Sensory Toys, Tools, Tips, & Kits

Many of our students have sensory issues and we need to provide them with extra tools to address these needs throughout the day. This post and video helps explain some of the ‘why’ behind these toys and a reflection in video to the different toys/tools we have in our school. Thank you Ashland Autism Teacher Laura Ryba for starring in this post’s video! (Always go to the experts in your school for these types of issues!)

WHY SENSORY TOYS AND TOOLS: Before we get into the different types of toys and what to buy, we should always first think of our goals with these tools. What does your student need to access the curriculum, be successful in the environment, or reduce anxiety? Is there a glaring need that they are showing to have that we need to address? Focus first on goals and the root cause to then determine the tool, otherwise we are just randomly giving kids things that may actually have a negative impact on their education.

FIVE SENSES: We learned this early in our schooling, right? The Five Senses: Hearing, Sight, Taste, Touch, and Smell. Each of these presents challenges for some of our students if they are (a) overloaded or if they are (b) deprived of them. Think of some of our students having these as a massive radar chart with the senses. A radar chart can show relative strengths and weaknesses of each individual based on their preferences, genetics, and/or abilities. I created a graphic representation as an example below. If one sense is extremely sensitive, it can be quickly overloaded in various school environments like the cafeteria, assemblies, gym class, or even the classroom.

ANXIETY: One other ‘sense’ we need to consider besides the ones we learned in school is anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. In many cases for our students, this 6th sense, anxiety, is how they perceive the world around them, and can have a more significant impact on them than the other senses. In many cases, anxiety or anticipation of something is actually the real issue, but it presents outwardly in a different way. For instance, if a child knows that a dramatic part in a movie is coming (the death of Mufasa in Lion King), they may cover their ears or run away. One may think that it’s because of the music getting louder in the movie, but it really may be because of the anticipation of an emotionally charged scene. Another example from school may be when we have a new event or assembly and the student doesn’t know what to expect. This causes fear and anxiety. Students may request headphones or other sensory tools. Again, one may think this is an auditory issue, but in many cases the root concern from the student is anxiety. The tool helps to make the student feel more in control or safer.

WHICH TOOL TO USE: There are so many new toys and tools for sensory-related issues that a simple blog post isn’t going to cover. Many toys may be distracting with one child and supportive to another, so each individual will have to be provided something unique for them. Remember that the toy or tool should be attached to a need for the child. Either to reduce senses or increase senses. If a child needs a toy to stay focused, make sure they know how and when to use it. The parameters on use are vital for the child so they know that this is to support them and not just as a toy to distract.

I posted an graphic of quiet breathing strategies that you can use in the classroom and in the post I mentioned that we are adding calming corner kits in every room. Well, that came back to me with a million questions on what we included in our kits! So, here you go, list below and image as well. Most of what we purchased was on Amazon. Most was relatively cheap. The Hoberman Spheres, or breathing balls, were probably the more expensive of the items, but they are very popular with students and teachers. Make sure you buy bins large enough to hold your items!

Our school calming corner starter sensory kit included a bin and lid, a packet of breathing and calming strategies we created, a Hoberman Sphere, squishies, a 5 minute sand timer, a sensory timer, a glitter pouch, a stringy ball, a puffer ball, a DIY sand stress balls, a DIY sensory bottles, and a pinwheel. We made the DIY items together in a staff meeting. Other items that can be included are stretchy strings, fidget balls, fidget snakes, and stuffed animals.

Other items are very flexible for the classroom and teacher including seating, reflections and note paper for the student to complete as optional notes to the teacher, and picture books. We have some ideas on next steps including and rotating picture books that are focused on social-emotional well-being. Thank you Ashland teachers Mrs. Ryba, Mrs. Leclercq, and Mr. Hughes for helping us get these items set up and out to our staff.

Tips for implementation – Big shout out to our friends at Montclair Elementary School for coming over and giving us advice for implementing this support. Some tips they recommended and ones we have seen to be effective are below.

  • Teach students how to use each item correctly.
  • Have all students try out the area during the 1st week.
  • Use clear and consistent time limits.
  • Do not use for punishment or as a consequence.
  • Do not use during recess unless used for this purpose.
  • Let your students add items & own the space.
  • Help this be available for all students.
  • Rotate, repurpose, and DIY items in bins.

We had some teachers pilot this last school year (thanks Mrs. Grant, Ms. Crawford, and others!) and then we spent a couple of staff meetings learning more and creating our kits. We developed expectations for usage with a deadline to implement it fully for all students and classrooms. We also are using Flipgrid to have students record and showcase their calming corners in their rooms.

We decided to have some things tight, like the expectations above, but other things loose, like how the teachers decide to name their area, decorate it, and add items to their kits.

Of course age level and space in your classroom are two huge factors for implementing this. Just don’t be afraid to get started and let this evolve into something really special in your room. This space is not really an intervention that is going to target specific groups of students. It’s more of a general support that is always available. There are many students who do not exhibit intense negative behaviors but are still dealing with serious anxiety and social-emotional issues.

Last tip – like any other strategy, the more you make this into something special and inviting, the more your students will appreciate it, care for it, and use it appropriately. It’s absolutely amazing to see the passion of great teachers directly influence their students’ behaviors.

FINAL THOUGHTS: As an educator and administrator, I’ve gained some knowledge of this issue, but so much more I’ve learned as a parent of child with sensory issues. It is important that we try to look forward and predict when anxiety may increase and provide the necessary tools proactively. Every child has a right to these tools so they can not only access education like others, but feel safe and comfortable while doing so.