Broaden Learning and Play this Season with BCBA-Approved Projects and Experiments
With the winter solstice around the corner, many people are already in holiday mode and preparing for a new year. Some children may not notice or understand the change of seasons, others may be overwhelmed by it, and others may embrace it completely. No matter which side your child falls on, it’s a good time of year to incorporate new activities and learning experiences into their everyday play.
Whether you need ideas for children who are home for winter break or you just want a few easy ways to spice up the season in your back pocket, our Hopebridge Autism Therapy Centers came up with a list of BCBA-approved, autism-friendly sensory activities to introduce children to the sights, scents and sounds of the season.
At Hopebridge, we believe in the magic of learning through play. In addition to making it a key part of our ABA therapy programs, it’s important to bring play to life at home, too. These at-home projects are intended to provide entertainment, education and engagement all at the same time.
These activities are great for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and sensory processing disorder (SPD), but they can be exciting for neurotypical individuals, too! From toddlers to tweens, these experiments have the opportunity to strengthen self-regulation and help them cope with sensory intolerances.
Before you get started, remember that the best part of sensory activities is the engagement between you and your child. Play alongside them, talk about what each of you are doing and most importantly, have fun with it!
8 Simple Seasonal Sensory Activities
- Frozen treasure hunt
This activity requires a little prep, but has the potential to keep your child busy for a while. In advance, fill a Tupperware or plastic bin with water. Place seasonal items into the water, such as cranberries, pine tree clippings, pine cones, plastic snowflakes and/or small holiday toys that won’t be harmed by water or ice. Set the dish in the freezer overnight to create a large ice block. Once ready to play, take it out of the freezer and run some warm water over the bottom to loosen the ice before popping it out into a larger plastic bin or durable baking dish. Give your child tools like eye droppers, turkey basters, medicine syringes, spoons and toy hammers to use to try to “dig” for their finds in the ice. To switch it up, you can also give them dolls and animals to “skate” across the ice, or offer some salt to pour on for a mini science experiment.
Skills and benefits: From sensory experiences and fine motor skills, to critical thinking and science insight, the benefits of this experiment are endless.
- Fake snow
Baking soda and hair conditioner – that’s it! Combine 2 ½ cups of pure baking soda with ½ cup of conditioner in a bowl. Add more baking soda if you don’t want it to be as wet. Mold it into snowballs or make a mini snowman. Fairly foolproof. A little messy and a lot of fun. Can also bring in some holiday toys or arctic animals like polar bears and penguins. Have some trucks on hand? Use them as snow plows! Wash hands when finished and watch the kids closely to make sure they don’t rub their eyes. You can also store this in a baggy for up to five days.
Skills and benefits: Introducing children to various textures, temperatures and scents helps promote brain function and builds tolerance for those who may have challenges with sensory regulation.
- Pine needle sweep
Not only does this activity keep your kiddo busy while building important skills, it has the added bonus of giving you a way to reuse Amazon boxes lying around from your online holiday shopping. Find a shallow box or use a box-cutter to trim it down so the top of it is only a few inches high. Then, draw the outline of a large Christmas tree on the bottom of the box. Pour in some loose pine needles, which you can break or cut off of the branches. Once ready, encourage your child to use various paint brushes to “sweep” all of the pine needles to fill in the tree. You can stop here or provide your kid with some faux gemstones, pom poms or beads to decorate the tree when they are finished.
Skills and benefits: This activity provides opportunities to work on pencil grip and pre-writing skills, plus the pine needles provide new scent, touch and movement experiences.
- Christmas play dough
Organization and setup is key to making this activity intriguing. First, set aside some green, red and white Play Doh (or make your own!). For an added sensory experience, add a drop or two of vanilla, ginger or peppermint essential oil to the dough, but be mindful that some of these winter scents can be sensitive to eyes or skin if too much is incorporated. Next, gather cookie cutters and small trinkets you have around the house that can be used to decorate the Play Doh, such as sequins, jingle bells, pom poms, buttons, beads and sprinkles. Use a muffin tin or lazy Susan to lay out all your ingredients in separate compartments. Provide your kids with enough flat play space and let those minds and hands run free! You may need to get them started by showing them how to use the cookie cutters, but there’s no need to stick to a plan.
Skills and benefits: Play Doh always offers a chance to practice fine motor skills, plus decorating it should spark creativity. Adding fragrances introduces your child to new scents.
- Winter sensory bags
Start with a sealable plastic bag. Gallon bags work best for this, though smaller sizes will still do. You can wipe off any brand markings with a little bit of alcohol or hand sanitizer to get a clean slate. Next draw on your winter or holiday design, then fill it with a bit of hair gel and items like pom poms, plastic snowflakes, googly eyes, buttons, glitter or dry beans that kids can use to push around the bag to bring it to life. We especially like this snowman bag tutorial from Raising Dragons. Once finished filling the bag, make sure to let the air out and seal it at the top with tape so nothing can escape. As an added perk, these bags are great for keeping kids busy in the car on road trips!
Skills and benefits: Sensory bags are a simple way for kids to build fine motor skills as they explore how the filling moves, as well as builds cognitive development.
- Snowman fill
Start with a large clear container. Used juice bottles or large jars (if you’re not scared of glass) work well, but feel free to get thrifty on this one. Use permanent markers to draw a snowman on the outside. Give it to your child with a bunch of cotton balls and encourage them to fill the container with as many or as little as they’d like. Want to make it a bit more challenging? Bring out spoons and tongs and have your kiddo practice filling while using these new tools. Talk to them about what they see and feel while filling their snowman, and if they are developmentally able, use it to practice counting or discuss colors.
Skills and benefits: This simple activity has multiple learning opportunities, from fine motor to counting to communication.
- Ice cube transfer
A twist on the traditional sensory bin, have two large plastic bins or baking pans available. Fill one with water and a touch of food coloring (we like blue, green or red for this activity) and the other with all the ice cubes you can fit. Encourage your child to scoop the ice cubes from one bin to the other using a range of spoons, cups and tongs. They can also stir them around in the water to make their own “potions.” If you live in a warmer locale, this activity is best suited outdoors because of the watery mess. If outdoors is not an option, try this out on a large towel or even in the bathtub!
Skills and benefits: Building hand-eye coordination is the main objective around this activity, though playing with the cool water and ice cubes is a bonus.
- Painting with ornaments
Start with a large box or plastic bin to contain everything – including the mess! Tape a piece of paper to the bottom of the box and add some small washable paint blobs in a few different colors around the paper. Give your kid some round plastic ornaments (with the top metal pieces removed) to roll around in the paint. They can move them with their hands or shake the box to get the balls rolling. The activity creates a one-of-a-kind image on the paper, plus decorates the ornaments at the same time.
Skills and benefits: This art project covers tactile senses, introduces colors and increases imagination.
The great thing about these easy sensory activities is they can be edited to meet the needs of your child, as well as the items in your pantry or craft closet. Make them your own by incorporating your kid’s interests and do not feel like you need to force them into any activities if they just aren’t into them.
We want to see your kiddo shine this season! Share your photos and experiences with us and other families on the Hopebridge Facebook page.