How to create a sensory room
As awareness of sensory needs increases for both special needs children and adults, more parents, therapists, schools, and public and private institutions are working together to create sensory-friendly spaces making everyone feel safe and welcome on their premises.
What is the core purpose of a sensory room?
The development of sensory integration rooms began in the Netherlands in the 1970s. The initial idea was to deliver stimulation to the various senses, both to relax and calm while engaging or prompting people with special needs to take notice of their surroundings.
A sensory room is highly beneficial for individuals who are hypersensitive to sensory information. This is a specially controlled and intentionally created space that provides a sense of calm and comfort, helping children learn to self-regulate their behaviour. By supporting a student’s sensory needs, enabling them to better engage in learning.
Multisensory vs sensory integration rooms
What are the differences between sensory integration rooms and multi-sensory rooms?
A multi-sensory room is designed and equipped to stimulate the senses of hearing, sight, touch, and smell. These rooms often have soft padded floors and walls and comfortable cushions, or bean bags. These materials and equipment help to create an environment where individuals cannot harm themselves.
The aim is to create an environment where every patient feels safe and is given the opportunity to explore the space along with his abilities and limitations.
A multi-sensory room is designed to help people develop sensory skills and ensures that they have a secure environment to regulate themselves in, whilst still carrying out their intended daily activity. These rooms offer an immersive experience through the activation of different elements, such as: lighting, music, objects, images, textures, sounds and vibration created and set for reaching specific therapeutic purposes.
Sensory Integration Rooms
Occupational therapists use a sensory integration room to help develop an individual's confidence and mobility skills. Sensory integration therapy is where individuals perform activities that combine sensory input with a motion to improve the ability of the brain to process sensory information.
A sensory integration room will contain equipment for activities that help develop the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. These senses provide information on movement, awareness of the body, and changing directions. Sensory Integration Therapy involves stimulating and developing our senses so that we can become more comfortable with our bodies and the way they move.
With the help of sensory toys for special needs, you can provide a calming environment at home, in therapy, or in school by adding sensory equipment for their needs. Self-organisation, relaxation or skill training can be achieved through sensory equipment for special needs individuals that benefit from a well-designed room with sensory equipment.
Sensory rooms at school
The increase in awareness and de-stigmatisation of neurodevelopmental disorders has led to an increase in diagnoses for ADHD, autism, dyslexia and many more. The recognition of these disorders has enabled more schools to equip themselves with the resources and environments needed to support special needs students during their schooling.
Sensory rooms help children with behavioural challenges regulate their bodies and actions in a way that allows them to achieve success in the classroom. Sensory rooms at schools can help improve focus, the student’s learning ability and how they engage with their teachers and peers.
Implementing a sensory room at school provides students with a safe place within a familiar setting that can sometimes get overwhelming.
Some benefits of these rooms include
- Increased concentration
- Mental and physical calmness
- Sensory improvement: touch, sight, hearing
- Improved social exchanges
- Fine and gross motor skill development
Students may benefit from a sensory room if they:
- Are on the autism spectrum
- Have learning disabilities
- Suffer from developmental delays or sensory impairments
- Have behavioural issues
Additionally, teachers and therapists can tailor their approaches to individual students and target specific skills during a multi-sensory room session. The décor of a sensory room in school might include low lighting and adjustable lighting projections, fibre optics, mirrors, and bubble tubes. Ideally, it will contain a choice of comfortable places to sit and a variety of interesting objects to examine, and it might also feature sounds and soft music.
Read more about the benefits and products to use in sensory rooms in schools by Dominic Simpson.
Sensory rooms at home
Creating a space for behaviour regulation at home can be beneficial for your child, especially if they have access to sensory rooms at their school. Spending time in an intentionally created sensory space can help them redirect themselves when they are feeling overwhelmed at home. It can also help them complete routine tasks like putting away their toys or brushing their teeth and allow them to focus and participate in familial activities. Many special needs families are taking the leap and building sensory rooms in their homes.
Benefits of a sensory room at home:
- Trusted therapy with no known side effects - Sensory rooms are personalised to the needs of the individual. A well-designed sensory room can provide a child in need of calm with activities that relax their nervous system or alerting activities to excite and awaken his nervous system.
- Teaches coping skills - A sensory room provides your child with a safe space to try and practice different coping strategies. As an individual becomes more aware of their senses, they will discover what they like and do not like and what types of products make them feel good or not.
