Picnic in the Garden: Sensory Play and Sensory Foods for the Outdoors
Sensory Play and Sensory Foods for the Outdoors
Summer is quickly upon us which means the kids that have been clawing at the windows can now be set free to run, play, yell and just generally air themselves out. But summer can mean a different set of challenges when you have a child with sensory issues. Summer means wind, bright light, dirt and bugs and a general atmosphere that can be overwhelming.
But summer is all about baby steps; it’s about easing out of winter and taking deep breaths under blue skies. It’s about checkered picnic blankets and snacks outside and watering cans and digging in the dirt. It can provide the perfect chance to help your child grow into the outdoors. Try some of these sensory activities to help your child have a party in the garden.
What’s a party without refreshments? Having a child whose been in feeding therapy most of his life and who was tube fed all liquids until almost two, I’m no stranger to food fears or aversions. The key here is to continue to try new things, but in small doses. Eating outside provides the perfect opportunity to present old foods in a new surrounding and perhaps sneak some new ones in, too.
1. Ants on a Log – Combining textures can often be one of the biggest challenges for kids who have sensory issues. Try the classic “ants on a log” but make those ants march. Start with a plain banana and then a third of the way up add peanut butter and then when you’re almost at the end, add a few raisins or whatever small dried fruit your child is comfortable with. That way, they can experience it in stages.
2. Food Kabobs – Any food on a stick is great for picnics. And for some reason, when put on a stick, that blueberry or cheese cube or tomato becomes a lot more fun. Even if they don’t want to eat it, encourage them to hold it or pull off pieces. Coming in contact with the food is half the battle.
3. Dirt Pudding – This is another great way to experiment with food combinations. Pick your child’s favorite pudding flavor (it doesn’t have to be chocolate) and then let them help you sprinkle on the cookie crumbs of choice (graham cracker, Nilla wafer, or Oreo are all family favorites). Lastly, let them put the classic gummy worms on top. If they help make it, they’re more likely to eat it. Also, it’s a great way to introduce them to dirt and bugs in a new form.
4. Grow and Eat – If you fancy yourself even a tiny bit skilled in gardening, pick one of your child’s favorite foods and let them help you plant some. Strawberries, blackberries, tomatoes and peppers are all pretty easy plants to grow Show them a picture and give them a taste of whatever you are planting so that when it grows, they know that they helped. It’s amazing to see their joy at putting food on the table.
Gardening requires small steps and experimentation, which is perfect for sensory play. The first thing I do with my son each morning after we’ve had a few planting sessions in the garden is to go “see what’s new.” He’s just as excited as I am to see what he is creating.
1. The Attire – Gloves and hats and aprons are perfect ways to introduce the garden because they mute sensations that might otherwise be overpowering. The gloves protect the hands from dirt and bugs. The hat shades the eyes and the apron keep the clothes clean. Plus, it’s like a costume and what kid doesn’t love a costume?
2. Weeding – If your child is as impatient as mine, sometimes pulling weeds is the best therapy. It’s rhythmic, it doesn’t have to be perfect and it immediately shows progress. It can also foster independence if you square off a section just for your child. This is their plot of land to care for as their own.
3. Planting – Did you know that you can plant flowers without touching the ground? Most home improvement stores carry wildflower seed packets that you simply throw over the weeded earth and then water. These are also the hardiest flowers so they won’t require a lot of attention. Plus, it’s fun to see what comes up. For additional sensory stimulus, pick the flowers which attract butterflies and hummingbirds (it will say it on the package), so that you can watch what comes to visit. Let your child sprinkle the seeds over their little plot and help water.
4. Garden Sounds – Outdoor noises are not always soothing. But you can find ways to make your garden a little oasis. Let your child pick out a wind chime, making sure it’s one they really like and isn’t too loud or jarring. Or buy a little fountain. There’s a reason they put them in banks and dentist’s offices. They help you relax despite yourself.
5 . Urban Garden – Even if you don’t have a plot of land, you can garden. In fact, if the outdoors is just too much for your child, gardening offers the perfect chance to bring the outside in. Buy some pots and planting soil and pick some herbs that you know your child likes. Mild ones with soothing smells like lavender or ones that might be used in cooking like thyme or oregano work well. Let them help you plant the seeds and pick a spot in the sunlight. Assign them the important task of remembering to water. If you have a deck, strawberries and tomatoes do well in pots and take up little space.
6. Picnic in the Garden Party – The best way I know to get my son excited about anything is to make a day of it. The more I talk it up, the more he wants to play. So create the perfect Picnic in the Garden Party. Read Eric Carle’s classic The Hungry Caterpillar. There’s even an entire gardening set themed around the book, including spade, watering can and my kids’ favorite, a caterpillar-shaped lantern. Pack the picnic basket and spread a blanket or bring out some camping chairs. Eat a strawberry off that kabob and point to the strawberry plants your child helped start. Find some real ants marching while you eat your banana version. Dig in to that dirt pudding and then cheer them on as the dig in the real dirt with a spade or hand or toe. Everything is an experience. End it all with a few decorations for the garden. Everybody likes a gnome or a pinwheel or colored pebbles along with their wind chimes. Whatever you do, it will be a memory in the making and it will provide a world of sensory experiences to explore.
Jamie Sumner is a writer and author of the website, The Mom Gene (mom -gene.com ) and the mother to a son with cerebral palsy and twins.
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This post originally appeared on our May/June 2017 Magazine