The arrival of summer and the unleashing of cooped-up young bodies always bring me back to my child-rearing-roots. Only a few days have passed since the carpool line, the packing of lunches, and the buzzing of early alarm clocks stopped and I am already thinking, “How can I keep them away from the TV and feed their bodies and minds?” With sensory smart activities of course!

Let me digress for a minute to set this sensory stage so to speak: years ago my older children had the pleasure of attending a wonderful cooperative preschool and kindergarten. Based in part on the teachings of Bev Bos (Together We’re Better: Establishing Co-active Environments for Young Children) with a good measure of Maria Montessori thrown in, the children spent their days using their bodies: building with large blocks, pulling around wagons loaded with said blocks, sifting through the “texture table” for lost dinosaurs, building forts with cushions and large swaths of silky fabric or making pictures in mounds of shaving cream with colored-water-filled turkey basters. Rain, shine, frigid temps or broiling heat there was always outdoor time amidst the trees and grass, shrubs and bugs swinging from the zip-line or scrambling up the climbing structure.

In the words of the illustrious teacher Judy Stump “there is no time for ‘academics’ here, no pouring in of early reading and math concepts, because these children are busy at work! Their play (those activities we parents saw as mere fun) is their work.”

I tried to grasp the depth of her meaning but I was a first-time parent in a culture still fresh to the concept of child development’s true beginning – nurture and stimulation. All I knew was that my children were happy at “Co-op” and I loved the instruction I was getting on rearing the whole child – body and brain combined. While I dutifully offered large bowls of sudsy water or an under-the-bed-box-cum-texture-table at home, the real purpose of this “work” was lost on me. Little did I know that all this was to be an important nugget in the next century’s neuro-scientific research into synapses, neurons neurologically-challenged children and “the brain that changes itself.”

Then that “next century” arrived and with it our youngest daughter. Now my view of child development was forced out of its simplicity and into the science behind that old phrase “a child’s play is their work”.

This daughter was different from the others. Adopted at twelve months from a poor orphanage she had missed out on that early life “play” and it showed in her in-ability to calm, to sleep, to play, to engage in age-appropriate activities. At first, with our myopic view of child development, we could not put our finger on the origin or nature of her problems. Eventually however, she was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder and I got a quick education in neuro-science, sensory stimulation and the brain/body connection. All at once those pre-school activities I had seen years ago as purely fun took on new meaning. In reality they were brain builders, synapse connectors, calmers and stimulators!

For example an activity such as pulling a wagon loaded with blocks, or crashing into large floor pillows was proprioceptive – providing the body with needed input on its location and movement in space, thus calming the brain. And a trip across the zip-line or hanging upside down on the jungle gym was vestibular – giving input on location in space, thus building balance, muscle tone, visual-spatial relationship, auditory-language skills, and even emotional security. And a squish of little hands through shaving cream or a search in the sawdust-filled texture table was tactile – offering necessary input to the body’s protective and discriminatory receptors. And the whole of it was sensory processing – the outside world’s information being taken in through the senses and integrated into the child’s being, thus building and expanding their brain and turning the spiral dance of the brain and body.

Which leads me back to where I left off – the need for summer stimulation, even in neuro-typical children. After months of being cooped up working in classrooms, or simply being limited by the weather, it is time for our offspring, young and old alike, to be released (or pushed as the case maybe) into a world of activities that will stimulate and grow their brains and bodies. Step away from that screen I say and pull out the texture table!

To get you started here are some of favorite activities, courtesy of Fayette Cooperative Preschool and Kindergarten, Carol Stock Kranowitz’s The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, and my nine-year-old:

1) Shaving Cream Fun – lay a plastic shower curtain on the deck, patio or grass (or inside on the kitchen floor if raining) and put child in bathing suit. Then spray shaving cream on mat and squish and swirl and swim in it.

2) Shaving Cream Fun II – Fill empty ice-cube trays with water and put a different color of food coloring into each compartment. Then cover table with plastic tablecloth (we use a child’s height plastic IKEA table which doesn’t need to be covered) and squirt shaving cream all over table. Set ice cube trays on table and hand out turkey basters or eye droppers and see what designs can be made in the shaving cream with the colored water.

3) Shaving Cream Fun III – skip the colored water and just use your fingers and hands to draw designs, words, math problems, Tic-Tac-Toe, or what-have-you in the shaving cream.

4) Crawling Activities (crawling calms and builds the brain) – hide various trinkets, treats, stickers, pennies on the floor around the house under opaque over-turned cups or bowls and instruct child to crawl on hands and knees to “find the treasures”.

5) Obstacle Course Fun – set up an obstacle course in the yard or house using pillows (“islands in a sea of crocodiles”), blankets draped over chairs (“tunnels”), stools (for perching on, stepping over, or hoping onto), small plastic cones or large cardboard blocks standing at attention (for maneuvering through, preferably on all fours) and hula-hoops laid flat on floor (for stepping into and out of speedily or picking up and twisting in).  Then lead your child through the obstacle course. My own daughter likes to pretend she is a fancy dog in a dog show and I am her trainer leading her through the course.

6) Texture Table Fun – Obtain a large (at least 1’ x 2’ x 8” deep) Sterlite Tub with a lid (Wal-Mart and Target always have these at a good price) and fill with lentils or dried beans or rice to a depth of about four inches. Then hide small objects (preferably ones your child likes) in the “texture” and have a mini scavenger hunt. Or hand out ladles, spoons, small cups and let them pour, sift and pile to their heart’s content. Put lid on when not in use and slide under couch or bed.

7) Texture Tent Fun – Obtain a small child’s tent with a bottom (Toys-R-Us often has these in the shape of a Tepee) and fill the bottom with dried beans. Put child into tent with ladles, pots, pans and spoons. Fold tent in half with beans in bottom and slide behind a couch or large hutch when not in use.

8) Warm Soapy Water Fun – Fill a sink, small Sterlite tub or large Tupperware bowl with warm water and squirt in a little dish washing liquid or other safe soap and hand the child ladles, whisks and bowls. Then watch them whip up frothy fun! Add food coloring for even more fun.

9) Wind Wars – hand out straws and put cotton balls (or ping pong balls on a rugged area) on floor and have child race you or a friend by seeing who can blow their ball across the floor the fastest.

10) Wind Wars II – hand out straws and little cups of Jell-O, applesauce, thick smoothies, etc. and see who can suck up the contents the fastest.  Note: Sucking and blowing calm and organize the brain.

11) Make homemade play dough, salt clay, “gack” or fill a pan with corn starch and a little water and let it ooze over their hands.

12) Break out games such as Twister and Hullabaloo and have fun moving your body in space.

13) Set up the sprinkler in the yard and set up an outside obstacle course under it.

14) Go to the park and swing and slide and bounce.

15) Buy a Slip-and-Slide!

16) Put the dog in the wagon and pull them around neighborhood. See if your child can pull you in wagon. Mine can!

17) Build a fort with the couch cushions, then crash into it and start over again.

18) Invest in a scooter board or two. My children’s friends gravitate to these every time they come over, even at the age of fourteen! Most won’t harm your floors and it gives the brain a whole new perspective on things while also providing vestibular input. Roll, spin, and make a “train” with others in tow.

19) Buy a copy of Carol Stock Kranowitz’s The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun and offer up a new perspective on summer.