The JumpTherapy Blog:
Sensory Processing, Motor and Social Skills Resources
for Parents of Special Needs Children

Therapeutic Activities to Build Your Backpack

Part Two: ALERTING Activities

cat yawning for web

Is it hard for your child to stay alert and engaged throughout the day?
In the last post, we discussed calming activities for overstimulated children. But what about children who have an opposite set of issues: they have a hard time staying focused; they prefer sedentary play; they are under-responsive and seem oblivious to sensory input. Or, they constantly seek out sensory input because they need more; they need to be bombarded with it in order to actually feel it. These kids need a completely different set of strategies to help them regulate and succeed. That’s where you and your backpack of alerting activities come in. 

How do I help?
You want to provide your child with activities with intense sensory experiences that match your child’s sensory needs and help maintain a balanced, regulated state of arousal/interest.

How do I do this?
Proprioceptive, vestibular, and other sensory input can be alerting as well as calming. You will provide stimulating sensory input through movement, focusing on rapid, unpredictable motions rather than on slow, rhythmic, predictable ones.

Note: Be sure to also provide a short calming activity after an alerting one if you expect your child to sit back down and focus on a task.

Are there specific activities that will increase my child’s level of alertness?
Actually, many of the calming activities described in the last post will also work for alerting, as long as you execute them in a more rapid, less predictable manner. So you will want to try these, modified from their calming versions:

  • Fast rocking
  • Fast swinging and spinning
  • Bouncing on a therapy ball
  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Using the mouth as a regulator
  • Tactile bins
  • Sound machines and music
  • Scent

Of course, you will use some of these tactics and tools differently than if you were calming down an overstimulated child.

Rocking, swinging, bouncing, jumping:
The key difference in these activities is that your child will be executing them as much as possible on his or her own, quickly. You want to see fast rocking, with unpredictable movements. Have your child use his or her feet to rock himself. Similarly, your child should be be swinging and spinning in different directions at unpredictable and alternating speeds; bouncing energetically on a therapy ball; and jumping and bouncing on a trampoline.

What alerting activities use the mouth?
Vibration can help “wake up” your child’s mouth and face. You can use a battery-powered toothbrush or run a small vibrating toy over his or her cheeks and lips.

Making noises with the mouth is another fun alerting activity. Have your child buzz like a bee, hum his favorite song, click her tongue, blow raspberries.

Finally, there are different categories of alerting foods to try:

  • Crunchy snacks, such as apples, carrots, pretzels
  • Cold drinks, such as iced water or iced seltzer water (the fizzy texture is an added bonus!)
  • Cold snacks, such as popsicles or smoothies
  • Sour or spicy foods

How do tactile bins work for alerting?
Hide small objects in the filler material and have your child find them. Make it more engaging by having him or her identify the object by touch only. You can make it as challenging as you like by using similar objects, such as different coins, and have your child distinguish between, say, a penny and a nickel, various Lego figures, etc. Or  you can simply use the bins to “wake up” your child’s hands before drawing or writing.

What sounds are alerting?
Experiment with different music: Lower, rhythmic frequencies such as drums will get your child moving, and higher, melodic frequencies such as flutes and singing can engage your child’s attention.

Also experiment with the different options on sound machines to see the effect each has.

What scents are alerting?
As before, you will want to use trial and error to ascertain which scents work for your child. Start with traditionally alerting ones like citrus (especially lemon), different kinds of mint (especially peppermint), and cinnamon. Make the scents do double duty by pairing them with alerting activities, like marching to the beat of drums.

In addition to the activities discussed in the last post, try these:

  • Swinging on a trapeze bar
  • Crash pillows
  • Wall pushups
  • Jumping jacks
  • Spending time in a visually busy environment with bright colors on the walls or in the room
  • Be in bright lights or a space near a window

It’s easier if you can engage your child before s/he loses interest
Observe your child and figure out the times and associations when s/he disengages or seeks extra input. Then you can provide activities with increased sensory input at these times. Hint to get you started: These times will often be before and after sitting and working quietly.

As with calming activities, alerting activities do not need to take up much time to be useful; short,  frequent activity breaks are often more helpful in maintaining optimum balance.

In general, typically alerting activities include:

  • Rapid, unpredictably changeable input
  • Fast tempos
  • A variety of music
  • Cool room temperatures
  • Cold food temperatures
  • Sour or spicy flavors
  • Light, brushing touch
  • Fast movement, especially spinning/rotational
  • Fast-moving, bright, unpredictable visuals
  • Using muscles for “heavy work” such as pushing and pulling, often against resistance

Looking ahead:
In the next post, we will discuss other strategies and suggestions that help your child regulate.

How do you help your sensory child become more alert when s/he tires or loses focus? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, let me know there or via email what topics you would like to discuss or hear more about.

Feel free to share or quote from this blog (with attribution, please, and if possible, a link), and to repost on social media.

I look forward to hearing from you!


All the best,

About Miriam:
Miriam Skydell MS, OTR/L is a pediatric OT with 30 years experience and a strong commitment to empowering every child and every family with the skills, confidence and emotional stability necessary for a meaningful, independent life. In addition to her Masters degree from NYU (1986) and membership in the AOTA (American Occupational Therapy Association), Miriam is a licensed Interactive Metronome®,  HWT (Handwriting Without Tears®), and TLP (The Listening Program®) provider.

Miriam performs preschool screenings, contracts experienced OTs, PTs and STs to schools, helped implement the HWT curriculum, and lectures extensively for parent and support groups and at teacher conferences for public and private schools throughout New Jersey. Through her private practice in Fair Lawn, Miriam Skydell and Associates, established in 1995, Miriam has helped countless children with a wide range of diagnoses improve functional living skills, manage the impact of sensory processing dysfunction, and meet their individual potentials.