Nico and the bubbles- Sensory play for regulation

This is the story of Nico, a non speaking autistic boy who had just started at primary school. Nico was enjoyed sensory play. His particular favourite game was blowing bubbles. When he had them a sort of steadiness came over him , which I now know as signs of his calm/ alertness. If ever he became dysregulated, allowing him 5 minutes to play with the bubbles would help him back into his window of tolerance. On the diagram below, this the green zone. This is where your learner is ready to engage with adult instruction, playing with peers and other activities that may require joint attention.

As Nico grew older and became more confident in school, we learnt that new experiences would often trigger dysregulation, even if he had been warned well in advance using his visual time table and Now and Next board.

We discovered that although bubbles may have calmed him at times, there were times where he could get over excited and dysregulated. With careful observation however, we noticed that, when he was on the cusp of hyper arousal, he would run around after the bubbles, smacking them with his hand and shouting ' pow! pow!'

In short, it wasn't the bubbles that were making his dysregulated, but rather the type of play.

We began to encourage Nico to move more slowly, like he was one of bubbles. Or to try and catch them on his hand and look at them. But by far the most effective change was to teach Nico to blow the bubbles himself, using a small circular wand. This not only slowed everything down and gave him some proprioceptive feedback in his lips, but also helped Nico to control his breathing.

I've spoken before about the importance of making sure that your learner is inside their window of tolerance in order to engage and learn. I mention here in my blog about differentiation

and here is the story of Ben and Dust,

is about the two steps needed to get and maintain joint attention and engagement for learning activities.

Sensory Play for up or down regulation

I'm going to provide you with a list of sensory play you can do with you learners to ensure they stay in their window of tolerance.

As a general rule, if a child or young person seems tired, down regulated or drifts off into a world of their own imagination they may be hypo-aroused. To help them back into their window, you need to up regulate them using play or activities which involve, quick, light movements that stimulate the centre of balance.

If, however they are fidgety, over excited or up regulated, they will need proprioceptive 'heavy work' in order to help them back into their window of tolerance. Proprioception is a sense which tells your position in relation to other people and objects through the movement in your body. Any play which stimulates this can help to calm hyper-arousal.

Examples of Play using things you may already have in the classroom, or at home.

Thanks to Jacob Lawton form Positive Regard for sharing this list

Foam Soap

Up regulate - Hold the ball in one hand, after the count of 3 clap hands and smash the ball into snow

Down regulate - Roll the soap into a ball

Tug of war

Up regulate - Sit the child on bean bag and pull around a large space.

Down regulate - Using a blanket, twist into a rope and child attempts to pull towards you

Sand Box

Up regulate - Build a tower then smash it down

Down regulate - Slowly push hands through the sand, paying attention to the sensation OR play hangman or Pictionary in the sand


Up regulate - Light gentle touch

Down regulate - Deep pressure

Balloon Pass

Up regulate - Pass the balloon back and forth without letting it touch the ground, changing which body parts to hit the balloon with

Down regulate - Allow the balloon to land on a hand and use breath to blow it to the other person

Bubble Pop

Up regulate - Pop all the bubbles, occasionally changing which body part used to pop them.

Down regulate - Try to catch bubbles without them popping by allowing them to land as gently as possible, occasionally changing which body part is used to catch them.

Traffic Jam

Up regulate - Play with a time limit

Down regulate - Offer a move limit and encourage participants to think about each move carefully and take their time

Chair Stack

Up regulate - Build a tower as high as possible, as fast as possible.

Down regulate - Take time to carefully build one without it falling

Tray Game

Up regulate - See how fast you can move items from one tray to another using chopsticks.

Down regulate - Place several items on a tray. Give the other person a time limit to remember all the items, cover them and then remove one item whilst the other person looks away. See if the other person can spot which item has been removed.

Feather Blow

Up regulate - Competition to see who can blow the feather the furthest in a time limit

Down regulate - Gently pass the feather between each other by blowing it softly

I Went To The Shop

Up regulate - “I went to the shop and bought….” say a random item then the next person repeats what has been said but adds an item.

Down regulate - “I went to the shop and bought….” say an item that begins with the letter A, then the next person repeats what has been said and works through the alphabet.

Hand Stack

Up regulate - Stand in a circle with everyone’s hands extended to the middle and placed on top of each other. Count how many times each person can put a hand to the top within a time limit.

Down regulate - One person places both hands into the middle facing up. They then attempt to hold their hands in place as each person places one hand on top and pushes down. If it goes all around the circle with the first person still able to support them, everyone else can use their second hand.