- Improve sensory development to prepare them for real-life situations - by creating a sensory space in your home, your loved one can explore their senses and their reactions to various stimuli in a safe, stress-free environment. By exposing them to the brain’s complex reactions to things they touch or hearing, motor skills and balance, as well as their muscle functions, they can learn how to process and control those experiences when they are away from home.
Creating an entire sensory room at home is not always feasible due to space limitations. Instead, you could opt for a smaller sensory area that can be customised to your kids’ needs as well as to your space availability. This might look like an activity area to get out extra energy between school and homework, or you may decide to create a calming corner to soothe your kid before bed.
In an Occupational Therapy setting
There are several types of sensory rooms and purposes for use that have been created and implemented in different therapy practices. When used appropriately and with concrete objectives, sensory rooms can:
- Help to create a safe space for patients and special needs individuals
- Facilitate the therapeutic alliance
- Provide opportunities for engagement in prevention and crisis de-escalation strategies, as well as a host of other therapeutic exchanges
- Promote self-care/self-nurturance, resilience & recovery
How to design a great sensory room
You might be eager to get started with designing a wonderful sensory experience for your loved one, but there are key factors to consider before you start knocking out any walls and hanging sensory equipment.
- Objectives – Ask yourself, what is the sensory space going to be used for? Is it a new space or are you revamping an existing space? Consider what type of equipment you will need to install in the room and feature in the room. Getting the desired outcome objectives confirmed at the start of the project can help guide the design and help you make the right choices.
- Location - This is especially important. A lot of factors regarding the design depend on the location. It is highly advised that the room should be located away from any external noise that could become an issue or a distraction for the sensory room user.
- Size matters - How much space is available to you? This not only refers to floor space but ceiling height, too. The size of the room will determine how many different areas or zones you can have, and the ceiling height will have an impact on the type of equipment you can install, such as swings and climbing walls.
- Lighting - Avoid any kind of fluorescent lighting. Besides being very bright, these lights also create an undesirable noise which can be a stress factor. Try to use softer spotlights that are dimmable via a switch or a remote.
- Floor coverings - The floor coverings you choose will depend on what kind of sensory stimulation the room is being used for. It is also important to consider who will be using the room, if users are accessing it with wheelchairs, you need a sensory tile that is durable.
- OTs Expertise: Occupational therapists have undergone years of training, qualifications, and courses to use the sensory equipment that features in these facilities. There is no one-size-fits-all therapy, and each child will require equipment to be used differently in order to support their development and help them develop essential skills and environmental awareness. By working alongside OTs, you can understand what they need or want from sensory integration setups, and make sure the equipment you choose to install can be teamed together to provide more advanced or in-depth therapy experiences.
Ideas for your sensory room
When creating this space for your child, make sure you consider your child’s sensory needs. Some children require more visual input, such as optic lights, while others need different experiences. Sensory seekers want to climb, jump and use their gross motor skills when they have a lot of energy to burn. People of all ages benefit from a sensory space as most people find different textures, fidget toys, or even loud music a way to self-regulate.
Important sensory equipment for your sensory room:
One of the best sensory room ideas is to add a sensory swing. Adding a swing to your sensory space provides your child with vestibular input, helping your child calm down and learn where their body starts and ends.
This is different from the typical lights that you use in your home. These provide visual sensory input rather than simply illuminating the space. The right sensory lighting creates a calming environment. These lights are mesmerising and can prevent meltdowns.
Here are some recommended lighting options from Southpaw:
An important addition to your room is balance tools. There are assorted options available that stimulate the vestibular system. Try a balance board that offers easy to moderate-balance challenges for children and adults or the balance harness that cradles the upper body in a biomechanically aligned posture.
The act of jumping provides vestibular input for kids and adults. Bounce discs are available in different sizes to accommodate the size of a child as well as the size of the room.
Most sensory rooms have weighted blankets that provide the feeling of being grounded. These feelings are called deep touch pressure, and it helps calm down your child because of the serotonin release.
Creating a sensory room at home or in a public space is a wonderful way to provide the required support and additional resources to better the lives of special needs individuals.
We know that creating a sensory room can be overwhelming. There are numerous products to choose from and individual needs to consider, as well as budget and space constraints to keep in mind. The dedicated and passionate team at Southpaw are eager to collaborate with you to achieve your goals. Book a free design visit we will provide you with a personalised design and installation plan for a range of sensory therapy services. Whether you require a Multi-Sensory Environment, a Sensory Integration space, a soft play room or a safe time-out area, our team can help.