As many kids head back to school in these unprecedented times, we know kids are craving more movement, especially with spring right around the corner. Some of you may have heard of the sensory path trend that is sweeping across schools to incorporate movement into the school day outside of recess and gym class. The purpose of a sensory path is to provide students with an appropriate self-regulation option to prepare their minds and bodies for learning. These paths can also function as a “brain break” for children during the school day. It can also help decrease problematic behaviors, and increase their readiness for learning. It encourages use of all 5 senses that can either increase arousal levels or provide a calming effect.
Sensory integration theory (SI) helps us understand how the nervous system processes information, and has the ability to change someone’s performance. Activities that include deep pressure, vestibular, proprioceptive and visual input are based on SI and the understanding that input effects arousal levels. These activities or inputs have been used clinically for regulation to promote learning and attention. Research has shown the positive correlation between physical activity and increasing academic performance. Physical activity has other benefits as well including increasing blood flow to the brain and dopamine levels, which help the brain with function and communication.
Right now, there is not a lot of data available in regards to the implementation and use of these paths and their potential to reduce behaviors in the classroom. However, an article written by an associate professor of education from University of West Florida published in 2016 discussed the participation in sensory-based movement activities (such as a sensory path) may have a positive impact on learning and behavior. This article had the intervention group of students participate in sensory-based movement twice during the school day. The interventions included energizing, activating, or restoring activities. The results of that study showed that the incorporation of sensory-based movement in elementary aged children improved their performance in all academic areas compared to a control group. The study showed a benefit for all students, but the biggest benefit was for students who were receiving special learning services.
So, the real question is how do you create a sensory path at home or add movement into your child’s day? It is much simpler than you may think and it can be affordable. You can use items from around your house just as you would an obstacle course. You can use pillows, blankets, scratch paper, markers, colored pencils, crayons, step stools, laundry basket, canned goods, etc. You can create different stations based on your child’s specific needs. If you have questions about your child’s specific sensory needs be sure to check in with their occupational therapist for ideas.
Here is an example of a path you could create in your house. As mentioned above, items you have around the house can be used to create these paths. Another idea is to use sidewalk chalk to create obstacle courses. Check out this link for great ideas and a video example.
Remember your child may show signs that their body is in need of a break. In occupational therapy, we often refer to the Zones of Regulation curriculum by Leah Kuypers. The Zones of Regulation is a systematic, cognitive behavioral approach used to teach self-regulation by categorizing all the different ways we feel and states of alertness we experience into four concrete colored zones. The Zones of Regulation framework provides strategies to teach students to become more aware of and independent in controlling their emotions and impulses, manage their sensory needs, and improve their ability to problem solve.
One popular way for your child to identify what zone they are in is through the use of the main characters from the popular Disney Pixar movie “Inside Out”. The character Anger represents the red zone because he is a great example of what dysregulation in some kiddos can look like when they are really angry. The character Fear represents the yellow zone because fear is always running around with high energy levels and having a hard time focusing. The character Joy represents the green zone because she is always happy and ready to learn. The character Sadness represents the blue zone, which is most commonly associated with low energy levels and being sad. Below is a visual representing what emotions can be associated with each zone.
The more practice your child has with movement breaks and exploring different ways to move their bodies, the more they will be able to recognize when they need movement breaks and which types of movement help them the best in a given situation. If you have any questions about how to incorporate more movement breaks into your routines or if you want to brainstorm ideas for your child, please contact their occupational therapist. If you follow us on social media, we would love to see pictures or videos of the sensory paths you create!
Written by: Katie Campbell, COTA/L and Stacey Duncan, COTA/L
Anderson, Julie, “The Impact of Sensory-Based Movement Activities on Students in General Education” (2016). School of Occupational Therapy Doctoral Theses. 2. http://soundideas.pugetsound.edu/drot_theses/2
Efe, B. (2020, March 31). Sidewalk obstacle course with chalk. Retrieved April 01, 2021, from https://playtivities.com/sidewalk-obstacle-course/
Unknown, Sensory motor paths! make your own! (2019, August 26). Retrieved April 01, 2021, from https://www.yourkidsot.com/blog/sensory-motor-paths-make-your-own
Unknown, Evidence based or based on evidence. (n.d.). Retrieved April 01, 2021, from https://www.zonesofregulation.com/evidence-based-or-based-on-evidence.html
Unknown, Zones of regulation. (n.d.). Retrieved April 01, 2021, from https://stukey.adams12.org/classrooms/news/2019-09-09-112012/zones-regulation