2022 Holiday Gift Guide- Sensory and Mindfulness for All

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It’s no secret that the last few years have caused more people to feel anxious or have difficulty with coping with stressful situations. I know that I have had to find ways to cope when things aren’t going the way I had planned and that I have had to help lots of little humans do the same. If there is a silver lining that can come from Covid and all that came with it is that we’ve become a bit more aware and accepting of the importance of self-care and finding ways to get through difficult situations. We have become more aware and quicker to act to find ways to figure out strategies for not only our kids, but ourselves as caregivers. This year, I tried to think a bit more out of the box when coming up with my sensory recommendations. I have gotten requests from friends and followers to consider making a sensory gift guide that was more inclusive to people of all ages and levels so while there are things clearly targeted for younger children, more of the things suggested on this gift guide are appropriate for everyone. I hope that we are getting to a place where being accepting and understanding of people who have difficulty managing their stress and anxiety and learn ways that we can support them rather than shame them.
Below, you will find some of my favorite sensory products, activities and toys. There are a ton more out there and so much more I would have liked to recommend, so if you are looking for something in particular, please reach out!

  1. Hugimals -These weighted animals are one of my new favorite finds of 2022 and am so excited to share them with you. Finding a good weighted animal is tricky but Hugimals are truly perfect and the kids at my gym have become obsessed with them and many have actually ordered their own for home. Please read the backstory to how Hugimals came to be. Like so many people, the founder Marina, had to make a career pivot and came up with this amazing product.  We know how much comfort stuffed animals bring to kids when they are feeling sad or anxious but just imagine how good it would feel to have a stuffed animal that feels like it is giving you a massive hug when you are feeling those big feelings. Weighted animals have proven to calm the nervous system and help ground children dealing with sensory processing issues or big feelings and I have seen the benefit first hand with kids who may have a lot of extra energy causing them to have difficulty with focus and attention. While there are many kinds to choose from, Hugimals are my favorite (and while I don’t like to play favorites, Emory the Elephant has stolen my heart).  First of all, they are beyond adorable! Secondly, I love the fact that the weights can be removed so you can clean it without worrying. Lastly, many of the weighted animals are made with beans but these are filled with non-toxic glass beads instead . These are loved by kids of all ages, including some of our older kids who we can motivate to do some big time strengthening exercises while holding them. 
  2. Sensory Sid Cards -As kids get older, I like to foster independence when coming up with sensory strategies that work for them. I also think it is important to offer options to kids and help them feel like they have a say or have some control about what they are doing. I have found that kids are much more likely to follow-through with a sensory diet when they are doing activities that they have practiced and helped pick out. These cards, created by an occupational therapist, are great because they are broken down into different sensory diet categories and use common household items so you don’t have to buy special equipment. Each card has simple instructions on the front and the back gives you specific directions and additional activities, including ways to make it easier or harder depending on each person. As with the calming cubes, be sure to practice these in a moment when you are feeling calm and open to learning, practicing and talking about times when each activity. Do not bust these out for the first time while you or someone you are trying to help is in the middle of something big.
  3. Lava Lamp -One of the toys that surprised me the most was my Ooze Tube and how effective it was in helping some of my more active kids calm down when looking at this. I literally had one kid come in with so much energy, that I was concerned he was going to hurt himself. I asked him to lie down, put a weighted animal on his back and had him look at the ooze tube. Within minutes, I watched his whole body relax and completely calm down. When he is having a hard time focusing on his work, I will put it on the table and he can go back and forth between looking at the tube and doing his work with fewer reminders to finish the task at hand. I wanted to find something that could have a longer effect and remembered how comforting and calming the Lava Lamp was for my daughter when she was experiencing big feelings and thought it would be a great addition to the tool chest for parents of sensory kids at home. When kids are experiencing big feelings, it’s useless to try and have a conversation or reason with them so I find it’s most helpful to make sure they have the tools to self-regulate at their disposal. A lava lamp is great because it is not only a cool thing to have in your room, it offers a visual sensory experience that leads to increased attention and focus, helps with decreasing feelings of anxiety and helps calm and center a child. Additionally, it’s a great tool for working on improving visual tracking skills.
