Sensory Efficiency Skills

Graphic showing available sensory channels for a child with cerebral palsy and visual impairments.
Graphic showing available sensory channels for a child with cerebral palsy and visual impairments.

One of the primary principles of Active Learning is helping the child to develop all of his/her sensory channels to the greatest extent possible. In Pathways to Learning we are made aware of the need to assess the extent these sensory channels are available to the child and design activities and learning environments that make use of these channels:

    1. Sight
    2. Smell
    3. Taste
    4. Touch
    5. Hearing 
    6. Movement

Children who are blind or visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing, or physically impaired so that movement is not easy need to learn to use their other senses to compensate. For example, a child who is blind often uses touch and sounds to figure out where they are, what is coming toward them, who is in a room. A child who is deaf may use sight to access language. A child who is motorically impaired might use feet or her mouth instead of hands to explore.

Even if a child will never be able to use a particular sense fully, they might learn to use it better and support that sensory information with information gathered from another sense. For example, a child who is hard of hearing may alert to some bit of sound they hear, but then use other senses like touch or vision to make sense of that sound. 

Visual efficiency skills in children who are visually impaired usually include:

      • Visual attention & scanning  
      • Visual tracking
      • Visual motor skills (coordination of vision with the movements of the body)
      • Optical device use
      • Tactual readiness (exploration and discrimination skills)
      • Hand use
      • Auditory readiness
      • Listening skills 

Many of these same skills are needed by children who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deafblind.

Here are a few examples of activities that help to build sensory efficiency skills.

Visual attention, scanning, and tracking  

Cookie sheet with various Slinkys on it
Cookie sheet with various Slinkys on it
    • Use lighted balls mixed with other types of balls on a tray for the child to explore.
    • Place shiny paper on the surface of trays with other devices or use shiny papers in a basket with holes for the child to reach and pull out.
    • Place a variety of objects on a light box or have a collection of objects to place on  a light box.
    • Play with cars or remote control toys that move.
    • Make a pegboard with visually interesting objects for the child to interact with or place things in a pegboard book.

Optical Device Use

A young boy plays with objects on a light box.
A young boy plays with objects on a light box.
    • Offer a collection of various types of magnifiers for the child to play with along with a basket of smaller objects.
    • Have a collection of glasses and sunglasses for the child to play with in the dress up center.
    • Have a collection of kaleidoscopes to explore.
    • Have the child wear a headlamp while playing in water table to find objects or sand table to find objects that are buried in the sand.
    • Let the child put things on a CCTV tray to explore visually.

Tactile Readiness and Hand Use

A young girl plays in a sand table with things that she can practice pouring and scooping.
A young girl plays in a sand table with things that she can practice pouring and scooping.
    • Play with different materials such as dry and cooked rice, dry beans, pudding, sand, etc. in a tray or bin.
    • Explore different surfaces with bare feet in a HOPSA, outside, footbath, etc.
    • Explore different objects with hands while on a resonance board.
    • Explore different objects that vibrate with hands, feet, mouth, etc.
    • Play with braillers, type writers, other keyboards.
    • Play a piano, guitar, or rhythm band instruments.
    • Use Little Room, Scratch, Position and Grab Boards, Mobiles and other equipment that encourages tactile exploration.

Auditory readiness and listening skills

A young man plays with a musical drum on his right and maracas on his left.
A young man plays with a musical drum on his right and maracas on his left.
    • Dance or move to various types of music.
    • Place objects that make interesting sound in different locations from the child and see if he can locate it.
    • Read books that have interesting rhythm patterns or funny sounds  such as Dr. Seuss books, Chicka Chicka Boom, nursery rhymes. Combine movement with the sound such a clapping, stomping, etc.
    • Play a turn-taking game where you tickle the child after saying, “I’m going to get your neck”, “I am going to get your belly”, etc.
    • Play vocalizing games where the adult imitates the child’s vocalizations.
    • Play with toys that make a specific sound in a Little Room or on a Position Board.
    • Play with rhythm band instruments.

Olfactory and gustatory skills

A little girl smells a pot of flowers.
A little girl smells a pot of flowers.
    • During activities of daily living, give the child time to smell or taste materials such as lotion, toothpaste, food items.
    • Play with  various herbs that can be picked or crushed. For example, place a bundle of cilatro, basil, mint, rosemary, etc. in a basket. Make sure the child does not have any food allergies or issues with seizures. You may even want to plant herbs along a path and experience their fragrance as you walk.
    • For a child who cannot bite tie candies like life savers on to a string and let them hold it in their mouth.
    • Play with spoons, straw, toothbrushes in yogurt or pudding.
    • Place items like limes, lemons or oranges that have been cut open in cheese cloth and let the child play with them.
    • Go outside and smell grass, flowers, wood.
    • Cook something together and then eat it.
    • Take time to go out and smell the roses or any other fragrant plant or flower.


Using Gustatory Sense

A young boy with glasses compares plastic hair curlers. with his mouth
A young boy with glasses compares plastic hair curlers with his mouth.

Even children who are tube-fed can enjoy exploring using their gustatory (taste) sense. 

    • Allow the child to mouth objects as much as he/she chooses.
    • Once the child is cleared for some oral feeding, toys, pacifiers and other other materials in pudding, yogurt, or pureed foods to allow the child to taste.
    • Let the child lick hard candy such as a lollipop while you hold it.
    • Place items near the child’s mouth in a Little Room.

Hard Candy and Licorice

In this video a boy moves a hard candy in his mouth (to ensure safety, the candy was attached to a string). He is also introduced to licorice with the use of a Buncher, which allows him to hold it independently.


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Download: Transcript (txt)

Oral Motor- Vocalizing with a Microphone

In this video, a microphone is placed in the area of a child, so that his voice is amplified. He is set up so that his movements cause responses, and the music therapist pauses to allow him time to process and then vocalize. He uses his auditory skills to listen for a pause in the music so he can vocalize.

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Downloads: Transcript (txt)

Hand Under Hand Strategy – Idaho Children and Youth with Deaf-Blindness

Hand Under Hand Strategy  is viewable below and on the Idaho Children & Youth with Deaf-Blindness channel at: Read more:

Jordan Using Tactile Skills in a Little Room

In this video Jordan sits in a Little Room and plays with objects that make interesting noise.


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Lucas Using Visual Sense with Illumi-Balls

A young boy is seated in a wheelchair. In his lap is a silver metal bowl filled with white and yellow plastic balls, illuminated by a bright flashlight.


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