By Amanda Bartel, OT
If you are lucky enough to have space in your school or clinic for an individual sensory room, why not make the most of it? I’m an OT at an elementary school that serves both general education students as well as students in our 12:1 special education classrooms. We have a terrific space, though it needed a bit of a facelift in order to better serve the needs of our elementary kids with sensory diets. I’d like to share a few pointers that you can do in your sensory room… or even in a designated corner of your classroom or clinic that can help you maximize your treatment potential. There are lots of wonderful swings, scooters, lights, and fidgets that you can purchase online, and if you have the funding to buy new expensive equipment, have at it. We weren’t really in a position to drop thousands of dollars on equipment (a free standing swing costs about $2,000 alone!), so we are updating our space for under $150! If you are anything like us, youmight already have a lot of materials that just need to be repurposed so they can be used more efficiently. We were given approval by the school board to buy a few extra materials so that we can meet the students’ needs as specified in their IEP. This, actually, is an important point: if you have a student with sensory needs, make sure you have that documented in his or her IEP so you are justified in using sensory strategies in therapy sessions and justified in buying equipment to support those needs.
We are excited to share our plan with you and wish you the best of luck in building your own sensory room! The first thing you need to do is to divide your room into 3 corners or sections to help organize the intended purpose of each area. We wanted to make the sensory room user friendly so that one-on-one aides would be able to use it with their students after receiving some training from the OT. By keeping the room organized, it is accessible to both the students and their staff. I’ll go through each section and the materials that we used, but first, let me share a few tips that can be used throughout the room regardless of which section you are in.
Like many schools, our sensory room is equipped with florescent lights. The glaring lights can be totally overestimating for some of our students with sensory sensitivity and can even cause headaches. For an inexpensive lighting alternative, we are hanging strands of holiday lights around the periphery of the room. We are also getting fabric covers that will magnet to the metal around the light. These are inexpensive ($20-40) and can be found by googling “florescent light covers”. Try these simple solutions and in seconds, your therapy space will be completely transformed.
Let’s stimulate the auditory system in a way that is actually therapeutic. Using classical music, especially Mozart due to the simple, pure, and repetitive nature of his music in addition to the use of higher frequency stringed instruments, can have a very therapeutic effect on all people. Additionally, audio containing nature sounds has also been proven to help train students to use their ears more efficiently. Integrating the auditory system changes the way a student understands their whole word. In our sensory room, we will be using the extra CD player that was collecting dust on a shelf. Free! You can also use an MP3 player with some speakers or your computer if there is one in your room. I do not recommend playing music through the tiny speakers of a cell phone if you can help it. The audio is not as good, therefore weakening the therapeutic effect.
Every student is different and some might be overly sensitive to certain scents, while others might be eager to stick their noses into anything with an odor. We want to keep the sensory room accessible to everyone, but recognize the therapeutic benefit that some scents can have. We are making “sniff bags” using cotton balls, essential oils, and zip-lock bags. That way a student can take in a deep breath, then seal up the bag without permanently stinking up the whole room. Lavender, vetiver, and vanilla are calming scents that can help ground your students. Additionally, taking in slow deep breaths helps to decrease anxiety, improves listening skills (you can’t listen if you aren’t breathing right), and bring the body back to a “just right place” for school. You can also use a diffuser in your sensory room with essential oils, but always check to make sure there are no allergies or sensitivities before filling the room with overpowering aromas. I always avoid room sprays (or any products like lotions, detergents, etc) that have “fragrance” in them. “Fragrance” can be found in almost everything these days and is an actual ingredient that will be listed on the back of the product. It is not a natural ingredient and can cause headaches and allergic reactions in some people.
A simple way to provide structure to your sensory room is by using timers every time you do an activity. Often are students with sensory needs thrive when they have highly structured environments. Timers can also help with transitions, which can also be while of the more challenging parts of working with students with special needs. If you can, use a visual timer so the student is able to keep track of how much time they have left. When the timer goes off, it’s time to clean up to start the next task. It’s important to clean up completely before moving on to the next thing. Not only will this help organize your student, but it will also keep your sensory room neat so that it is ready to go for the next person.
