Preschoolers, Sensory Issues and Play

When I was teaching Kindergarten many parents would stress about the Kindergarten readiness test and I would reassure them with the truth, few kids “fail” the test, it is more about giving me a baseline on where they are coming in and to give the parents time to help them work on any area they might be “behind” typical.

I would also tell them the truth: I would rather have a student who can play well with other kids at playtime and recess and knows proper bathroom behavior than one who can read, add or recite the Gettysburg Address. Why? Because you can teach most “school” skills to kids at very young ages if you try but when you do you are taking time away from the skills they should be naturally developing. Kids need to be able to deal with their own emotions, share, take turns, maintain self control long enough to use a bathroom unsupervised, eat a food that isn’t their favorite, wear clothes that feel a little funny occasionally…in short to deal with life. They should have learned to bounce back from little unpleasantries (not getting picked first or having to wait for a toy another child has) and be able to use their imaginations, initiate basic problem solving and they should know how to fail sometimes.

When I went into education had a wonderful resource in my Nanny who taught headstart for years, raised 5 boys and helped with a dozen or so grandkids and 9 great grandkids to date. She used to tell me that the older 6 of us grandkids (we are in our 20-30s while the younger half are still kids in elementary-high school) were very different, that she had to “relearn” alot to babysit the younger set because kids today are different. She would explain how different play was for them but until I began teaching it wouldn’t full hit me.  Now I understand because play looks very different than it did for my generation or those before us. I spent many hours at my nanny’s as a child happy with 3 main “toys”: my cousins, nature and crayons (and the occasional nickolodean show when it was time to cool off inside;)). We climbed trees, explored creeks, fished, chased lightning bugs and played “bad guys” and “school”. Kids now want devices, toys, items and specific activities to play so even somewhere as untouched by some changes as Sardis, Alabama… kids are different.

This all came into play when my own son was born, I knew what kids used to be like and I knew what they are like now and I wanted him to be like I was…but can you control society’s impact? We would see. He was in daycare for the first 3 years of life and he did it very well, in fact, in very structured and routine environments he flourished. He was a model student who never got sent to the calm down spot and always got rave reviews from the teachers…but outside of “school” he struggled with free play environments. He had difficulty knowing how to play with other kids, make his own games and overcome small obstacles without a teacher there feeding him the “right” responses. I will never know how much that environment, which had lots of play but was still too academic for 18-36 month olds, combined with my mommy guilt inabling, played into his social and sensory issues because I can’t go back in time but I do know that the issues developed while in daycare and with a few years at home many are gone or minimal now.

At one point I considered having him seen for an official diagnosis due to societal pressure to “explain” his atypical behaviors, off the record a friend who specializes in this told me he would most likely recieve a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder but since it is not recognized as a stand alone disorder he would get slapped with something like anxiety then the diagnosis of SPD could be attached as a “rider”. I know my child though and I knew that even if he met all the criteria in the world he doesn’t have a “disorder”, he has some sensory issues (or quirks as I call them) but he is a perfectly healthy and functioning little boy and instead of getting him “help” to “accommodate” his issues I wanted to deal with the cause of those issues where possible and teach coping skills where not. I had a feeling this was stemming from unrealistic expectations and the lack of authentic opportunities to develop naturally occuring developmental skills.

I thought about my Nanny’s stories of how children have changed in the last 50 years and began a combination of occupational therapy based activities designed to help remediate his specific sensory quirks that my friend had recommended AND a change in what play meant to our family. I like reading to him, I like making him happy which, when I was working and filled with mommy guilt, meant playing board games with him when he asked…and blocks and cars and…everything I could find time to. No more. When I began staying home I stopped scheduling him in classes, activities or even library storytimes. I stopped taking him to museums or the zoo every single week. I started taking him outside…for hours…even when he got bored, while I did other things in the yard. He had to entertain himself. We would go to a nearby creek bed so he could throw rocks and build stuff with sticks. I would set aside hours each day for him to entertain himself while I cleaned, read or even watched tv (guilt free yo!) in the other room. I stopped giving him “craft” projects and started dumping the art supplies on the table and walking away so he could figure it out himself. I had friends bring their kids over for playdates and then we’d happily chat in my front room and ignore the crap out of the kids unless serious crying broke out so that they could spend time figuring it out themselves; no tvs, no adults, no direction.

It worked by the way. The kid I took out of daycare at 3 had enough overwhelming sensory issues to interfere heavily with his daily life; dressing, eating, changes in routine, it was all difficult and cause for a meltdown. I no longer have to spend 2 weeks of my life getting my child to transition to shorts for summer and then 2 more to get him back in pants during fall because the feeling and sensation of the material on his legs is so jarring. I no longer have to worry if he’ll ever make friends because he has lots and talks a mile a minute with adults (once he feels comfortable, he is still a shy guy but that’s just part of him!). I don’t miss having to stress over the temperature and texture of food because the wrong one can make him cry and gag. These things were part of my life for 2 solid years (from the time he left the “baby” room at daycare and went to a “classroom” to the time I quit my job) and I am so glad I didn’t give into the fear and have him diagnosed because there was never anything wrong with him. He might always hate the feelings of “sticky” or “messy” things, he might never enjoy certain types of foods or clothes but now when he has an issue he has the problem solving skills to work past it and if I had labeled him as broken and went around preparing everything to match his brokenness then he may never have learned those skills.

I’m not the only one to notice that sensory issues and the lack of true play in our society might be linked though…countless articles like this one “The decine of play in preschoolers – and the rise in sensory issues” are being written now that research is coming out to suggest that the two just may be linked.

[Despite the fact that Sensory Processing Disorder is one of the most “overdiagnosed” labels out there right now I am not downplaying that it is real and that for a very small minority of kids the symptoms could not be overcome without alot of therapy but the medical world would agree those children are the very rare exception (and typically have a diagnosis such as autism or adhd that might contribute to their issues). Since I know dozens of kids in my local area with the diagnosis that…well they can’t all be the exception, i’d say some of them just need the chance to fail and play and get messy and for the adults in their life to stop expecting them to sit still and be quiet and “behave” so much.

TRUE SPD is a neurological disorder that impacts the way the brain processes sensory information not just kids who haven’t learned to deal with certain things yet, every human has sensory preferences and left to our own devices we could easily take those preferences to a place that resembles a “disorder” it doesn’t mean we actually have one. ]

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