I’ve talked about our life with special needs children, both of whom have sensory needs. I’ve talked about tools we have in the home for dealing with our children’s sensory needs. I’ve talked about our decision to go with a more casual, child-led approach to homeschooling. What I haven’t really done is talk much about how I blend the world of sensory-processing disorder, with homeschooling. Oh, I mentioned that we use a visual schedule so my son can see what subject is coming next, and that we often get my son to sit on a Sit n Gym ball or a balance disc, but I haven’t gone much farther than that. Today I wanted to share different things we have and ideas we use to add a sensory approach to our homeschooling. These ideas aren’t just for those homeschooling children with sensory issues however, these ideas are fun for anyone!
So to start, of course one of the biggest ideas in making homeschool sensory-friendly, is letting go of the traditional concept of “school.” You can read my blog post about this, here. Generally, the traditional workbook and lecture approach to school does not work well for children with sensory processing disorder, or for children with other neurodevelopmental/neurological disorders like ADHD, ASD etc… This is due to the fact that while the majority of neuro-typical people are primarily auditory learners, those with SPD, ASD and other disorders, tend to be primarily visual learners – they think in pictures, and they need to see the information to learn it: charts, pictures, graphs etc… are great tools for teaching a visual learner. They often struggle with auditory input, it overwhelms them, and it just doesn’t “stick”, so reading from a traditional textbook can very much be a waste of their, and your, time; lengthy oral explanations of concepts do not register with them nearly as well, as being able to see a visual of the concept you are trying to teach. Visual learners tend to do much better with memorization of facts, as they often have photographic memories.
These students also often learn well through kinesthetic means – moving and doing. For example, the best way to teach my son is to visually present the information to him, with as little auditory input as possible, and then allow him to reinforce (memorize) the information via kinesthetic reinforcement – games, songs, dramatic play etc… While he enjoys workbooks, and they can be a good visual tool, it’s easy to see where a traditional “Read-from-a-textbook-with-minimal-pictures-then-give-lots-of-additional-auditory-commentary” approach to teaching just does not work. However, selecting a book that has a higher picture to word ratio, that presents information in short facts instead of droning paragraphs, that has visual graphs representing information etc… can have a much higher success rate.
So, I try and keep all of this in mind when approaching our lessons. While granted, our switch to unschooling etc… is recent, we have had hands-on manipulatives and games, for quite some time. One of my favorite sensory tools, that we use for lessons too, are sensory bins. I absolutely love sensory bins. They are great for plain ol’ sensory fun, and can be easily modified to throw in an educational twist, too.
We have four bins. One base (misc. beans, grains etc…) does not change. It’s just a standard one that the children love where they pour and funnel and just feel, to their heart’s delight! Wonderful, tactile input, and it’s so simple, yet this bin can keep them entertained for an hour!
Then we have a Seasonal Bin that changes with the seasons/holidays etc… Currently I have packing peanuts, raffia that’s been cut up, and fake flowers, leaves and pumpkins/gourds, for a fall-theme. Again, there are different textures for them to explore, however for this one, I might have them sort items by shape, or color, or perhaps count the pumpkins. During the Christmas season, the base will become bits of tinsel with Christmas ornaments and bells, so there will be an auditory element as well. I’ll perhaps have them learning Christmas songs while we play with that one.
Then we have our Rainbow Bin. This base will change from time to time, but the elements remain colorful. This is great for visual training (learning to find items quickly in cluttered backgrounds, something that can be a struggle for children with SPD). For now we have cut up bits of construction paper, with a set of magnetic letters and numbers mixed in. There are lots of possibilities with this bin: creating patterns with the paper, counting, coloring sorting, letter and number recognition for my daughter as I call out a letter or a number for her to find etc…
Then we have our water bin. I love this for spelling lessons for my son, and letter recognition for my daughter. I call out a word or a letter and they have to fish it out! It could also be used for sorting, sequencing, patterns etc… Both of my children have tactile sensitivities, and water is a great activity for working towards reducing that sensitivity.
One of our other favorite resources is our Hopscotch Tiles, and our newly created bean bags.
The day I took this photo we were playing an addition game. My son had a bean bag in his hand (I think the #1) and he had to toss it. Whatever number it landed on, he had to figure out the equation. So if it landed on number 7, he had to say the number sentence: 1 + 7 =, and get the correct answer before he could go again. Or, I would call out an equation, “2 + 1 ‘= ?” and he would jump to the answer. When my daughter joins in, I’ll call out a number and have her jump to it, it’s great for helping with her number recognition. Calling out the numbers even faster, helps with auditory discernment. I love that the benefits of this game are 3-fold:
– They’re getting a math lesson in a fun way
– They’re getting tactile stimulation from the bean bags, as each bag has a different fabric on the back (corduroy, denim, minky, satin etc…), and the numbers are a velvet-like material, so they can “trace” the number, for extra reinforcement.
