Using Sensory For Sensitive Conversations

June 5, 2020

The focus of this blog is looking to a sensory experience as an aide when having important conversations with your child. As we are coming together to actively change the narrative and having conversations about black history and current events, you may find it difficult figuring out how to even begin setting up this moment with your child(ren). 

Like everything, children learn best through play. In this blog, we will specifically discuss playing with the material natural clay. At school, we often invite children to play with sensory materials, such as clay, alongside us (the teachers) while we have tougher conversations. Play sounds misplaced in such a serious topic, but consider this point: Sitting down with children to play with a material such as clay during important conversations can better better hold their attention and open doors for conversation and processing. It also nonverbally sets a tone for “I have time for this. I have time for us.” and allows them to feel included and equal, rather than simply talking at them.

But why clay? Let’s expand. In true open-ended material nature, natural clay can be used as a (1) focus tool, (2) calming device, (3) frustration outlet, (4) form of expression, (5) manipulative. 

 Clay As a Focus Tool

At school, we give the children “fidget toys” to help them pay attention at group meetings. By giving them the option to move around in the form of giving their hands something to do, you are settling some of their impulse to seek out bigger movement and distractions. Checking the fidgeting off the list by allowing them fidget allows them to focus on learning rather than focusing on thinking of a way to move around.

 Clay As a Calming Device 

Have you ever gotten lost playing in something you think feels cool or strange? This is because sensory activities actually help self regulate and reduce anxiety. If your child begins to feel anxious during your conversation, their interaction with the clay may become more intense, possibly more kneading. This is likely them using the clay to self regulate. 

 Clay As a Frustration Outlet

Often in the classroom, if a child is hitting or is physical, stemming from feelings of  frustration, anger, impatience, sadness etc, we invite them to sit and squeeze clay. Because clay is firm, it actually strengthens children’s still-developing hands. However, the firmness also serves as resistance when they are trying to squeeze it, which helps to itch that scratch and relieve the tension they are feeling. The more the squeeze, the easier it becomes to work with, which often organically leads to them self-regulating. 

Clay As a Form Of Expression

Perhaps your child begins to shape the clay into objects that do not resemble much to you. This could be your child using the clay as a metaphor…shaping the clay into the abstract feelings they feel. Ask “What are you working on?” Hear their explanation and truly try to interpret it with an open-mind. If things turn silly and you need to get back on topic, make a shape with your own clay and find a way to segue back. “I know this may seem confusing, but you are safe and I feel hopeful. Want to see what hope looks like to me?” *shapes clay* You may use the clay as a communication tool to convey feelings so they don’t feel alone in perhaps not being able to assign emotions to their feelings. Remember, you are there to convey that you are playing and conversing with them, so acknowledge their clay exploration as well.

 Clay As a Manipulative

A big reason why clay is so appealing to children is because it’s one of the few they feel they can control! Especially during a conversation that involves concepts of oppression and the use of country-wide protests just to be heard, manipulating clay in their growing hands may seem particularly attractive. 

If you would like to learn more about this topic, you may conveniently search the internet for “clay therapy”. If you do not have clay, just mix flour and oil. This dough won’t be as firm, but it will still serve its purpose. Don’t shy away from adding herbs and essential oils to your dough! A lavender and rosemary combo is nice for calming down, while citrus smells may be more stimulating. You may also do all the mixing with your child, which may bring more value to playing together with the mixture. 

I suggest following this link to an article on how to navigate conversations around black history and current events with young children. There is also a wonderful list of books to keep the conversations and learning going strong. Add them to your home and school libraries!

Much love to you,

Miss Erin

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