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Sensory Pathways! What the heck are those?

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a sensory pathway at Viola Elementary School A sensory pathway at Viola Elementary School

What is a Sensory Pathway?

A sensory pathway, or sensory hall, is a colorful, creative, and playful way for kids to build connections in the brain that are responsible for sight, touch, sound, etc., which enable kids to complete complex, multi-stage tasks.

A sensory pathway is a great way for kids to develop motor skills like balance, hand-eye coordination, and spatial awareness, and is normally made with stickers that can be stuck to any surface.

However, sensory pathways have also made their way outdoors, enabling educators to utilize them on blacktops, playgrounds, and sidewalks.

Sensory Pathways in Use

a sensory pathway for schools in use

A typical sensory pathway, like our Nature Sensory Pathway Super Stickers® set, or other sensory items in our shop, consists of several exercises specifically designed to develop the motor skills mentioned above. Some, like the Daisy Hopscotch® or Tree Pose, help with balance. Others, like March Ants, aid with spatial awareness.

Sensory pathways are the perfect mid-morning or post-lunch break, especially if your school doesn’t have access to indoor or outdoor recess areas. The high-energy nature of many of these exercises, which require kids to hop, step, and jump, can also be a great “brain break” throughout the school day - a quick five-to-ten minute movement break from the classroom that lets kids get the wiggles out! 

Sensory pathways are also an important part of a concept called sensory play, which is exactly what it sounds like: play designed to stimulate and improve your child’s five senses. Sensory play can be play designed to improve sense of smell, touch, taste, hearing, and sight, but also balance and spatial awareness. Examples of sensory play can include anything from playing in a sandbox (stimulating touch) to exploring candy (or veggies!) in a box (stimulating touch, smell, and taste).

In addition to helping kids become aware of their own senses, sensory play (and, by definition, sensory pathways) also functions as an excellent “brain break.” High-intensity activities like a sensory pathway get the blood pumping, helping children to sit still and focus for longer periods of time in the classroom.

But don’t just take our word for it!

“[Sensory Pathways] assist those that need to increase their energy and arousal level as well as those who need to calm and organize their bodies,” said Pepper Franchina-Gallagher, BS/MS OTR/L, owner of Coastal Kids Occupational Therapy in Kennebunk, Maine. “Not to mention the added benefits of focus, academics, and physical coordination while encouraging socialization and problem-solving skills!”

Build Your Own Sensory Pathway!

Sensory Pathways Outdoors

The great thing about sensory pathways (and by inclusion, sensory play) is that sensory pathways can be placed virtually anywhere and made out of nearly anything!

For instance, an outdoor path could be made out of regular everyday household items, such as this "Outdoor Patio Path" that was made right in a backyard, or from other indoor items like tape, as long as a wide variety of movements and sensory items are used. Important movements, like cross-midline, can be added with chalk.

In addition, painted outdoor sensory play, like the activities available through our Nature Activity Circuit™ Reusable Stencil Package, incorporates many of the same essential movements as an indoor path, just transferred to an outdoor setting like a playground.

By the same token, Active Sidewalks are a great example of how you can incorporate outdoor sensory pathways into the school day, whether for a brain break, PE class, or exercise routine. They function exactly as a sensory pathway would, only instead taking place outdoors in an area with a lot of through traffic, such as a sidewalk or pavement area. Outdoor sensory pathways - and by extension, active sidewalks - can also be painted with spray chalk instead of permanent paint, making for a cheaper (and erasable!) alternative to more permanent options.

The point is sensory play can take place anytime, anywhere!

Interested in learning more about sensory pathways? Check out our Resource Center!

Important links about sensory play and the sensory-motor system from Dr. Timothy D. Davis, Ph.D.:

Understanding The Sensory System And The Importance Of “Sensory Pathways”

Sensory Essentials: Vestibular/Tactile/Proprioceptive Senses

The Science Behind The Senses of Sensory Play

Providing Additional Sensory Motor Opportunities By Enhancing Sensory Pathways

Difficulty With Self-Regulation And The Importance Of Sensory Motor Skills

What are some examples of sensory play in your school or neighborhood? Do you have a sensory pathway in your school? Let us know!

Updated 6/17/22

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