– They’re getting great proprioceptive input, for bean bags are a wonderful tool for heavy work, and jumping is also good proprioceptive input.
Then there’s our hands-on manipulatives:
Pattern blocks, Cuisenaire Rods, Alphabet Blocks, Lacing Beads Counting Bears and Wikki Stix. The blocks, rods, bears and beads honestly can be used for basically any elementary mathematical lesson from learning numbers, colors and shapes, teaching about basic concepts such as patterns, counting, sequencing, sorting, classifying and fractions, to teaching the functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division! There are a number of workbooks you can buy, and even better, free worksheets to download for use with Cuisenaire Rods. A quick Google search will provide you with many ideas on how to incorporate these into your lessons. While these don’t necessarily provide strong sensory input, they’re just fun manipulatives that really help you visually and kinesthetically teach your children (in many professional’s minds, kinesthetic and tactile learning automatically go hand in hand) – again, which is generally the way our children learn best.
The pattern blocks are great for tactile spelling and letter recognition. My son loves building word towers, and I’ll often quiz him on his spelling using the blocks. The fact that they can trace the letter with their fingers, and feel the texture of the wood adds a great tactile element to the lesson. The Wikki Stix are also a great tactile tool. These are used for my daughter, to help her with her letter recognition. Wikki Stix are wax-covered strands of yarn that can be bent and molded into different shapes, they are slightly sticky, so they are a highly tactile resource. Both of my children struggle with sticky textures, so these really force them out of their comfort zone, and help work them towards overcoming this tactile sensitivity, in a fun, non-threatening way.
We also enjoy games and puzzles in our house, anything from card games, flash cards, board games to puzzles are a hit.
While this photo doesn’t contain all the items we own (we have a great floor puzzle from Melissa and Doug, the Alphabet Train, which is how we taught both our children their ABCs), it gives you an idea. Flash cards are great visual reinforcements for children, as are the math mats for my son. These write on/wipe off mats help him see the facts in columns, which is helpful for him when it comes to memorizing. We have math games like Apple Addition, rhyming games, sight word games, and the children are loving the two newest additions: Spell-A-Puzzle and What’s My Opposite? puzzle. Again, these aren’t necessarily sensory in nature, but they’re fun games they enjoy playing, which give them lots of visual reinforcement.
And last, but certainly not least, is our “library”.
While this is far from all our books (combined my children now own around 1000 books), this cupboard houses the 300 or so books that I would consider our best living books and quality literature selection – no twaddle (see this link for a description of what is a “twaddle” book) here! Don’t get me wrong, we have lots of twaddle books, silly stories for bedtime and easy readers, but they’re kept upstairs, and are not used for lessons. We’re ever striving for a smaller selection of twaddle and an expanding selection of quality, however that quest is often budget-dependant. The books in this cupboard are how I (will now) teach subjects like science, history, geography, and nature study, by reading quality living books, that are full of pictures. Many of these stories designed to entice the child are fictional, but based on fact, and that serves as the springboard to our quest for learning. There are lots of fact books as well, though no textbooks. Instead, they are interesting, colorful encyclopedias of animals, nature, insects etc… They’re fact, set in the format of a story. Again, all with lots of great pictures and graphics, meant to attract a visual mind. I have a list of some of the books in our “library”, here.
All of these are ways that I try to meet my children’s needs during homeschool, by using manipulatives and games that provide them with sensory input, or that meet their learning needs. There are other things I do as well of course. I try and keep lessons short, no more than 15 minutes. I provide sensory breaks where I make sure to give my son some of the vestibular input he needs, followed by proprioceptive input to then calm and focus him (see Ideas for Living in a Sensational World for a list of some of these activities). I’ve also had to learn to what to push, what to let go, and what to compromise on. I’ll be honest, I’ve learned that there are far more things I’ve had to learn to compromise on and let go of, than I’ve had to push.
Handwriting is a prime example. Writing can be a struggle for any children with special needs, for many reasons that range from low muscle tone problems to dyslexia to just sensory issues – the feel of the pencil on the paper, or the feel of the paper itself brushing against the skin can be bothersome to many. For my son, due to the fact that he under-registers proprioceptive input, he struggles judging the amount of pressure to exert on the pencil. Consequently, he pushes very hard, and this causes cramping and fatigue in his hand. So, I’ve compromised greatly in this area. He still has to learn to write neatly, so I still make him do some handwriting practice each week, however, I allow him to do much more work orally. I let him orally spell list words instead of print them, I don’t assign copywork like some Charlotte Mason advocates do, and I often allow him to narrate ideas and sentences to me, and then I copy them onto the page. We’ll continue to work with him on this, but in Thomas-appropriate baby steps.
When you take all of this and combine it with sensory OT tools like the visual schedule, balls, cushions, and fidgets, I think it’s safe say we have a truly sensational homeschool!