As life, the way we know it, came to a complete halt due to Covid-19, we are urged to practice social distancing and isolate ourselves from the outside world. During these times, we as parents and caregivers of not only children with special needs, but all children, have a golden opportunity; an opportunity to make these altered times as educational, growth stimulating and FUN as our resources will allow us too. Self isolation and social distancing has urged multiple changes that have impacted and are still impacting all areas of our lives.Our juggling skills have been put to the test, not only ours as parents and caregivers, but our child/children’s and our partner’s. Even the cats and dogs are flipping out, not knowing what’s going on – so much has changed. Feelings of being overwhelmed are high; so many new hats that need wearing and boots that need filling. But do they? To what extent?
ADAPT and OVERCOME
Realize that you are not stuck at home, you are safe at home. Maintain a routine – We are creatures of habit, and routines give us feelings of comfort and security. Routines create a sense of structure and control over your environment – which is important in order to balance the loss of control over many aspects of our life during the lock-down. Eat well, get some sun and exercise. We are fortunate enough to have more time with our loved ones and more time to develop healthy habits that will not only benefit our mental health but our physical health too. This is where the vital importance of sensory experiences come into play.
The reality is that sensory experiences literally affect our whole being. The adjective, ‘sensory’ describes something relating to sensation —something that you feel with your physical senses. Sticking your finger into a hot toaster will give you a sensory experience, but so will smelling a rose. Stick with the rose.
From birth through to early childhood, children use their senses to explore the world around them and make sense of it all. All our knowledge begins with the senses, then proceeds to understanding, and ends with reason. Many of our favourite memories are associated with one or more of our senses: for instance, the smell of a summer night campfire or a song you memorized the lyrics to with a childhood friend. Now, when your nostrils and eardrums are stimulated with those familiar smells and sounds respectively, your brain triggers a flashback memory to those special times and you can feel it, smell it, taste it. Providing opportunities for children to actively use their senses as they explore their world through ‘sensory play’ is crucial to brain development – it helps to build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways. This leads to a child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks and supports cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interaction and problem-solving skills. All of which are the vital building blocks of skills needed to engage and perform in school and life demanding tasks. In these times where we are juggling so many balls at the same time, I recommend that you take a step back.
Analyse the balls you are juggling, decide whether they are important? Ask yourself, ‘Are they contributing positively to my mental health, my child’s mental health and growth or are they only putting more stress on me or my child and their growth and inevitably, on our relationship?’ Sensory activities can be made with common household items, so there is no need to go and buy specialist items. You can simply use tools and products from your pantry and things that have been laying around the house.
Environments that allow for positive sensory experiences (engaging in activities that stimulates the senses) will enhance the development of the body and mind, in a way that is more impactful than simple academic drills. Positive sensory experiences will not only prepare your child for when he/she returns to the physical school environment, but will allow your child to flourish at home through developing important life skills, whilst having a balanced sensory system. For when we don’t have balance within our sensory systems, we also don’t have balance within our neurological system; attention, memory and all other executive functioning skills.
Once school buildings reopen, your child will need to transition from home schooling, individual attention and free play to a more structured setting. The executive functioning skills developed during sensory activities in the home environment will support students in their transition back to the school building and help them to meet the demands of returning to a busy classroom. The home environment provides lots of opportunity for you to incorporate as many sensory experiences as possible.
During this time, we need to REORGANISE, ADAPT and OVERCOME. Encouraging our children to do homework is important but allowing our children to have positive sensory experiences is what we should aim for, for this is what will encourage our children to grow, learn and most importantly remember best. Remember the times when mum and dad got to spend the whole day with me at home? Remember how I learned life skills such as cooking, gardening, dismantling and constructing things? Remember where I built Lego structures and broke them down again? We often talk about the five senses being taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. However, there are two that we commonly miss: balance and body awareness, (also known as proprioception) the feedback our brains receive from receptors in our muscles and joints which enable us to gain a sense of where our bodies are in space. You may have noticed that your child is more calm after bath time or that, after a particularly intense session of jumping around the room, banging into furniture, jumping onto his bed or into pillows, your child seems more grounded. This type of sensory play is calming for kids, as it helps them regulate their internal discomfort, whether that discomfort was boredom, restlessness, or some other type of agitation. Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates the senses, whether single- or multiple senses simultaneously.
Maintaining structure throughout these altered days can also support your child in their transition back to the school building. Structure, in terms of a daily schedule, will be beneficial as it gives children the opportunity to transition from one activity to the another, develop self-discipline and provide them with clear expectations. Structure also provides children with a sense of security and calmness; furthermore, contributing to the building blocks needed for coping with future transitions. Include your child when setting up a daily schedule, as his/her inputs will spark the flame of internal motivation in order to engage in these activities. Task satisfaction leads to enhanced learning and recall of information. So, during this time of home learning, let us choose to develop our selves and our children by creating home environments that are rich in positive sensory experiences.