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How a rescue cat and sensory play help with trauma & development for adoptive, permanent & kinship care families.


Sensory activities can assist young people in finding a calm state. Where trauma is involved, self-regulation and knowing how to soothe may need to be taught or learnt. Whether you like blankets, music, oil burners or water, trial and error helps one to discover what works best. Sensory play helps children who have experienced trauma find their safe place which assists with self-regulation and development. Young people who are in permanent care, kinship care or who are adopted can often benefit from sensory play. But how do you offer sensory play to your young people Find out how by learning from like-minded families (with children in permanent care, adopted or in kinship care) about how they offered and succeeded with offering sensory play to their young people. Join Kaisey Hayes, adoptive parent and advocate for adoptive families, and Sonia Wagner, PCA Families Project Manager, in this podcast as they discuss sensory play and how to best approach this for the benefit of children in permanent care, kinship care or adoptive families.

00:00 - Start 01:06 - Introduction from Kaisey Hayes 01:40 - What is sensory play and how does it help children? 03:12 - How does science relate to sensory play? 04:50 - What equipment do you need? 08:43 - What goes in the lunchbox for the car trip? 09:50 - How does sensory play help children with trauma or adoption, permanent or kinship care? 12:30 - Learning that relates to why children put objects in their mouth - how they learn 13:07 - Parallels to a rescue cat that didn't want to leave a tiled bathroom floor (safety) 13:43 - Treasured memories of sensory play 14:50 - What time of day is best for sensory play - transition times? 15:50 - Books, websites, classes and other resources 17:46 - The benefits of being outside to engage in sensory play and embrace the mess!


Kaisey Hayes, Adoptive and Permanent Care Parent, and Sonia Wagner, PCA Families Project Officer

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in our first of many recordings designed to capture lived experience and best practice evidence based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people.

Being able to learn from peers and connect with those who may help us is particularly important. Today we are discussing sensory play.

Before we do I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet. We pay respect to Elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership. We are a child safe organisation.

Today Im joined by Kaisey Hayes. Kaisey is a mother to two gorgeous children, who came into her family through Adoption and Permanent Care. Having navigated the ‘system’, Kaisey is passionate about improving the journey for children in care and adoptive parents.  With particular focus on providing additional support for adoptive families. Kaisey is an enthusiastic Volunteer and advocate for change in the Adoption and Permanent Care space and has volunteered and supported PCA Families with Fundraising and Membership Engagement.

Welcome Kaisey.  Perhaps you could start off by telling us a little more about yourself and your background?

Thankyou Sonia. Thank-you for the lovely introduction and for inviting me to be on today’s podcast. It’s an honour to be here.

I am a parent to two beautiful children.

A son, now 6yo, joined our family through adoption at 4 months of age.

A daughter, now 4, joined our family through permanent care at 15 months of age.

Now today we are discussing the importance of sensory play.  Sensory play is any activity that stimulates a sense of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing, as well as anything that engages movement and balance.  So Kaisey what does sensory play mean to you?

Sensory is an activity that engages all 5 senses and movement and balance.

When I’m thinking about setting up a sensory station, I think about how it will look, smell, touch, taste and sound.

Benefits of sensory play are numerous and include:

  • Encouraging problem solving
  • It’s a mindful activity
  • It builds brain connections by building nerve pathways leading to more complex learning tasks
  • Aids language development
  • Aids and enhance memory
  • Is great for calming an anxious or frustrated child
  • Assists children learn about sensory attributes like hot, cold, sticky, dry

Your training as a pharmacist is quite a scientific journey. I wonder, how did you make the leap into sensory play?

My training does involve a lot of science. I love chemistry and mathematics.  When I think back my path to pharmacy started as a young child when I made lots of potions and healing formulas. Shampoo, coloured dyes and slime. At the time I was exploring my world through sensory play even back then. I’m a curious person and understand the why behind everything. I started exploring sensory play well before my sons placement and found then there was lots of information about how it would help with your child’s cognition and behaviour.

