The Perfect Outdoor Activity for Kids with Sensory Stuff: Fort Building

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Do you have a child who struggles with sensory stuff? I sure do! It can be a struggle to homeschool children who struggle with these challenges. Believe me, I understand how disruptive it can be when you have a child who never stops moving, a child who literally climbs the walls.

Today I’m sharing a super-fun activity that is a wonderful experience for all children, but one that can be especially beneficial to a child with sensory stuff. But, first, let’s talk about sensory stuff for those new to this journey.

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What is Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) was first recognized in the 1960s by A. Jane Ayres and received more recent attention with the book The Out-Of-Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz and Lucy Jane Miller. Sensory processing disorder is an oft-questioned diagnosis. It is not listed in the DSM-V and The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions against using SPD as a stand-alone diagnosis, suggesting instead that it is likely related to ASD, anxiety, DCD, or ADHD. Parents of children who struggle with sensory challenges will tell you that it does exist, however. I am one of them. My oldest son has struggled with sensory challenges since birth.

SPD is often referred to as a central nervous system “traffic jam” where all the incoming sensory information (sound, smell, taste, touch, sight, vestibular input) gets all muddled together, making it difficult for those with SPD to respond to the input appropriately. SPD comes in many different flavors. Some kids with SPD over-react to incoming sensory messages, some under-react. Some are sensitive/undersensitive to all areas of sensory input, while others may have difficulty in only one or two areas.

Sensory diets

Many children who struggle with SPD and ADHD can benefit from a sensory diet. A sensory diet is developed by the child’s occupational therapist. It is a specific group of activities scheduled into a child’s day. These activities are specific to the child’s unique sensory profile. The sensory diet helps with the child’s level of attention and arousal. Over time, the child is better able to calm down and refocus his or her attention.

If your child struggles with attention, focus, and the ability to calm, it is quite likely that his or her sensory diet would include heavy work. Heavy work refers to proprioceptive input. The proprioceptive system helps us to have a sense of body awareness, or where the body is in relation to other objects. When we push and pull objects, for example, our muscles and joints send messages to our proprioceptive system.

Heavy work can have a calming effect on the nervous system and this is why many sensory diets include heavy work activities. Many kiddos with SPD seek out proprioceptive input in ways that can be disruptive such as leaning on tables, bumping into things, and whirring around like a tornado. Your child’s occupational therapist can work with you to create appropriate outlets for this need, and they can also recommend tools and resources to use at home to make life easier for your family.

Meeting sensory needs at home

While it is important to work with an occupational therapist to develop strategies for your child, there are activities that you can do at home that are fun for all types of children but especially beneficial for those with sensory challenges. These activities can include:

  • Household chores– Carrying laundry and groceries, vacuuming, sweeping, etc.
  • Cooking– From stirring to kneading dough to using a rolling pin, etc.
  • Outdoor work– Raking leaves, shoveling snow, gardening, etc.
  • Sports – From gymnastics to skiing to riding a bicycle- all are great activities for active kids.

Winter can be a tough season for an active kid with sensory needs. I’m always trying to look for ways for my little guy to have those needs met at home. Recently, we had great success with a favorite childhood activity: fort building!

The Perfect Outdoor Activity for Kids with Sensory Stuff: Fort Building!

One of my favorite memories from childhood was constructing forts, either with my brothers, with neighborhood friends, or all by myself. I can’t think of anything more satisfying, as a child, than to build a space of your very own. I spent countless hours holed up in cozy nooks that I created in the woods behind our home. In that space, I got lost in an imaginary world, read heaps of great books, and felt calm.

Children have always loved forts; they have been around forever! If you think about it, fort building is the original STEM challenge. Just think of all the skills that fort construction involves:

In addition to the skills listed above, building a fort is hard work. Not only is fort construction hard work, but it is also heavy work. Just think of all the climbing and pulling and pushing and lifting and lugging involved in the creation of your perfect space!

Recently, it occurred to me that fort building might just be the perfect activity for my children, especially my oldest who struggles with SPD. And what better time to build a fort than late winter when the ground is scattered with fallen limbs and mosquitoes have yet to appear.

One morning, over breakfast, I shared stories of my childhood forts with my children. This conversation was well-timed, as it was an unusually warm February morning. My children’s eyes lit up as they listened. I could almost see the wheels turning in their little minds! As soon as we were done with breakfast, the children ran outdoors. They spent the entire day building an incredible lean-to on the hill in our backyard.

When they finished, they were so incredibly proud of themselves. I was proud of them, too. They had worked hard together. They acted as a team to create something amazing: a space of their very own.

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Tired and happy!

Do you know how calm my children were that afternoon? Calm and happy!

They have been enjoying that fort daily. It is a calming space for them and one that I’m sure they will continue to build many memories in. My children have already spent countless hours in their nook, playing and laughing together. Play is such an important part of childhood; it helps children learn to navigate their world.

As a school psychologist and homeschool mom, I see the educational value in fort building. It is an activity that is educational and fun for all children, but most especially for those little tornadoes of ours!

Now, it’s your turn. Tell me: What do your children love about building forts?

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