This term I have literally been saved by sensory toys. I have called them a variety of things – sensory toys, sensory items, calming tools, fidget tools, de-stress tools, fidgeters… but I have not used them as much in the past as I have this term with my Year 3 class.
I knew this year I had a few students on the Autism Spectrum, some students with trauma backgrounds and some with sensory needs. I had my trusty box all ready to go. My neediest and most demanding student almost needs a constantly revolving rotation of items to help him focus, or stop fidgeting, or calm down, or wake up or keep on task. I had the “sensory toys” box out and in use by 10.30am on the first day of term.
Since then the box and its contents have been constantly out and about in 3J. I have added some more items and split the contents into two smaller boxes; items for fidgeting and items for stress relief. I spend a bit of time teaching and modelling the use of these items to my students. Other teachers, especially new and younger teachers have seen me using my sensory toys in the classroom and have quickly introduced them into their own teaching repertoire. I always caution them on ‘teaching’ the use of the items, otherwise they just become a distraction to the student, other students and you! More on how I use the sensory toys below.
So what’s in my kits?
KIT ONE is classic fidget toys, things that keep the fingers busy. Rubricks cubes, manipulative fold up cubes and key rings, slinkies, wooden hand massages and puzzles etc. Most of these have been purchased from Sue Larkey’s website or have been gifts.
These kits are great for fidgeters, keeping students busy during tedious situations and even early finishers who like a challenge. They are not so great at having in your student’s hands while teaching or learning, as most of them usually require two hands and to be looking at them.
KIT TWO is more sensory – stress relieving items for calming and comforting. Shells, marbles, pebbles, stress balls, squish balls, off cuts of possum fur (more on that later) and other random textural items.
I tend to give the items from Kit Two out more often, especially when my class get restless and unfocused. I keep an eye out at junk stores and dollar shops for small stretchy items and toys that can go in here. Anything that is nice to touch and hold can work.
Which leads me to the possum fur item. A lot of people (mainly adults) balk at the sight of a full possum pelt sitting on my chair. But my class LOVE IT. It is the number one hot property item for my students and it has so many uses. I also have some smaller, hand size pieces of possum fur in the sensory toys box. In New Zealand possums are an introduced species and are a threat to native flora and fauna. As a result possums are allowed to be hunted and culled. My cousin hunts possums and recycles their fur into a number of items. You can check out her unique store here.
She gifted me my own pelt last year. After sitting in my lounge room for a few months I took it to school. BINGO! 3J love it. It is incredibly soft and rubbing your hands down the fur is very calming, akin to petting a cat or dog. I have two students in particular who are prone to becoming very overstimulated, stressed and they can have big meltdowns. Both of them will curl up in the corner and stroke the possum fur.
Morbid? Possibly. Successful in reducing stress? Absolutely.
Having the possum fur on your lap while you work, read or listen is the highest honour in my classroom. It can be used a reward, a distraction, a comforting tool or a sensory toy. It has been so successful I am on the look out for more possum fur and other faux fur items, a sheepskin or bearskin rug perhaps?
TEACHING STUDENTS TO USE THE SENSORY TOYS
This is crucial and worth your time at the beginning. I have strict rules for using a sensory toy and if someone is unable to use them correctly, they lose the privilege. Most of these rules apply when using the toys with the whole class, while on the floor or working on desks. Rules are different if someone is using them in a calm down / time out space individually.
- When I give out a sensory toy the student MUST have it in one hand only. Most of them are nice to roll around, rub or squeeze so one hand is enough. This avoids the two hand hold that leads to the head drooping into the lap.
- They must continue to work / listen while holding the sensory toy.
- If listening, their eyes must be focused on me / the board. Once they start staring at their toy and zoning out, they lose it.
It is also important the way you distribute these toys to students. I make it a point not to give them only to my fidgety/naughty/autistic students. Anyone can have one. That way the class don’t just see it as something different that only ‘Johnny’ gets. By handing out maybe 5-8 at a time I can insure that ‘Johnny’ gets one (because he needs it), but it isn’t obvious. It can be a reward for best listeners, a way to refocus off task or daydreaming students, a goal to work towards, a connection back to the lesson. I have a few students who always get upset when they miss out (one who throws epic tantrums) so I usually give the sensory toys out, then ask the students who received them to look for another student who is focused who they can hand their sensory toy to after a 5 minute period. After 20 minutes or so every child has experienced a sensory toy and your lesson has occurred with hopefully everyone on task and fidget free.
There are so many ways to use sensory toys and each teacher is different. In the past I have kept some in the time out box, some in my special ‘chill out’ box or in the tubs on the desks. When I had an all boys class a few years ago I had a box of slinkies and stressballs on each table.
Along with the sensory toys, I also use a basket of stuffed animals, including our class mascot, Bosco. These are also a great success!