Managing Sensory and ADHD Children On The Playground

Children with ADHD or with Sensory issues often present with difficulties on the school playground. We will look at these two groups of children and consider some strategies that could be helpful in making break times more fun, productive, and less stressful for everyone!

First, let's consider children who have ADHD.

These children tend to be disruptive, impulsive, and can have difficulty with social skills. These difficulties are often apparent in the playground situation.

The Need for Novelty

Children who have ADHD usually have a high need for new and novel experiences. They tend to become bored very easily. In the preschool environment, it is helpful to rotate the toys and equipment available during playtimes, so that there are always some toys that are novel or that offer a new experience for the child. Older children can be encouraged to play new playground games, such as marbles, French skipping, ball games, skittles, croquet, etc. By introducing new games, you can assist in holding the child’s attention to new and novel play and possibly avoid the playground incidents that occur as a result of boredom and frustration.

Heightened Need for Movement

Children who have ADHD have a heightened need for movement input. Opportunities for running, jumping, cart wheeling, and other vigorous movement activities should be encouraged. These will often need to be structured activities, since the ADHD child left to find his own unstructured movement play might get into a situation where he over-excites and becomes overwhelmed. Always balance the fast movement with slow tasks. Stop-Start activities assist the child in modulating movement input. Introducing activities that involve strong resisted movements will also be of value (see below), as this type of sensory input is most organising.

Encourage Physical Play

Children need vigorous physical play to expend pent-up energy and to rid their bodies of toxins. It also assists in balancing the autonomic nervous system. Heavy work, endurance tasks, and resisted movement are all important in helping a child to modulate an over-aroused sensory system. Playtime offers a great opportunity for energetic physical play.


Ensure that children on the playground have access to fresh drinking water, and ensure that they actually drink water. Some children will suffer subtle dehydration and this can contribute immensely to their difficulties.

Shade and Space

A playground that offers protection from the sun, and which has good space should be sought if at all possible. It is interesting that the grade R facility in most schools has beautifully designed playgrounds with good attention to detail. In many schools, the play area for older grades is bare and boring; with little play equipment leaving children to make up their own games. While it is important to encourage children to come up with their own creative playground play and games, older children also benefit from having gross motor equipment appropriate to their age and skill.

When should breaks be scheduled?

Children who have difficulties as described above would usually benefit more from several short breaks, rather than from one long break. Children who how have low or low-normal muscle tone would also do well with frequent, shorter breaks.

Resolving playground disputes between children

From a very young age, children can be encouraged to appreciate that there are at least two sides to every story, and that although they might have experienced a situation as an infringement of their rights, it is likely that the other child involved in the dispute also felt that way. Using a “talking chair” can be useful. Each child has a turn to sit in the talking chair to express their feelings and to explain their side of the story, while the other child simply listens. They then swop places, and the child who was talking listens to the other child who gives his version of what happened. The child who is listening cannot interrupt, but simply needs to listen to the other party. The teacher mediates the discourse and ensures that both children have an opportunity to tell their side and that the feelings of both children are validated. This might seem a clumsy way to talk something through, but it is in fact a most effective way of teaching children to deal effectively with disagreements.

Playground Rules and Unacceptable Playground Behaviour

No disrespectful behaviour should ever be tolerated on the playground (or anywhere else for that matter).

Behaviour is acceptable provided that it is respectful to self, others, and to property. This very simple rule covers most things and makes a list of rules generally unnecessary.

 Sensory Processing Issues and Playground Difficulties

An understanding of the behaviour and sensory processing difficulty of children who have ADHD is vital to maintaining happy break-times, and avoiding unpleasant situations on the school playground. What follows is a description of some of the features of sensory processing difficulties. These may occur in ADHD, but may also occur in other diagnoses, or might even occur in children who have no other noted difficulties. In its more severe form, the term “Sensory Processing Disorder” is used to describe children who present with a range of sensory processing difficulties.

Children who have sensory processing difficulties are often overly sensitive to touch input, and they may react to touch that most other children would not find offensive. For example, they might fuss when someone bumps them or they may react negatively to inconsequential touch, or to inadvertent touch. They might also be very protective of their personal space and might push away other children who get too close to them. They might also be inclined to apply more pressure than necessary, in a number of situations. For example, when handling objects, they might grip too tightly, or might push too hard. They often do not seem to know their own strength, and might actually hurt other children when playing as they play too roughly. They often seek deep touch pressure and resisted movement tasks in an effort to provide themselves with this type of sensory input, since deep touch pressure and activities that offer their muscles physical resistance, tend to be quite organising and pleasurable to them. (Think of how good it feels to slam your fist into something when you are feeling frustrated!) They are often thought to be rough or destructive, when in fact, they simply have poor sensory feedback, or a heightened need for deep touch pressure and resisted movement. Their sensation of pain is sometimes also disturbed and they may over- or under-react to painful stimuli.