  4. Mindfulness Cards-I am going to recommend a few different ones here because as much as I try to find things that are good for people of all ages, there are definitely mindfulness activities that are more appropriate for certain age groups. Practicing mindfulness can help kids notice their emotions and shift to more neutral thinking, like how their breath feels as they inhale and exhale. Being mindful can help kids manage their emotions and tackle challenges. Keep reading to learn how mindfulness can help build key skills, like focus and self-control.
    11a. Little Renegades Mindful Kids Cards-This set of 40 watercolor cards are designed to empower young kids (approximately ages 3-8 years but may vary depending on your child’s developmental level) with basic techniques like awareness, breathing, meditation, gratitude, and stretching, we hope to embolden their inherent capacity for calm, confidence, and joy available to them at all times. This set of mindfulness cards is great for children who may experience difficulty with transitions such as morning or evening routines.
    11b. Mindful Talk-this set of 50 cards is intended for school age children 8 and older and it is meant to be a way for families to connect through meaningful questions and conversation through different games. The cards are divided into four different categories- Mindfulness, Emotion, Inquiry, and Expression, each carrying a different theme providing an opportunity to connect with each player individually, and allow for self-reflection and analysis.
    11c. Be Mindful Cards for Teens-this set of 50 cards encourages teens and young adults to be present in life. They help you in those moments of stress, anxiety or when life is just feeling too overwhelming. The activities and strategies are meant to reduce stress, find focus and improve self-care without you having to think about it in the moment.
  5. Sensory TheraPlay Box Subscription -I have been a subscriber to this monthly sensory box for a couple of years and I can’t tell you how wonderful it is. Each month, I  anxiously wait for it to arrive and see what has been curated by a fellow occupational therapist. While some of the stuff inside are things I have known about, there are also things I have been wanting to try and some stuff that I never had heard of and have become obsessed with since. Every month you will receive a surprise assortment of 5-7 sensory toys and tools for your child. Some of the items that I have received in the past are Clixo blocks, fidget seats, aromatherapy dough, textured tactile toys/ fidgets, craft activities that promote fine motor skills, light up toys, unique stress balls, activity books and SO much more. If you have a child who loves sensory play and you just don’t know what to get them, I highly recommend this. My 12 1/2 year old daughter loves when I open the boxes each month and more often than not, will ask me to keep one or two of the products at home for her to play with before bringing them into work!
  6. Speks Geode Magnetic Toys -I can speak from personal experience that these magnets offer a sense of calm when I am feeling nervous our anxious. I found these during the early days of Covid when I was doing a lot of my work remotely which was a really stressful time. I found putting these together and taking them apart had a calming effect on me so I started offering them as a sensory/fidget toy for some of my older kids and they really liked them. Sometimes when they are asked to do more challenging work, they will ask to keep them next to them on the table and will play with them when they need a little break or opportunity to reset. An additional benefit of the Speks Geode Magnetic toys is that they are good for working on improving grasp strength and manipulation skills and encourages visual motor and visual perceptual skills when you have them try and recreate designs. I have two sets combined at my office so the kids can make larger designs.
  7. The Hope Learning Sensory Bin -I have two of these (one for work and one for home) and love how versatile it is for encouraging sensory play. This beautifully made sensory tray was created by a mom and educator who knows how important sensory play is for child development. I love it because it is super sturdy and can also be thrown in the dishwasher if it’s been used for real messy play. This not only encourages open-ended learning experiences, it encourages imagination and creativity while engaging in sensory exploration and play. By using different tools such as chopsticks, tweezers, tongs or water toys, kids can also work on developing fine motor, grasping and manipulation skills and work on visual motor and visual perceptual skills. One of my favorite activities is to put water beads in it and hide different objects in them and have kids use some kind of tool to pick them out and sort them into the correct bowls or cups. My daughter, who is 12 1/2, has used this to help keep all of her beading and art supplies in one place. It can also be a great toy to bring on long car trips for playing with cars or characters. The possible are endless! Be sure to follow Hope Learning Toys on Instagram for inspiration on how you can use your sensory bin at home. She’s always sharing some of her ideas and loves to repost how others are using their bins.
  8. Calming Cuddle Ball-I really tried to find things this year that would be good for people of all ages because sensory processing disorder and anxiety don’t have an age limit. As soon as I saw this cuddle ball, I knew it had to be on my list. Not only are they aesthetically pleasing, they can offer a lot of comfort to a person who is experiencing anxiety or other big feelings. Particularly helpful for calming children with anxiety, stress, hyperactivity, or other sensory issues. Made with the softest of fabrics to make you want to slip your hands in, bring in close, and squeeze, hug, and cuddle. There are gaps in the ball to put your hands inside providing extra comfort and warmth.
