7 Ways to Make Birthday Parties Sensory Friendly!

birthdaysWe are delighted to finally get up and running with our blog! Our first post is a topic which we think is really important. Being able to have your own birthday party, and to go to your friends birthday parties creates invaluable and treasured memories as a child. However, If your child has sensory or emotional regulation difficulties, parties can be very hard to manage. This can limit their ability to share these experiences with their friends – but with some advice, it doesn’t mean they can’t participate in them successfully!

This advice is for anyone who may have a child with sensory processing difficulties, perhaps with social, physical, social or emotional disorders or special needs. Examples of this might be children with Attachment difficulties, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attachment Difficulties, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or other things which might make going to parties challenging. You might run a business for children, such as childminding, or play groups, or even be a party entertainer! Or, you might be a parent of a child who has a friend with these difficulties.

So, how can you be inclusive of children with sensory processing difficulties?

Sensory Tip #1: Make it Predictable

Creating predictability is essential for regulation, so having an idea of a schedule is really helpful. Try and include familiar and enjoyable party games. If there are aspects of a party you don’t think your child will be able to participate in (such as singing Happy Birthday!), skip those bits out if it is your party. If it is not your party, you could provide an alternative option for your child so they don’t become dysregulated or disheartened. For example, going outside for a special ‘treasure hunt’, or going outside on a swing! Being present even for a couple of minutes for something which is too stimulating (such as loud noises) can have an impact which lasts for the rest of the entire party, so you make a judgement on what and when alternative activities might be helpful!

Make sure your child knows where key trusted adults will be, who will be there, and you could even do a practice run to the venue of the party if you can! As much familiarity as possible is useful.

Sensory Tip #2: Set up the Environment

Where possible, we want to set up the environment so it is supportive for sensory needs;

  • Does your child need to move a lot? Make sure they have enough space to do it, but not so much space that they end up separated from the friends they’re playing with. For example, you could position your child at the edge of a party table so they can get up and move around easily!
  • If your child can become overwhelmed in big spaces, make dens or smaller breakout spaces accessible, which they can share with their friends if they need to. Pop up tents can be really useful for this!
  • If your child is sensitive to sound, then think about the ways you can either manage loud noises, or create ways to be able to move away if needed. If you want to have balloons, perhaps you could ‘release’ them at a particular time of the party, and then gather them back up again- for some children, the anticipation of upcoming noise can be even more dysregulating than the actual noise itself. Waiting for a balloon to pop might be extremely unpleasant for a child, so its best to remove these if you can.

Sensory Tip #3: Create Regulating Games

Lots of children enjoy traditional party games – invariably they can end up with screams of delight, fast movement, perhaps some crashing and bashing. For some children, this is too much to handle. We can create more regulating, quieter, slower games which still allow children to have fun playing together. By using some of these ideas, games might be more accessible to a child who has difficulty regulating their sensory and emotional systems;

  • Slower games – for example, crawling musical statues. Instead of running around to the music, the children move around on their hands and feet or hands and knees. This is slower, and more calming (and therefore usually quieter!)
  • Simon Says – this can easily be adapted for activities which are more predictable and controlled – for example, crawling, rolling, tip toeing
  • Acting out a story – all children are usually more organised if they plan what they are doing with their body! Acting and performing can be a brilliant way to do this which enables children to channel their imagination! You could even create a story based on the children who are attending the party.
  • Create a sense of success – many children find it difficult to cope with perceived failure, and can be ‘over-whelmed’ by their disappointment. This might manifest as being very upset, or being angry. Try to reframe games so there are no ‘winners or losers’ – can all the children work as a team and share a sense of success? A fun way to set this up is often children vs adults!

Sensory Tip #4: Use Regulating Food and Drink

Having access to regulating food and drink can help to make children available for social interaction! Take a look at this brilliant resource on Food for Regulation, including a video in this link for further information!

  • Have chewy snacks available; for example, French bread, ciabatta. Chewy food can help to calm and organise
  • Have crunchy snacks available; such as vegetable sticks. Crunchy food can help if we are feeling agitated
  • Cold snacks such as ice-cream or smoothies can be alerting for children who are perhaps feeling overwhelmed
  • Sweet foods can be useful for calming and nurturing – particularly if you can access this in a way you can suck (for example a chocolate smoothie or fruit milkshake)

Sensory Tip #5: Use Visuals for Time Expectations

Having a sense of time can be helpful for children. It lets them prepare and regulate their nervous system according to what might be coming. Consider different ways you can use visual supports to enable this – could you use photographs and create a timetable? You could also include this in the invitations!

Sensory Tip #6: Set your Expectation for what you will do afterwards

Plan a transition game or activity for the end of the party- perhaps reading a book together to help everyone feel calm and grounded before going home. It would also be helpful to pre-plan with your child what activity they will do after the party – will they have time with their family, or visit somewhere special on the way home, or have a nice hot chocolate together when you get home? This will help to manage any feelings of disappointment your child might feel when the party is over, so they can continue with the rest of their day or evening.

Sensory Tip #7: Reflect and Celebrate

Take photographs or videos during the party, so your child can have visual reminders of the fun they had. What did they like? What would they want to be different next time? What might they like to try again? Children with sensory processing difficulties may experience low self-esteem, because things can be tougher for them. Being able to see themselves and others having fun could be incredibly powerful for them!

And last but not least… it is important to consider your own regulation. As a parent of a child who might struggle in this situation, you might need to recognise how anticipation of a party could activate stress or anxiety for you, as this impacts on your ability to help your child. Take a look at some really Simple Steps to Avoid Feeling Highly Stressed and Overwhelmed.

We hope you found these tips useful, we would be more than happy to answer any other questions you might have!

If you would like to learn more about sensory processing, here are some books that you might find helpful;

Winnie Dunn – Living Sensationally

Carol Stock Kranowitz – Out of Sync Child

Ellen Yack, Paula Sutton, Shirley Sutton – Building Bridges Through Sensory Integration

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