Every so often, a child may need time to decompress and rest from sensory stimulation, also known as a sensory break. Cleveland Clinic states that “sensory play plays an important role in a child’s development from birth to early childhood.” Sensational Brain, which provides online resources and support for therapists, teachers and parents, offers guidelines for regular sensory breaks. A 10-minute sensory break is recommended every hour for kindergarten and first grade students, every 1-1/2 hours for second- through fourth-graders, and every two hours for fifth graders and older.
One way to help provide sensory breaks is to have a designated sensory room.
According to National Autism Resources, sensory rooms “can promote self-organization, be a calming area, provide leisure, help with sensory integration or act as skill training centers. They also provide great inclusion spaces that all students can explore together.” A sensory space can be as big as a whole room or as small as a designated area within a room, just as long as it provides a safe and stress-free environment.
Creating a sensory room can be as simple or intricate as a parent or educator wishes, depending on their budget and the needs of the child. Items can highlight different senses using toys and interactive materials.
Fidget toys include the Tangle Therapy line from Tangle, which is specially designed for hand therapy to combat minor stress relief and building fine motor skills. Fidgety fingers can slow down with Boinks Fidgets, a marble encompassed by a tight tub of fabric, thus soothing anxiety and stress.
Crazy Aaron’s has a line of SCENTsory Putty. Made of non-toxic silicone, the moldable putty comes in a variety of scents, from Scoopberry (strawberry and vanilla) and Super Chill (sweet menthol) to Gumballer (bubble gum) and Gingersnapper (gingerbread).
Along with the five traditional senses of taste, touch, sound, sight and smell, sensory rooms incorporate vestibular (balance) and proprioceptive (orientation of the body in a space) senses. Several companies, including Primary Concepts, offer sensory discs covered or filled with different materials that kids can observe and feel.
Possible furniture and décor include balancing furniture and weighted blankets. Brands such as Bouncyband and Kore Design provide balance discs, balance balls and sensory cushions for kids to sit on. Bouncyband also manufactures a Sensory Dark Den, providing a safe, secluded space within a classroom or home.
Training staff to manage a sensory room is essential to its success. According to National Autism Resources, personnel should be trained how to use the room and the equipment inside. “One of the most common mistakes is to go into a sensory room and turn on every piece of equipment,” it says on its website. “This can be very over stimulating for some. If used incorrectly, students can exhibit self-injurious or aggressive behavior. Remember the equipment is only as good as the person using it.”
Individuals who may benefit from using sensory rooms are autistic students, those with vision or language difficulties, learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, have experienced trauma and any student who needs a safe, quiet room to calm themselves. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 44 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder as of 2018. The CDC also found in a study from 2009-2017 that one in six children ages 3-17 were diagnosed with a developmental disability – including autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, blindness and cerebral palsy, among others – as reported by parents.
Using a sensory room has multiple immediate and long-term benefits for students. For individuals who are overstimulated, a calming sensory room can help them calm down and destress. The space, which can be utilized by small groups of children, can promote socialization skills; as students interact with one another in a safe environment they may observe how their actions affect those around them. Furthermore, equipment in the room can help a student focus on the task at hand whether it’s maintaining their balance or playing with a toy.
Sensory rooms promote long-term skills, especially for students with autism. A May 2019 article by the American School for the Deaf lists several benefits including learning how to appropriately respond to stimulation, enhance their learning and improve information retention and hone their fine and gross motor skills. “By providing a sense of calm and comfort, sensory rooms help children learn to self-regulate their behaviors, which ultimately improves focus,” the article reads.
The history of sensory rooms can be traced back to the 1970s when Dutch therapists Jan Hulsegge and Ad Verheul experimented in creating a multi-sensory environment. Today, sensory rooms are utilized in schools, hospitals and community centers and more. Recently, sensory rooms were unveiled at the new Kansas City International Airport terminal and Chase Center – home of the Golden State Warriors football team – in San Francisco, California.
Cobb County School District in Marietta, Georgia has no less than three sensory rooms in its elementary schools. The newest room, located in Rocky Mount Elementary School, opened in February.
“The kids immediately light up when they come in here, and it really changes their state of mind,” said Dr. Cheri Vaniman, principal of Rocky Mount. “If they were frustrated at some point, they come in here, and it’s just that chance to just relax. They can work through the problem and are able to get back into class.”