These features apply particularly to those children whose autonomic nervous system functions predominantly in sympathetic nervous system mode, or what we like to refer to as “survival” mode. In survival mode, blood moves away from the gut and into the limbs in preparation for fight or flight reactions. Peristalsis, the wave-like motion that moves food through the gut, also slows down or stops and so too then, does digestion. The secretion of digestive enzymes also slows or stops. Children who are predominantly in this state have little interest in food, and particularly little interest in eating a good balanced meal. Rather, they would look for high GI, quick sugar meals, or a sugared juice or sweet treat as this feels like what their body needs when it is predominantly in survival state. Therefore, it is important for children to be calm when eating their school lunches. Ideally, school lunch should be eaten before the child goes out to play. Some schools have very noisy dining-halls, and children who have sensory modulation difficulties that includes auditory defensiveness or auditory hypersensitivity, might not want to eat in this type of noisy environment.


When the playground situation has older and younger children playing in the same playground, it is important to look out for bullying, and to ensure that the younger children are protected from the older ones who might hurt them. Some schools have dealt with this issue by staggering the break-times for children of different ages.

The teacher on playground duty should have an understanding of the types issues which can arise in children who have sensory modulation difficulties. Such a child could become very upset and tearful in reaction to being bumped lightly by another child, and the teacher might assume that child who inflicted the “injury” was rough, when in fact the tears were provoked by the “sensory” child’s over-reaction to inconsequential sensory input. Support the sensitive child, but take care not to chastise the other child too severely.

We often find that the child who is a “victim” in one situation is often the “bully” in another. The psychological aspects of being a victim / bully should also be considered.

Noise level and type of noise

All children’s playgrounds are typically very noisy. It is however important to try to keep the noise level manageable and especially to minimize high-pitched sounds. High frequency sounds can be overly alerting to all individuals, but especially to the sensory sensitive individual.

What’s in the lunchbox?

We understand the value of offering children healthy, additive-free, low GI foods in their lunchboxes. Issues such as intolerance to certain foods should also be considered. The texture of foods can also play a role. Crunchy foods, such as carrots and nuts, can provide good proprioceptive input to the jaw and can assist in modulating and organising an over-aroused child. Chewy foods also provide organising sensory input.

Playground Equipment

Playground equipment that offers opportunity for resisted input can be valuable in providing proprioceptive input. Proprioception is the term used to describe the sensory input that is provided to the muscles and joints when the body engages in resisted activity. It is the type of input that is inherent in all tasks offering traction or compression of joints in active resisted movement. Proprioceptive input can be very calming and organising, provided that the input is offered without excitatory movement input or excitatory emotional activity. Typical toys and equipment which provide proprioceptive input include trampolines, punch bags, Rubber Tug ‘o War ropes / bungee rope, spongy and munch mats, and foam covered blocks.

The Gravitationally Insecure Child

Look out for the child who is Gravitationally Insecure. Gravitational insecurity is an over-reaction to movements or changes in posture, resulting in an apparently inexplicable fear of movement or of postural changes. The child prefers to have both feet firmly on the ground and likes to be in control of his own movements. Children who are gravitationally insecure usually dislike playing on playground equipment, particularly if the equipment is unsteady. They also often dislike playing in situations where other children might bump them or knock them over. They also don’t like having to be on any unstable surface. They are often emotional, anxious, and insecure. They may have an unnatural fear of falling or of heights. Words, explanation, rewards, or encouragement will not make him more secure, but will rather increase his anxiety and misery as his needs are ignored and as he is expected to move like other children. You should therefore avoid trying to persuade such a child to try equipment if he is fearful. Rather, give him time to relax and to build his trust in the situation. Sometimes well-meaning teachers and parents might just pick the child up and place him onto the equipment in the hope that he will simply overcome his fear when he sees how simple and easy the task is. Never force or bully such a child to try situations which clearly make him anxious, as you will do little more than to intensify his anxiety and to break his trust in you.

The Dyspraxic Child / Child who has Motor Planning difficulties

Dyspraxic children often engage in fantasy play or move about aimlessly, seemingly not knowing what to do or how to amuse themselves. They often do not seem to be aware of the consequences of their actions, and they can be rather clumsy and accident prone. Such children have difficulty in working out how to act in unfamiliar situations. They often have difficulty in working out the steps involved in physical tasks, such as dance moves or unfamiliar sports. They often have tremendous emotional issues related to their motor planning difficulties; they frequently present as lacking in confidence, have a huge sense of inadequacy, and low self-esteem. Children who have motor planning difficulties benefit from having unfamiliar tasks broken down into manageable steps. They are also assisted by having an adult guide their arms and legs through the motion involved in a new and unfamiliar complex movement task. A gentle understanding approach which offers demonstration and gentle step-by-step prompting can go a long way to easing the anxiety often seen in Dyspraxic children. Assisting such children in managing their anxiety by offering quiet reassurance, and an understanding approach can go a long way to assisting them. When Dyspraxic children feel that they are understood, it makes it so much easier for them to attempt tasks which they would otherwise avoid, for fear of failure.