  9. Calm Down Cubes-These are calming strategies that are more appropriate for younger children (Sensory Sid cards are better for older children/tweens/teens/adults). More often than not, when people are feeling big feelings or experiencing anxiety, they have a very difficult time with making smart and safe choices to calm down. They either need someone else to help them through these tricky moments or need visuals because talking to them makes no sense….I tell parents all the time that when kids are spiraling and we try to talk to them, we sound like the grownups in all of the Peanuts cartoons. These calming cubes are a great tool to use during those out of control times. This set comes with 12 durable cubes with different activities for kids to choose from and an activity guide on how to use them. I like that there are words and pictures on them so even the youngest kid can use them. In order for kids to have success when using them, practice all the activities when they are in a calm moment. Talk to them about when they could use them and let them pick a place that they can easily access them. As kids learn that they can make smart and safe choices on their own, you will find that they will be able to generalize these skills outside of home.
  10. Sensory Imagination Poppers Set -I love when a sensory toy can work towards other occupational therapy goals and that is exactly why these imagination poppers are a great product. First of all, the fidget popper craze is still pretty high with kids and I have a similar set of these at work and the kids love them. Sometimes the kids will just grab one and keep it in their pocket during their session and will go for it when they need a little sensory break. In addition to offering sensory input and being a perfect little fidget toy, this set is great because it comes with 20 double-sided cards with visual prompts for kids to replicate which is perfect for working on improving visual motor and visual perceptual skills while getting some sensory input. For older or more creative kids, you can throw out little building challenges to them. These little fidgets are small and easy to throw in a ziplock bag and take them on-the-go to keep kids entertained or calm in more stimulating situations.
  11. Calm Strips-more often than not, when helping parents, caregivers or teachers find a fidget toy, I am looking for something that the kids have easy access to but that can backfire for some kids. Sometimes the best thing for a person who has sensory seeking tendencies or needs a simple calming tool, they need something with no bells or whistles. I discovered Calm Strips when I was trying to help a family find tools to help their child stay at the dinner table and quickly fell in love. Calm Strips are for EVERYONE and there are so many cool designs to choose from. The creator of Calm Strips is someone who suffered from social and situational anxiety for as long as he can remember and discovered that touch helped him immensely. There are SO many great Calm Strips to choose from but my favorite is the Follow Your Heart one whose rainbow design help to focus and relax the mind. Slowly trace your finger along each color of the rainbow, slowly inhaling and exhaling and focusing on your breathing.
  12. The Unworry Book and Doodle Book -I discovered The Unwary Book during the earlier days of Covid when I was looking for resources for my own daughter who had just turned 10. Remote learning wasn’t going well and she was experiencing some serious social anxiety. Art, drawing and creating has always been an important part of her life and I loved how this journal from Usbourne combined mindfulness, social emotional learning and art and creativity to help children get through tricky moments. It includes a variety of activities, from things to write, color, and design, to calm-down tactics and relaxation exercises.Since discovering this, they have come up with a series of other Unworry Activity books that I can’t recommend enough:
    Unworry Coloring: This bright and inviting book contains all sorts of pictures and patterns to color and get lost in. Aimed primarily at children, it has a cheerful approach and reassuring messages that encourage mindfulness and calm.
    The Unworry Drawing Book: This inviting draw-in book is filled with drawing activities to help soothe busy minds and shrink down worries. The activities include mindful drawing to bring your focus to the here and now, soothing shading and other art techniques, and ways to use your imagination to make worries feel small.
    The Unworry Doodle Book: Let your worries float away as you doodle, draw, scribble and sketch your way through this relaxing book.

I think this is one of the most important gift guides that I have put together. One of my favorite things to do as an occupational therapist is to help the children I work with find strategies and tools that help them through more challenging situations. It can be socially, academically or just day-to-day life with curveballs being thrown at them. Watching their confidence and self-esteem improve as they problem solve through challenging situations is a gift. As I have said, please feel free to email me at otmeghan@gmail.com if you are looking for more specific ideas for your child.

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