Eventually, this leads to better behaviour, attention and self regulation.  Believe me, you want that!

Sensory Systems Are The Necessary Building Blocks For Every Skill We Learn In Life

•Vision
•Auditory
•Taste
•Smell
•Touch
•Vestibular
•Proprioception
•Interoception

All 8 senses need to work together for effective sensory processing.  The Vestibular System is the first sensory system to get all the information that bombards our brain and its job is to direct it to all the other centres

Our senses are the building blocks for all other skills we learn and use in life.
Everything we do relies on our central nervous system (our brain and spinal cord and nerves).

Then we get all our information from our senses and their individual systems. These senses provide our brain with all the information it needs to grow, learn and develop all of our actions, skills and preferences.

Below you will find a list of developmental milestones for various ages.  Please remember that these are approximations and if a skill is developed in the next age group, it doesn’t mean there is cause for concern.  

The other column suggests possible implications that could happen if some of the milestones have not been met.  

REMEMBER:  Milestones are skills and built on the foundation of sensory stimuli and primitive reflexes.  Refer back to the bottom up processing pyramid.  So if skills are not achieved, it makes sense that there will be implications elsewhere.

Some Sensory Activity Suggestions

  • Mini sandbox: Grab an empty tub and fill it with sand, a few toys, shells, rocks or anything else your little one might like. This is great for the indoors especially in the cooler months. (Just put a garbage bag or towel beneath the tub to help with clean-up.)
  • Snow globes: Using small jars or bottles, glue one of your baby’s small animal trinkets upside down to the lid, fill the jar portion with water and glitter and place the lid back on tightly. You now have a homemade snow globe!
  • Pasta Threading:  I love this idea.  You will find a detailed explanation HERE
  • Magnetic tubs: Fill a small plastic container with things that are magnetic—such as washers, bolts, etc. Place a lid on it and tape it up really well. Then, using a magnetic stick, let them pull the different things around the container safely!
  • Texture walk: Help little ones take a grassy nature walk with bare feet—or bring a few crunchy leaves inside to let them stomp on. Sand is another great texture to have between the toes.
  • Spaghetti play: Boil a package of noodles, cool and let children play with them. Go ahead and join in on the fun, too… Who doesn’t love to play with noodles? If you want to add visual stimulus, colour them with food colouring.
  • Sock puppets: Grab a few old socks, draw faces on the tops with a fabric marker and have a puppet show!
  • Using tools – Mallets and small hammers (with close supervision) are great for providing proprioceptive input.
  • Make a big old mess!  Crafts that let kids paint with their fingers or activities where they can squish their hands around in some shaving cream are the perfect way to explore using the tactile system.
  • Tactile bins Get out a big Tupperware container and get inspired with one of these awesome sensory bin filler ideas from Little Bins for Little Hands and a whole list of other creative bloggers!
  • Get on a swing!  Playing on a swing is the perfect vestibular activity for kids.  There are so many great ways for kids to explore movement on slides, ladders, and monkey bars!
  • How about some stomping?  There’s nothing more fun than making noise with your feet!  How about stomping to create a work of art? Bare feet in paint on paper to make a masterpiece.
  • Time for a bath!  Water play is another awesome sensory experience for kids and there’s no better (or easier) place for it than in the tub!
  • Get those ears in on the action!  Auditory play is a great way to engage your little one.  Go on a listening scavenger hunt where you listen for a list of things. Hide several things under a blanket and make a sound with one of them. See if they can guess what it is.
  • Make bubble foam for fun and messy tactile play (from Busy Toddler).  It’s a fun, foamy, soapy, shaving cream kind of texture that kids will love!
  • Squishing and squeezing play dough – One of the best hand strengthening and proprioceptive activities I can think of – and kids love making all kinds of things with play dough.  Pretend to cook, make animals, or snowmen.  Pinch it and roll it into a snake and then squeeze it back into a ball!
  • Flashlight play Challenge kids to shine their flashlights on different objects around the room or different body parts as you call them out!
  • Scented play doughs and scented tactile bins are another fun multisensory experience as kids get to explore materials with their hands and noses at the same time!  Check out these great ways for kids to explore the sense of smell.

Diana Cameron

Diana has over 32 years in the early childhood industry and has been a guest lecturer and workshop facilitator both nationally and internationally for the past 20 years. She has a passion for inspiring educators to use creativity and imagination in their teaching.

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