4 Sensory Activities for Kids and Pets

For years, Arabella Carter-Johnson tried to communicate with her daughter, Iris, who is on the autism spectrum. But it wasn’t until she tried one more thing—a Maine Coon named Thula—that something sparked. Since then, Thula and Iris have been inseparable: playing, connecting, creating, and learning—and most of the time it’s through sensory activities.

Carter-Johnson uses sensory activities to engage 6-year-old Iris in learning, help her relax, or just have a little bit of fun. And Thula is always involved.

Sensory activities can benefit children of all ages. Try the activities below with your kids, and even incorporate pets into the mix. Because you never know: Your kids could have a bond like Thula and Iris’, with a little encouragement.

sensory activities antarctic landscapes cat

Antarctic landscapes

This sensory activity helps Iris learn about the polar regions and the animals that live there, while discovering textures and practicing reading. Because of Iris’ fascination with the sensation of ice, Carter-Johnson freezes small toys to create a polar landscape for Iris to explore as it melts. Thula has fun with the ice, too. “She plays with the ice, batting [the cubes] back and forth between her paws,” Carter-Johnson says.

Materials: You’ll need a few containers to freeze small toys in water, plastic animals such as penguins and polar bears, cotton balls to add a snowy effect, a white sheet, a flat surface, a larger container for the frozen items, and printouts of related words.

Directions: Pick a room with a floor you don’t mind getting a little wet. Fill the smaller containers with water, and then drop the small items inside and place in your freezer. While you’re waiting for them to freeze, drape the sheet over your flat surface, and then place the large container on top. Once the frozen items are ready, place them inside the large container with the plastic animals, and then surround the container with the printed words and cotton balls. As the ice slowly melts, your child and pet can discover what’s inside, feeling new textures, playing with the toys, and reading the related polar words.

Benefits: Experiencing and learning new things can be relaxing for children, and they can be attracted to the sensation and texture of the ice. However, similar to all sensory activities, Carter-Johnson urges parents to discover what that child responds to best.

Your pet’s role: Teammate. Let your cat or dog play with the ice and have fun with their friend.

Colorful creations

One of Iris’ favorite sensory activities is painting. It has unlocked one of her most phenomenal talents, and painting helps her feel happy and relaxed as she turns a blank canvas into a stunning masterpiece.

Her best friend, Thula, is always there to observe. “Thula’s interest in painting is down to a few things,” Carter-Johnson says. “She loves spending time with Iris, but she watches the paint and is genuinely interested in the movement.”

Materials: Besides the obvious canvas and paint, Carter-Johnson encourages Iris to use any item she wants, like feathers, seedpods, or even toys and corrugated cardboard to make marks and different textures. She also encourages Iris to use brushes, sponges, rollers, and stamps.

Directions: Place a blank canvas on a flat surface (such as a coffee table), so it’s easier to control the paint. Be sure to put old towels or something similar on the floor for protection.

Benefits: Painting can help relax children while encouraging them to express themselves creatively.

Your pet’s role: Cheerleader. Pets can provide positive reinforcement just by being there to observe your child creating a piece of art.

Indoor beaches

This is one of the many sensory activities that Iris finds calming, and it’s a way to do something unexpected. “It’s fun to throw out the rule book and do silly things like have sandpits inside,” Carter-Johnson says. “Thula loves it, too, and has a great time rolling around in the sand.”

Materials: A small plastic kiddie pool, lots of sand, and don’t forget beach-themed items like toys, books, and games.

Directions: Fill the kiddie pool with sand. Then, lay out the toys for your child to explore. You can also use toys that are relevant to the books you gathered, using them as props as you read together.

Benefits: Using sand allows children to touch and play with unfamiliar textures.

Your pet’s role: Partner. With a pet involved, learning can be informal for your child, and it gives the pet a chance to interact with the sand and toys (Thula likes to sit next to Iris and play with the sea creatures).

Theatrical stories

Creating a stage for reading time allows your child to become immersed in the activity while learning without even realizing it.

And incorporating your pet can serve as encouragement to participate in the activity. “Thula loves exploring new things,” Carter-Johnson says. “She’s always first on the scene, encouraging Iris to join in and find out what it’s all about.”

Materials: Once you’ve picked a book, find props and toys that match the theme, and make use of a windowsill in a room that’s mess-friendly.

Directions: Carter-Johnson recommends picking a theme or book you want to study, and find as much information as possible on that topic. Once research is complete, set up a stage in a room with the props, and use the windowsill as a display for the books and toys they can touch and play with.

Benefits: This activity is beneficial on days when the weather keeps you indoors, and it’s a way to casually incorporate new concepts into your child’s learning routine.

Your pet’s role: Actor. Include your pet as part of the story by giving him or her a voice. Plus, it takes pressure off the child and adds a little humor to the activity.

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