How do you do it? Do you need to go out and buy lots of equipment?

It is definitely something you can do on a budget. Its only limited by your imagination and you don’t need to go out and buy lots of equipment. If you find you do love sensory play anything you might purchase like funnels, tubing and cutters you can often reuse.

Station tubs can range from tubs a child can sit in or lay in to a small tray that sits on the kitchen table.

Sometimes use a mini station with a lunchbox to take away on holidays and in car trips.

Many items you have at home already. Items like water beads, plastic pellets, kinetic sand, coloured rice, pasta, beans, pom poms, they all aren’t hugely expensive and can often be reused.

Buttons bird seed, leaves, oats, shaving cream anything you would like to use.

Example sensory themed dinosaur station: small toy plastic dinosaurs, kinetic sand, pebbles and stones, pieces of wood, pine cones, assorted seeds and plant material and sand or moss

Some of our family favourites include cloud dough from flour and water (add dye if you want)

Coloured rice

Oats and cereal we often use. This week we made a farm animal station with weetbix (hay bales), yellow rice, kinetic sand, Nutella and plastic farm animals my daughter already has. Layout all the ingredients on one plate and she sets it up herself. So a lot of dramatic play as well.

Sonia mentioned an alternative is a tube with grass growing on dirt, and placing farm animals on top.

Kaisey explained you can use things from the kitchen and go out into nature and collect items there. Things like leaves, bark, dinosaur slime from moss, stones.

Sonia asked what goes in the lunchbox. Kaisey explained the car lunchbox had a penguin theme: fake snow from Toyworld, penguins, pasta sheets.

Sonia asked if Kaisey had used ice before.  Kaisey indicated she had used ice by freezing dinosaur figurines and freeze them, perhaps some color dye to make coloured ice. It has been a huge hit.

Sonia said so they are exploring science concepts there also as the ice melts and understanding more about that!

How do you feel sensory play helps children who are adopted, in permanent care or who have experienced trauma?

Due to a variety of reasons often children who have experienced trauma or are adopted or in permanent care are developmentally delayed. So by providing enriching learning experiences you allow the child to thrive.

Research shows sensory play helps to build the nerve connections in the brain which allows them to complete more complex tasks. Sensory play supports language development, cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, problem solving skills and social interaction. The best part is it provides an opportunity for every child to succeed. Children who struggle academically might find solace in sensory play.

I saw the benefit of sensory play most notably when my daughter arrived at 15 months: she hadn’t been outside, she had a great dislike for water, she missed out on tummy time, crawling and she struggled attempting to walk.  Her balance was terrible, she made one sound and she couldn’t concentrate even for a short child’s book. Now she swims in puddles, she loves them, she runs everywhere, loves outdoors and will sit for an hour in sensory play. Her speech has also caught up to the point that she is a real chatterbox so sensory play and other important interventions have resulted in this.

Sonia asked how the language developed. Kaisey explained it helped her by saying what colour is this or describing what she has set up. Breaking it down and taking the time to label more items, colours, shapes and feelings while doing sensory play together. 

Sonia indicated there are parallels to young children putting things in their mouth to learn about an object they don’t know about.  Even as adults we are still doing that: tasting food as we cook: learning from our senses to modify and adjust.  So I can see how that would be important for your daughter. Reminds me also of a rescue cat who had lived in a very small place all its life. So we started it off in our bathroom, so it was a smaller space, and over time it eventually started to come out onto the floor boards, desensitising slowly by touching it with one paw progressing to all four paws eventually. It takes time to develop the concept that new environments are a safe space to venture to.

Do you have any treasured memories where you have used sensory play with your children?

My favourites is the first time of an experience with sensory play. My son likes everything neat and very structured and I remember him looking over at my daughter in the play station .She had mess everywhere, off the mat, it was in her hair, she was eating something.  The look on his face was priceless. The pathways were opening up for her. Everything was new and different! She still likes to make a mess everywhere. Lots of finger painting and more!

Sonia questioned are there particular times of the day that were more relevant?

