There are a ton of posts roaming the internet about sensory activities for toddlers. What if your kid isn’t a toddler anymore but still needs extra sensory input? Here are 5 different art techniques that provide sensory input for your older kids while creating fun, not-toddler art. Bear in mind that sensory-averse kids may have a hard time with some of the textures, so always test it first before investing in an expensive set of materials.
1. Air Dry Clay
Most of us don’t happen to have a pottery wheel hanging around the house, but don’t let that stop you from trying out clay. Air dry clay feels like natural clay, but doesn’t need a kiln. It’s a little more fragile than natural clay and requires a sealer to prevent crumbling. It can’t hold water, and definitely shouldn’t go in the microwave or dishwasher.
Clay is a responsive medium, and helps develop tactile sensitivity. Working with the clay strengthens muscles and helps kids develop kinesthetic awareness, as well as providing a blank slate for creativity.
For kids with low muscle tone, making a pinch pot out of air dry clay is a fun, no-stress project. Even basic pots look lovely when painted, and it’s a perfect holder for an air plant or two. If your kid is advanced and detail oriented, slab-building sculptures might be a fun project to experiment with.
Make sure that your clay isn’t too dry, and use some basic clay techniques like scoring and adding slip to fix cracks or combine clay. Never pour clay residue or slip down the drain (your pipes will thank you!)
There are 5 main types of pastels, which sounds confusing, but really isn’t. Pastels are basically pigment in stick form, and the different types use different binders to create different levels of hardness. I suggest starting out with soft pastels. For more advanced, responsible students, oil pastels can be really fun to experiment with. Bear in mind that oil is far more difficult to clean up! Hard and pencil pastels are designed more for drawing.
For sensory kids, the pastels are tactile. The soft and oil pastels both need to be blended, but the texture is different. Soft pastels are more like sidewalk chalk – dry, powdery, and crumbly. Oil pastels are like condensed oil paint – waxy and fluid. Oil pastels can be thinned with turpentine and painted with a brush, or blended with fingers for a tactile experience.
Advanced students might enjoy a combination of hard pastels or pencils with soft pastels. Have the student draw the outline with the hard pastels and fill in or shade with the soft ones. Many serious sidewalk chalk artists use soft pastels, so look for art festivals or chalk art contests to see wonderful examples of how versatile pastels can be.
This fairly new product from Faber-Castelle is kind of oil pastels for laypeople. I love how vibrant the colors are and how the crayons are similar to oil pastels, but I love how they clean up with soap and water even more. Gelatos have a shimmer to most of the colors, and the metallics are stunning when combined with the deeper colors.
Like oil pastels, gelatos can be used to create a watercolor-type wash or combined with water to paint. For the best sensory input, use them over a canvas prepped with whipped spackle for texture. Have the student scribble the gelato crayon across the area they want to color, then blend with a finger or two by rubbing the pigment into the cracks and texture. Adding water dilutes the color.
Gelatos look amazing when blended together – but keep the colors to 2-3 or you’ll end up with mud color. After the project is finished you’ll need to coat it with a sealer like Modge-Podge or a similar clear sealer. Use gentle strokes with a brush to apply the sealer or the pigment will pull up.
4. Gestural Drawing
Gestural drawing is like the warm-up joggers do before running. It’s an art warm-up or practice exercise, and it’s a great way to provide sensory input. More importantly, it helps develop a critical skill called ‘Crossing the Midline.” Basically, that means crossing an imaginary line down the center of your body with a hand or foot to complete a task. It’s important because of how our brains work: it builds coordination, fine motor skills, boosts reading and writing skills, and helps both sides of the brain talk to each other.
If you’re working on crossing the midline, use large newsprint paper (18×24 inches,) a full length easel, and charcoal. Have the child stand in front of the easel and make sure they can easily reach the top and bottom of the paper without stretching. Use stick charcoal for extra tactile input.
Gestural drawing focuses on the lines of the subject – a human model. It captures the essence of the subject rather than the details. Make it a fun game and use a kitchen timer while drawing to keep the kids from bogging down on details. Start with 10 seconds per drawing – have the student indicate the top, bottom, and middle of the subject with the charcoal, then add the lines of the arms and legs.
Do this several times, emphasizing big movements of the arms instead of small, fine motions. Work your way up to 30 seconds, still using the timer.
5. Paper Mache
When I say paper-mache, most people think of the old glue and newsprint method. What I really mean is a product like Claycrete – a modeling substrate made out of paper. When you add water it becomes a sludgy mess than can be sculpted into shapes or formed around a mold. Once it dries, you can paint or carve it to finish it.
Claycrete is hugely tactile – like the clay, it helps with kinesthetic awareness. Add in a 1/2 cup of sand to the mixture for more sensory input and a stone-like finish.
Claycrete works best with a shape or mold to support it as it dries. My son created a volcano shape using a small kid’s traffic cone. We coated the cone with wax paper and he pressed a layer of Claycrete all around the cone. Once it was dry, we removed the cone, leaving the volcano by itself for him to paint and decorate.
Give these sensory-rich activities a try, and you might find that your sensory kid wants to do them over and over! They’re fun, they’re open to any creative impulse, and they’re full of sensory input that helps your child to self-regulate.