Pass the Lotion

Up regulate - Pass and splat

Down regulate - Use a small blob and see how many times it can be passed back and forth before there is none left

Motorbike Vs Cycle Bike

Up regulate - Whilst sat on the floor the adult and the child connect through their feet. Moving their feet in a fast motion like riding a bicycle.

Down regulate - Either the child or the adult shouts “motorbike” and both push their feet hard against one and other.

Cup Catch

Up regulate - With two plastic cups (of the same shape), one person throws a cup into the air and the other person attempts to catch it inside the other cup.

Down regulate - With two plastic cups (of the same shape), one person holds their cup still and the other person attempts to throw their cup into it.

Blow Football

Up regulate - Both people make a goal with fingers. Use a piece of scrunched up paper or other small, light, round object as a ball. Have a match within a time limit and see who wins.

Down regulate - Do a penalty shoot-out. Take turns trying to score, taking time to be as accurate as possible.

Hot Potato

Up regulate - Use a beanbag or heavier ball to quickly pass back and forth. See how many times it can be passed in one minute.

Down regulate - Use a balloon to gently pass back and forth without letting it touch the ground. Time how long it can be kept off the floor.

Mummy wrap

Up regulate - Using rolls of toilet paper, wrap a person up as much as possible within a time limit.

Down regulate - Using rolls of toilet paper, wrap a person up, taking time to ensure there are no gaps in the toilet paper.

Playing Cards

Up regulate - 52 card pick-up. Throw them all on the floor and see how quick they can all be picked up.

Down regulate - Any other card game. Blackjack / Snap / Go Fish etc


Up regulate - Whilst standing face to face, copy the fast movements of another's hands.

Down regulate - Whilst standing face to face and touching hands apply pressure and guide the other hands into different positions

Silly Walk

Up regulate - Leapfrog, big steps, hopping etc

Down regulate - Bear walk, dragon crawl etc i.e. anything low and slow

Invisible Ball

Up regulate - Throw an invisible ball to each other from across the room

Down regulate - Place one person’s hands inside of the others The person on the inside is then to push out as hard as they can, whilst the person on the outside presses in. Do this for 30 seconds, then separate and pay attention to the sensation.

Beanbag Balance

Up regulate - Place a beanbag on each person’s head. Race from one point to another without dropping the beanbag.

Down regulate - Slowly walk across a line on the floor without stepping off it, ensuring the bean bag doesn’t fall off.

Curiosity Games

The moon is round, the train game, crossed or uncrossed, 1 up 1 down.

Shield Game

Up regulate - Throw big sponge shapes or cushions to try to hit the other person’s body, whilst the other person has to dodge or defend using a cushion as a shield.

Down regulate - Both using a cushion to push against each other.

Yes/No Game

Up regulate - do this at speed , with a timer and swap 'contestants' regularly'

Down regulate - Have one person ask yes/no questions whilst the other person tries to answer without saying yes or no.

Cushion Kick-ups

Up regulate - Kick the cushion against the wall, attempting to not let it hit the floor before it can be kicked again.

Down regulate - Count how many kick-ups can be done without letting the cushion hit the floor


Up regulate - Stand further apart and throw overarm. Count how many times it can be passed in one minute.

Down regulate - Gentle under-arm throw. Count how many times it can be passed without it being dropped.

Do This, Do That

Up regulate - Big movements (gross motor skills) at a quicker pace

Down regulate - Smaller movements (fine motor skills) at a slower pace

Shaving Foam Sensory Exploration

Up regulate - On a tray direct the child to run their finger around the foam.

Down regulate - slower movements with a lavender scent

Squiggle Add

Up regulate - One person draws a squiggle on the paper then removes their pen. The next person adds to the squiggle. The final picture doesn't need to make sense it's just about having fun!

Down regulate - The same as up regulating apart from you work together to draw something specific.

Pen Follow

Up regulate - Both adult and child have the pen on the paper at the same time. The child must follow the adults’ movements with their pen. The movements are encouraged to be fast and sharp.

Down regulate - Same as the above but the movements are encouraged to be slow and heavy applying deep pressure with the pen onto the page.

Guess Where The Sticker Is

Up regulate - With the child blindfolded splice multiple stickers on different body parts. The child then has to remember where they fell, they have been stuck.

Down regulate - Whilst blindfolded and using a weighted object the adult stick 1 sticker as gently as possibly on the child. The child then must figure out where the sticker has been placed.

1,924 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All