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Designing the Perfect Sensory Room or Area for Your Child

Jun 03rd, 2024 | by Serena Patel, PT, DPT

Serena Patel, PT, DPT

June 03rd, 2024

Sensory rooms are becoming increasingly popular in schools, hospitals, and community centers. Whether you are looking to create a calming environment or a stimulating space for active play, our occupational therapists at NAPA have you covered with expert advice and practical tips.

What is a Sensory Room?

A sensory room is a specially designed space that provides a variety of sensory experiences to help individuals, especially children, regulate their sensory input. These rooms can include a range of activities and equipment tailored to stimulate or calm the senses, such as lights, sounds, textures, and movement. Sensory rooms are often used to support children with sensory processing disorders, but they can benefit anyone by enhancing focus, reducing stress, and promoting relaxation and emotional regulation.

Sensory rooms or areas help give children the opportunity to reflect and build the emotional awareness and social skills necessary to participate in daily life with their peers.

What Are the Benefits of Sensory Rooms for Children?

Whether or not a child has been diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder, it is important to recognize how children cope with sensory overload and what may or may not trigger them. Sensory rooms can help to decrease distraction by allowing kids to self-regulate and ultimately improve function and focus toward the task at hand.

Ongoing research shows that sensory rooms can help:

  • Reduce and manage stress and aggression
  • Support reflective learning
  • Increase focus and attention

DIY Sensory Room Ideas and Considerations

Sensory rooms differ from person to person, but they should ultimately be created specifically for your child’s needs. We’ll share specific ideas for both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders below!

Sensory Room Ideas for Sensory Seekers

If your child is a sensory seeker, you can create a more active room. Movement activities can offer proprioceptive and vestibular input to help regulate the nervous system and organize the body.

Ideas for an active sensory room or space:

  • Bouncing boards
  • Tunnels
  • Music/dance
  • Busy boards
  • Rock walls
  • Monkey bars
Proprioception Exercises and Activities

As with any activity, ensure the area is physically safe for the child to explore and interact as they please. Placing cushions, crash pads, or pillows can be an easy way to increase safety while adding a textural element to the room!

Calming Sensory Room Ideas for Sensory Avoiders

A calming room may be more appropriate for children who are sensory avoiders or need a break from sensory stimulation.

Ideas for a calming sensory room or space:

  • Bubble lamps or lava lamps – Predictable visual input may help to calm the nervous system
  • Headphones or classical music
  • Swings/Hammocks – Offer vestibular input and deep pressure to help calm the nervous system
  • Projector of lights or soft images
  • Bean bag chairs
  • Sensory bins – You can create these at home with plastic containers filled with uncooked rice, pasta, lentils, etc.

Creating Hybrid Sensory Rooms for Balanced Stimulation

You can also create hybrid rooms that offer some experiences of both movement and calmness! Some kiddos enjoy a combination of active and calm activities, which gives them the freedom to explore as they please. Offering a combination of both activities challenges the child (in a safe space) to self-regulate and figure out which inputs they enjoy best.

Additional Considerations for Creating a Sensory Room

1. Wall Color

Keeping it all white with white flooring may be more calming and regulating, however, for those with visual impairments, it may be difficult to navigate the room safely. Additionally, try to avoid loud paintings or distracting patterns. Louder patterns may distract from the actual sensory room activities.

2. Carpet

Carpet can create a soft area, especially if your child enjoys being on the floor; however, it may limit wheelchair access and mobility. You may be able to add smaller area rugs in specific areas instead of around the entire room.

3. Safe and Effective Use

Sensory rooms are not meant to be a free-for-all! While it is designed for some freedom of movement, the sensory areas are best used with some direction and instruction.

  • Items should be placed back in their original position prior to leaving the space
  • All equipment should be used in a safe manner
  • There should be adult supervision at all times, someone who has been trained on the importance and effectiveness of using a sensory room
  • Spending time in a sensory room should not be a reward or punishment; it should be part of their regular routine to help build self-awareness and regulation. Offering it any other way may create a false pretense that a child can get out of activities that are unpreferred. For instance, sensory rooms should not be used as a punishment when children are acting out in class. This reinforces the idea that they can act out to get a break from class instead of dealing with the consequences directly.
  • These areas are not an alternative to formal education or for those who prefer not to play outside!

4. Considerations for Public Spaces

For public sensory areas, limit the number of people present inside and the time spent inside, and keep the equipment clean!

5. It Doesn’t Have to Be an Entire Room!

We understand that sometimes space can be a determining factor for sensory areas. Keep in mind that you do not need to dedicate an entire room to this! Creating a sensory corner or even just putting out an activity in the living room before bed or between school and homework time can help to regulate your child and have positive benefits.

Examples of some activities that do not require a dedicated space:

  • Bean bag chair
  • Weighted blanket – Provides deep pressure and a sense of comfort
  • Bouncing ball
  • Fidget toys
  • Tactile toys – May find textures comforting

Bonus Tip: Adapting Sensory Rooms As Needs Change

It is also important to remember that the needs of a child will change as they develop and consequentially, the sensory room may need to change. Try to keep toys and items that your child enjoys in the sensory area so they feel safe and comfortable exploring.

Embracing the Benefits of Sensory Rooms and Tailoring Your Child’s Sensory Experience

Overall, sensory rooms offer significant benefits for people of all ages. They help to regulate and calm the nervous system to better allow individuals to perform at their best. Here at NAPA Center, we like to use sensory rooms for our friends who may be distracted easily, prefer quiet environments, or perform better in softer lighting. Specifically, we have noticed incredible changes in overall focus and participation during therapy sessions when utilizing a sensory room for those who may have a sensory processing disorder. Each therapist at NAPA has different techniques that they bring to the sensory room and we always attempt to cater the experience best for the child we are seeing. Feel free to reach out to any NAPA therapist if you are looking for ideas to create a sensory space for your child!

At NAPA, our therapists are dedicated to creating customized sensory experiences that help each child thrive!

About NAPA Center

We take an individualized approach to therapy because we understand that each child is unique with very specific needs. For this reason, no two therapeutic programs are alike. If your child needs our services, we will work closely with you to select the best therapies for them, creating a customized program specific to your child’s needs and your family’s goals.

Find Additional Resources in the NAPA Blog:

About the Author:

Serena Patel is a pediatric physical therapist at NAPA Center Los Angeles who received her DPT from Duke University. Outside of her love for kiddos, she enjoys spending time outdoors with her friends and family, reading or baking delicious goodies. Having been trained in dance, she also appreciates sharing her passion with other kids through teaching occasional classes at her old studio!

TAGS: Blogs, OT
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