So now we are off to a good start. Here is how we are breaking down the space in our Sensory Room:
The Cozy Corner
In this space, we have placed a soft mat on the floor that we brought in from another part of the building. We found a kid’s pop-up tent that no one was using and set it up in the corner. We also collected 2 beanbag chairs from anther classroom that had been donated to the school. We will be adding a few books that students can look at quietly. This corner can serve as a quiet place for students to feel safe with reduced stimulation. By turning down the lights in the room or just using our holiday lights, this can be a very calm and peaceful area. Students in crisis often benefit from a smaller space because if they are not organized in their bodies, they certainly are not able to organize themselves in a large overly stimulating area. A smaller space can really make a difference and helps a student regain control and bring his or her body back to a school-appropriate level. This corner is not limited to students in crisis. In fact, visiting this space before a tantrum or loss of control happens is highly recommended. Feel free to offer fidget toys, vibrating toys, or little manipulatives that might be motivating to your student.
This section takes up the larger part of the room. Here we have mats and some climbing equipment (a rainbow ladder arch already in the school) that we have organized along one wall to make a little obstacle course. Students can climb over or under to activate different muscle groups while working on motor planning. We will also be using electrical tape or painter’s tape on the tile floor to create a hopscotch game and a “tightrope walk” for sensory motor activities. This can be very organizing to our students seeking input. Jumping in a pattern (feet apart, feet together) requires neuro-activation and controlled body movements while providing the deep pressure that results with each landing. Walking along a tightrope helps to align the spine with a tucked chin while engaging the core to carefully balance on the line. We moved an extra exercise ball to this corner as well and will be posting exercise ball activities on the wall as helpful reminders of different ways you can use the balls therapeutically. We have a hollow padded tube that students can climb into and be rolled across the room for a mix of vestibular and proprioceptive input. One of our special education classrooms had a body sock that wasn’t being used, so we brought that to our Motor Corner that students can use while working through an obstacle course.
Here we have a table and chair next to a bookshelf full of sensory toys and tactile experiences. Since many of our students benefit from and are organized by this kind of sensory input, we plan to be spending a LOT of time in this corner. On our shelves we have Play Doh, modeling clay, shaving cream, a box of fidget toys, watercolor paints, moon sand, and a collection of sensory bins complete with activity cards so staff has some therapeutic ideas for how to use the bins. I’m including a couple of ideas for how to play in the sensory bins at the bottom of this post. Every student is different when it comes to sensitivity to texture. For a student who has tactile defensiveness, touching rice or sand my not feel that great, but digging through larger beans or macaroni noodles might be a good stepping stone to increase their tolerance. Two cans of old fashion Barbasol Shaving Cream and a box of cornstarch mixed together provides another awesome sensory experience. You end up with a lighter, fluffier (cheaper!) version of moon sand and if you keep it in an air-tight box or bag, it will last for weeks!
Rice/Bean/Noodle Bucket Activities
- Scavenger Hunt: find letters/fidgets/numbers/objects/colored things/etc using hands, spoon, tweezers, cups, or other utensils. Helps build academic skills while getting great tactile input.
- Cup Pouring: transferring from cup to cup promotes bimanual skills and motor planning.
- Counted Scooping: using spoons to scoop an indicated number of spoonfulls into colored cups. You can use a dice to determine how many scoops. Helps practice academic skills, provides structure and predictability to the task, and helps increase self-help skills and utensil use.
- Hide-and-Go-Seek Bucket Game: child and staff take turns burying an object in the bucket and trying to find it. Increases visual scanning skills and steriognosis as you dig through the bin.
- Stringing Macaroni- thread the noodles onto a lace or pipe cleaner to promote bimanual skills, visual-motor skills, and tactile input while sustaining attention to a task.