Sensory Play Tunnel – Play at its Foundations

What makes a sensory play tunnel?

Sensory Integration, sensory play tunnels or even sensory exploration – When I was a boy, I never knew about any of these, and why would I? Not even my parents, educators, or family doctor would have known the benefits of sensory play tunnels, or ‘Sensory Play’ was back in the late 70s, and for good reason… It happened naturally, without anyone needing to create the environment or opportunity.

Children got messy in the dirt making mud pies. They covered their body (or buried a sibling) in the sand at the beach, they painted their little brother or sister in the backyard with craft paint, they made wooden guns and army stuff with dad’s (or mum’s) tools when they weren’t home. They climbed big trees at the park, rode bikes, built forts, made tree houses, built a house out of the box the new fridge came in. But arguably the best of all, they built sensory play tunnels by pulling the couch away from the wall, and fortifying it with pillows, blankets, and whatever else they could find.

play tunnel out of boxes

When my own children were growing up, I made sure we did all these things and more. I didn’t want them to miss out on the amazing experiences and natural process of sensory integration that I had been so fortunate to live and then learn about in my training. At one point, we had those puzzle foam pieces with letters that you buy from places like Clark Rubber or Kmart. They are put together and put on the floor, but then what?

One day I had an idea; Since these items are just there doing nothing other than providing colour to the room and protecting the floor, what if we put them together at right angles, and keep building?  We can make a play tunnel! Then, if we put more together, we can make a cubby house – How Awesome?

I discovered that following dinner after we would bathe our son, in his grunts and groans he would request the play tunnel. We would build elaborate play tunnels that bent this way and that way, then led to a cubby house. On occasion, they would include his older sister’s tea set and dolls at the end, or whatever else we could find around the house to give it a nice finishing touch. While to creation varied slightly from night to night, the ending (pack down) was always the same. The play tunnel would cease with my son jumping off the couch and landing on sections of the tunnel, smashing it to bits, all with the knowledge that tomorrow we would go through the same process again.

At the time, I was burdened by OT parent shame; How could I deny playing with my own children, when I was playing all day with other people’s kids? Even though I just wanted to finish work, go home and sit down and do something as uneventful as watching the news, I promised myself that my children would take precedence. We would build sensory play tunnels or play in any manner that seemed to fit the situation until they no longer wanted to. It took nearly 2 years! I can say now (10 years on) that there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss doing this with my son.

Advice from an OT

Always make time for your children when you can and most importantly – be present. Their time in childhood is short and you can never get back that time. You will never miss watching that show, working that extra hour or whatever it is adults do, but you will miss those amazing moments of playing with your children before they become too old to want to play with you!

Sensory play tunnels may take varied forms and provide varied experiences. The basic principle behind them, in my experience, is to use them to help children develop their sense of body awareness. By crawling in, they learn about where their body is in relation to the play tunnel, how to lower and move through sections by twisting and turning. Adding cushions makes this more challenging but gives fantastic tactile input that helps with what OT’s call “Somatosensory perception,” (a really great word that basically means body awareness).

Sensory Play Tunnel

At OTFC Group we use hard tunnels. These are expensive, but for therapists trained in Sensory Integration, they enable great variety.

  • They can be suspended to become a swing, they can be elevated to make challenges in climbing, and also challenge insecurities with height (gravitational insecurity.)
  • They can be rolled by the therapist while the child is in the tunnel – this provides movement (vestibular) input for children, and in doing so can often help a child learn to roll. Furthermore, this assists with crossing their midline, which also helps to integrate the left and right sides of their brains.
  • Children can balance on top, and even develop the ability to move the tunnel by walking on top of it.

Sensory play tunnels have always been my favourite piece of therapy equipment. That’s saying a lot for someone trained in Sensory Integration and working for 25 years in the field. I have seen and used some awesome pieces of equipment in my time!

Play tunnels at home

fabric play tunnel

At home, a tunnel can look like the foam puzzle pieces put together discussed above, it could also be one of the following:

  • An old moving box or group of boxes taped together
  • A cheap concertina tunnel you bought from some toy or sports stores
  • A lycra tunnel (available through most places like spotlight by the meter) or
  • The good old ‘pull the couch away from the wall and cover the top’ trick. This worked for my brother and I for years.

With everything, safety is always paramount. Make sure edges and openings are free from sharp or scratchy points. Also, it is important to supervise and support your children initially while playing in the tunnels safely, before you allow them to play on their own and come up with their own ideas. Bear in mind that leaving kids alone to explore their own ideas is very important for their development, both physically and cognitively.

Most importantly … HAVE FUN!

Author: Dino Mennillo – OTFC GROUP Director

BAppSc Occupational Therapy


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