10 Considerations When Designing a Sensory Space

As sensory integration and multi-sensory interventions become more recognised and understood, schools are increasingly turning to sensory spaces to support their students' development and learning. Sensory spaces are designed not only to provide a safe and stimulating environment for students to explore their senses and develop their sensory processing skills, but they can also provide a peaceful and relaxing retreat to unwind when necessary.

It has become more and more clear that schools can help address many of the sensory needs that would support the development and well-being of children. An effective space will allow students to explore and make their own choices while regulating their sensory systems and increasing self-confidence, ultimately leading to improved classroom engagement, participation, decreased anxiety, and better daily functioning.

Sensory spaces can play a critical role in meeting these needs, but their success depends on careful consideration of key factors in their design and use.

Below are 10 key considerations for designing and using sensory spaces in schools effectively:

1.      Understand how it is going to be used by staff and students

Develop a clear assessment procedure and guidelines on how to use the space appropriately to ensure its effectiveness. Southpaw can help you assess your space and discuss suitability, but the stakeholders need to have a clear brief to move forward effectively. There are some great assessment tools that are available to assist in this process, including the Sensory Processing Measure (SPM) and the Sensory Profile, which can both be accessed online.  

2.      Accessibility is key to the effectiveness of the sensory space

Space is always going to be at a premium, so we appreciate that some tough decisions may be needed. The space may be a semi-open area within the classroom or a separate room where students can participate in focused sensory activities and sessions. Ideally though, the space should be accessible to students at any time (under supervision), giving them a sense of control and autonomy. It should also be located near areas where staff can easily support students using the space. Consideration should be given to ramps, hoists or other accommodations to ensure that the room is accessible. 

3.      Consider the needs of individual students

Each student has unique sensory needs, and it's important to consider their full range of needs and accessibility. Some children may benefit from visual stimulation, while others may need auditory or tactile stimulation. By understanding the individual needs of each student, a sensory space can be designed that meets all of their requirements.  

4.      Provide a range of sensory experiences

Often the word ‘multi’ in multi-sensory gets ignored. The sensory space and the equipment inside it should be seen as a ‘toolbox’, offering a whole range of sensory tools for all of the student’s needs. With a wide range of sensory experiences, it can help students with sensory processing differences. Consider how each of a child’s senses can be affected, including visual, auditory, tactile, proprioceptive and vestibular experiences, such as swinging, bouncing, and touching different textures. 

5.      Encourage student participation

Sensory spaces should be designed to encourage student participation and engagement. This can include providing opportunities for students to have fun, explore, discover new sensory experiences, as well as incorporating activities that promote movement and physical activity. Remember that the original concept of Multi-Sensory Therapy was based on the client/student ‘seeking out’ their environment, so it is always good to keep this in mind. 

6.      Consider the layout and organisation of the space

It's important to create a space that is easy to navigate and that provides clear boundaries between different areas. Certain equipment needs to be carefully positioned to allow free movement throughout as this can help students feel more comfortable and secure. Space planning is a key aspect to do this correctly and we recommend engaging with a specialist company who can use their experience to best place equipment. Providing dimensions and details of the room will help determine the best use of the space and what sensory products would be most suitable. 

7.      Create a safe and comfortable environment

It's important to choose materials that are appropriate and to consider factors such as lighting and temperature to ensure that the space is comfortable. Glare and flickering lights should be avoided. Certain items should be stored securely, and measures should be taken to ensure fire safety, particularly when using textiles, electrical equipment and lights. Ensure the space is not over-stimulating as this can be confusing or frightening for students. 

8.      Continually develop, tweak and add to the space

It is important to keep the space ‘fresh’ and to promote student interaction. This can be done by adding and adapting the space on a regular basis. While the core space can remain the same, allowing familiarity to the space and adding products such as weighted blankets, exercise balls, fidgets, games and other small items can help students regulate their sensory needs in a complementary way to the space.  

9.      Avoid negative connotations to the space

We understand that ‘time out’ spaces are a tool which can help students to regulate themselves. However, it’s important not to utilise a sensory space (which is designed for the enjoyment and exploration of students) as a place where they are put when they are being ‘naughty’ or showcasing negative behaviours. Meeting students at their arousal level is key to effectively promoting positive outcomes.  

10.   Seek help

Your role as educators is vital and the knowledge you have of your students is far beyond what most will have. However, sometimes a little help is useful. Perhaps you could engage with a qualified Occupational Therapist to help generate sensory profiles for your students, or you could speak with an experienced sensory company, such as Southpaw to discuss what options are available with regards to equipment. It is also a good idea to speak with your students to see what they would like to get out of the space and pull in help from colleagues. Successful delivery of a sensory space is a team effort and the more cohesive the plan and team, the more likely the project will be successful.

Southpaw understands the importance of creating safe, functional, and effective sensory spaces for schools, clinics and the NHS. We specialise in providing Multi-Sensory and Sensory Integration therapy spaces and have a proven track record of helping schools create sensory spaces that support students with sensory processing challenges. Our design process is collaborative and we work closely with Occupational Therapists, teachers and Special Educational Needs teams to create sensory spaces that meet every student’s needs. Southpaw’s goal is to create a sensory space that not only meets the needs of the users but also exceeds their expectations. 

If you have any questions, or if you need help creating a sensory space in your school, you can contact Southpaw by emailing sales@southpaw.co.uk or click here to book a free design consultation.

Article originally featured in the monthly go-to newsletter for professional Occupational Therapists by sensoryintegrationeducation.com, called EmphaSIze, you can view the original guest blog post here.

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