As the recommendation to wear masks moves forward as a more long term situation, we – as parents – are asking “How am I going to get my child do this?!” Many of you may have already started this process and are having success. Many of you may have been surprised by how resistant your child was to the idea. Some of us, who have children with sensory processing differences, are dreading the attempt and process. So we start to problem solve – as we often do as parents. I hope to provide some insight from my experiences as an Occupational Therapist and one who specializes in sensory processing differences to help guide this process for you and your family.
As Occupational Therapists we work with children and families to help bring success in and through occupation. In this way, occupation refers to the things our children want and need to do. The number one occupation of children is play. This makes play the number one way to help our children gain comfort in the use of masks. Another important aspect of play to consider is that play places our neurological system in a zone of safety and provides a way to practice roles and routines in a safe place.
Before I share some play based recommendations, I feel I need to address one reason why your child may be so resistant to the use of a mask. We are all in some state of anxious response right now. Research shows that anxiety causes our senses to enter a state of hyperarousal – we experience sensation in a bigger way when we are anxious. A sensation that may not typically bother us, now does. This anxiety-sensation relationship makes the touch and pressure of a mask a sensationally uncomfortable experience, even if your child has not historically been over sensitive to touch. As a sensory-based OT, I know that the safe place of play can minimize anxiety and decrease this sensory over responsivity. Some other strategies that help sensory over responsivity are:
- Slow and graded introduction to uncomfortable sensation
- Provision of proprioceptive input (heavy work and deep pressure inputs)
- Remaining calm, comfortable and playful yourself
- Low and slow affect (tone of voice, gestures and actions)
- Provision of predictability and repetition– no surprises
- Inviting the experience, versus asking for participation
- Modeling comfort and safety yourself
The strategies above set the stage for your play-based mask wearing scenarios below! Here’s how we can play with masks to help ease our children into their use and help them feel safe and confident about wearing them. You and your child put your masks on and play together as:
- Doctor & nurse as you take care of their stuffed animals (who can have masks too!)
- Bug exterminator as you move around your house and squirt pictures of bugs.
- Fire fighter as you put a fire out in a house built of couch cushions.
- Scuba diver with the mask as your airline as you dive backwards from couch cushions and swim through blankets and pillows to see sea creatures.
- Fossil digger as you dig for hidden items in Playdoh or kinetic sand, using the mask to be sure that nothing gets in your mouth as you dig.
- Scientist as you squish Playdoh together to make a concoction or make slime
- Construction work as you weld the edges of a couch cushion structure together
- Window washer as you use a squirt bottle to squirt and clean the windows
- Nail tech as you take turns massaging and painting each other’s nails
- Dentist as you check the teeth of your stuffed animals and dolls
Remember – slow exposure to wearing the mask in small amounts at a time, remain calm and playful, invite them to experience this with you while you model comfort and safety in wearing your mask. You can keep the mask around the play area so that it becomes part of daily life. Normalizing its existence and use will make wearing it predictable and familiar.
Be sure to comment on how strong, brave and helpful they look while wearing the mask.
You can add proprioceptive calming input into these games by having your child push, pull, carry and squeeze objects being used in the play. Things from your home to consider including to add these experiences as outlined above – couch cushions, pillows, playdoh, blankets, squirt bottles, large blocks, and large stuffed animals/dolls. Here are some other ways too.
Let’s have fun while we build comfort and confidence in wearing masks in a safe and playful way!
PS: Playing will also bring YOU an amazing feeling of safety, comfort and presence too.