Using Sensory Strategies to Engage Reluctant Learners

Nov 28, 2023
Image of childs hands playing with rainbow colored balls of playdough. Text reads: Play to Learn with Malia Phelps Waller. Using Sensory Strategies: To Engage Reluctant Learners with guest Dr. Samantha Goldman

Have you been running into some hiccups engaging your homeschooled learner? We all know the struggle when kids are less than thrilled to learn…especially when you’ve put a bunch of effort into planning the activity. Perhaps they argue with you, run away, or just refuse to participate.

Here’s the thing…sitting at the table and filling out worksheets doesn’t work for all kids. In fact, I think most kids find it boring. And if they find it boring, they’re likely rushing through to get it done - that doesn’t really lead to effective learning, does it? When you’ve got a reluctant learner on your hands, we need to think outside the box.

The best part about homeschooling learning is that you have the ability to adapt learning to your child’s needs! So if the table’s not working for them, you’ve got options. 


Enter Sensory Strategies

Ever heard of the power of the sensory system? It’s like a magical secret weapon that we can use to make learning more fun, easier, and impactful. Think obstacle courses, playdough, and even silly music. These activities aren’t just fun (which of course they are). Research has found that actively engaging your child’s 8 senses during learning actually enhances that learning! This has been referred to as multimodal learning and has been found helpful in areas like letter recognition, reading, & math. 


Before we continue, allow me to introduce myself. 


Hi! My name is Samantha Goldman, and I’m a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in providing education to help parents, adults, and rehab professionals finally understand the sensory system, and how to help the senses feel their best.

I was so excited when Malia invited me to share a blog about how to use sensory strategies to engage homeschool learners. As a pediatric OT, sensory is my jam. And I'm constantly using sensory strategies to help the kids I work with learn new skills, so I’m excited to share some of my favorite ideas with you!

Sensory Input’s Effect on the Body

As an OT, I couldn’t in good conscience continue on talking about sensory strategies without talking about how impactful sensory input can be for the body. What’s really cool about sensory input is that it helps organize the body and bring it back to the just-right-spot for learning. If you noticed your reluctant learner is a little sluggish, getting up and doing a bit of fun and silly movement can help wake their body up for more focused tasks. And if you notice they’re a bit overwhelmed or agitated, taking a break in a calming reading corner can help the body calm back down. Sometimes, doing a preparatory sensory activity can be a great strategy for helping your reluctant learner feel more ready to learn. They key here is really to tune into your child’s sensory system, and what makes it feel it’s best.

Learning Made Sensory

Let’s jump right into it! Yup, I had to add in a little sensory pun there. When we’re talking about multimodal learning, and sensory learning, we want to think about stimulating all of those 8 senses. Here’s some of my favorite examples: 


  1. Obstacle course: obstacle courses have got to be one of my favorite ways to learn. Not only can you change it up easily, but it also allows kids to move their body instead of sitting still. I do this a lot with letter matching and recognition. I’ll set up a 3 step obstacle course, for example - grab a lowercase letter, spin around, jump over pillows, and then match it to the uppercase letter. The opportunities are endless here!

  2. Writing in textures: Sprinkles, sand, pudding…you name it, I’ve probably done it. An easy way to practice vocabulary and letter formation is by writing in textures to stimulate your sense of touch. Then, once they’ve got the formation and the letters down you can practice it on paper.

  3. Pair gestures or movements with memory: Did you know that pairing a movement with something you're trying to remember can enhance recall? Try doing a silly dance, or playing Simon Says, when you’re teaching your child about a topic, and see if it’s easier to remember!

  4. Get in the kitchen: learning about measurements or food topics? Get in the kitchen and physically experience them! It’s so much easier to remember what ¼ of a cup is when you actually used that measurement in a recipe. It’s also a lot easier to remember a banana when you held it in your hands and smelled it, instead of just looking at a picture.

  5. Add smells: Our sense of smell has been linked to memory. Adding smells to tasks can be a fun way to change up learning. For example, if you’re learning about the ocean, head out to the ocean to aid in that memory retention! Or, if you’re learning about winter topics, try an art project that incorporates cocoa powder.

  6. Adding color: We often underestimate how helpful using different colors can be. I think this is especially true when we’re talking about activities on paper. If your child is struggling with writing on the line try highlighting the line in a color. My sister recently did this with the number 8. Her daughter was struggling with the formation of the 8. So she highlighted the first half of the path, and then once she got that first half down, the rest was easy! This can be said with reading too - I love using a small piece of translucent paper, to highlight the line we’re currently reading.


Get creative! Sensory learning doesn’t need to look like any of the examples on this list. The truth is, you’re going to be able to utilize it best, when you’re pairing it with your usual routine. Like to stop a Starbucks? Practice adding and subtraction by physically giving your child money instead of using a credit card. Physically touching and seeing the money in their hand has such a different effect than just adding and subtracting on paper. Or practice reading the menu. Go on a lot of walks? Prepare an outside scavenger hunt that includes that day’s learning topic. Pretend to be Christopher Columbus sailing to America! Or practice making letters using rocks. Try to find ways to effortlessly integrate sensory learning into your routine, instead of forcing it.


And of course, don’t forget to take your child’s interests into account! They’re going to be SO much more motivated to engage in an activity, even a sensory activity, if it peaks their interests. So I love incorporating their favorite TV shows or characters into learning for some extra fun.

If you’ve noticed that your child may struggle with sensory issues, I’d love it if you'd come over and join me on Instagram (@DrSamGoldman) or my website! Sensory processing doesn’t need to be the great unknown, and knowledge is power. I’d love to help you get to know the ins-and-outs of the sensory system, so you can begin to make life a bit less chaotic and a lot more fun. 

  • Sam



About Sam: Dr. Samantha Goldman is a pediatric occupational & feeding therapist who’s mission is to provide online education to help parents, adults, & therapists finally understand the sensory system & how to help the senses feel their best, so you can make life a bit less chaotic and a lot more fun. You can get started learning immediately with Samantha over on her free podcast, or check out her website   

Legal***This article is not sponsored, no payment was received for writing the guest article. The opinions and content of this article are unique to the writers/speakers unless otherwise stated. No compensation is received for the links shared. All contents of this article are based on our personal opinions and experiences. The information provided by Samantha & SAMANTHA N. GOLDMAN, LLC (“we,” “us” or “our”) on, , and (the “Site”) is for general informational purposes only. This article cannot and does not contain medical advice. THE USE OR RELIANCE OF ANY INFORMATION CONTAINED ON THIS SITE IS SOLELY AT YOUR OWN RISK. 

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