Yes particularly late afternoon or early evening was the most valuable. When they come home from school or kinder, eat and reconnect with calm sensory play activities before the next routine of the day. That’s also why I take it on holidays as my daughter finds it challenging to be in new environments so it just helps her with transitioning to new environments. 

Do we need to read any books or access any particular resources that might help with understanding more about sensory play?

Most of what I found was online. You can purchase books but I found the most valuable resource online including:

  • Imagination tree
  • Little bins for little hands
  • Lemon lime adventures
  • Hands as we grow
  • The gift of curiosity

Craftersise is a sensory play centre setup in Airport West with weekly classes setup with science, movement, arts and crafts. They also do online premade sensory kits.  If your nervous to start it is a great place to start or get ideas.

Any last thoughts or comments?

Sonia queried where do you do your sensory play. Do you need a particular environment? Kaisey indicated you can do it everywhere: Inside or outside it doesn’t matter – anywhere is possible.

I try and get them outside as much as possible, but you don’t need to be limited by inside or outside. I always have a small tub at my kitchen table, the sandpit shell setup outside, so there are always a few stations throughout the space.

Sonia notes its often referred to as messy play.  So having designated spaces is helpful.

Kaisey advises you need to learn to embrace the mess – you can’t beat the experience of what it’s doing for your child. If your cleaning up glitter remember the value it has for your children. 

Thanks Kaisey for your wonderful insights. 

To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life. 

If you are a permanent care or parent needing help or support please contact PCA Families at or call us on 03 9020 1833. 

Website References


  • Improve sensory processing in traumatised children, Sarah Lloyd Occupational Therapist and Play Therapist
  • Trauma informed practices with children and adolescents, William Steele and Cathy Malchiodi

Skills Learnt in Sensory Play

  • Science exploration and investigation ie hypothesise, experiment
  • Trust – exposure to wet foods like spaghetti or squashed banana
  • Mindful activity – Calming and helps with emotional regulation eg an ideal activity for late afternoon/evening
  • Retention of knowledge – see babies putting things in their mouths, their learning, gaining knowledge – hard, soft, rough, smooth
  • Growth mindset – build a growth mindset where children want to learn and explore more by play and seeking more knowledge
  • Language – develop their terminology by naming items, senses or feelings or engaging in music
  • Self Control – rules around sensory play create other learning eg one at a time
  • Block Out – permits other “noise” to be blocked out while absorbed in sensory play. Sensitivites in some children that may otherwise affect learning can be minimised in sensory play.

Shopping List

  • Go to an op shop and see what you might find: egg cups, sieves, ladles, aluminium cups, plastic cups and bowls, coasters, buttons
  • In nature: leaves, bark, soil, wood, sticks, moss, pine cones
  • At the supermarket: pasta, pasta sheets, rice, oats, weetbix, food dye, cornflour, flour, baking soda, vinegar, funnels, banana, potatoes, shaving cream, yoghurt, cream, bags from onions or oranges, leftover bottles to make rice or other shakers, tape, vegemite, Nutella, seeds
  • At the hardware store: containers large or small, sandpit shell, plastic tubes, sand, stones, bark, materials like benchtop swatches
  • At a toystore: snow, slime, goop, playdough, finger paint, glitter

Sensory Play Activity Suggestions

  • Freeze plastic animals, rocks and shells in water – dramatic play, changing elements ice to water
  • Box of dirt with grass growing on top – setup a farm with plastic animals, weetbix for haybales, add rocks, stones, seeds and more
  • Different size scoops, plastic containers and sieves and tub for water or sand play
  • Bucket water and paint brush – paint the concrete
  • Plastic tubes and balls – tie tubes to a fence, slanted downwards at varying degrees, place jugs, water and various balls nearby
  • Cornflour and water  and food dye and dishwashing liquid –watch how the form changes from hard to soft by varying the ingredients
  • Blanket under a tree – look up through the tree to the clouds, notice the air, the shapes, the smell
  • Spoons – play music with two spoons or spoons and a pot

Photos of Sensory Play Activities