Sensory Rooms: A School Guide

Paul Main

How can schools use sensory rooms to provide therapeutic learning environments?

What is a Sensory Room?

Schools can be busy places with a lot of activity and noise. For some children, the stimulating environment of a school can make it a problematic and stressful place at times. Building a sensory room in a school is an effective way to provide a safe and calming place for learners with autism spectrum disorder and other special educational needs.

A sensory room offers a Controlled Sensory-Focused Environment intentionally created to support the sensory needs of a student and to enable a student to participate in learning. As well as being alternative environments for children with sensory disorders, they also provide a therapeutic space for facilitating other types of interventions such as Lego therapy. In this article, we will explore how Schools have used these places to meet the needs of the children.

What is present in a sensory room?

A sensory room is a calm space devoted to relaxing and developing the senses. Unlike a regular classroom, where each pupil is mostly expected to listen to the teacher, a sensory room provides children with the autonomy and freedom to analyze the self environment using their senses in their time.

The internal calm environment of a sensory room may include special lighting. It has a Bubble Tube Seating Area, sensory lighting and Bubble tube fibre optic mirrors. A regular sensory room has a soft seating arrangement and a wide variety of interesting things to assess, and it might also contain multi-sensory equipment such as a musical touch wall beanbag chair and soft music.

Equipment items to consider:

  • Interactive wall panels
  • Sensory lighting
  • Beanbag chair
  • Infinity tunnel
  • Sensory bathrooms
  • The ability to transform the room into a dark space
  • Activity mats
  • Art equipment
  • Building blocks creating tactile experiences

Sensory rooms for promoting visual development
Sensory rooms for promoting visual development


What are the advantages of building sensory rooms in a school?

The presence of Sensory rooms in mainstream schools is not a common practice, but they play an important role for many children. For example:

  • A sensory room offers a therapeutic space for children and adults with autism and other special needs.
  • Choices of equipment can be used to improve a variety of physical and cognitive skills.
  • The calm environment of a sensory room may help students with behavioural difficulties.
  • Students learn to self-regulate emotions in a controlled environment, without the feeling of being punished or isolated.
  • Sensory rooms provide a perfect place for ELSA sessions and counselling and therapy.

However, within the safe space of a classroom, sensory interventions (resources/activities) are preferred over the sensory rooms.

Also, a sensory room is not required at all schools, and not every pupil will benefit from it. Considering that the Sensory Spaces' construction, maintenance and operation can take much time, funds and resources, every school needs to critically reflect on its necessity for a Safe Environment of a sensory room.

Sensory integration therapy
Sensory integration therapy

Which students can benefit from a sensory room?

Schools need to assess the advantages of offering additional resources like sensory rooms. Some people feel that sensory rooms are an extra facility instead of a crucial teaching resource.

In the UK, approximately 1 in 100 persons are on the autism spectrum. Therefore, a 500 students school will possibly have 5 or more students with ASD. Even though autism affects every individual differently, facing problems in processing sensory information is a common aspect of the health care condition.

People with autism or any other sensory problems may either involve hypersensitivity (in which students do not feel the same degree of intensity as others) or hypersensitivity (in which students cannot cope with too much stimuli. Using a comfortable space to design age-appropriate activities for students is one of the ways that a sensory room can be utilised most effectively.

Using Bubble Tubes in Sensory Rooms

A common component of Sensory Spaces is a bubble tube. It is frequently kept in one corner with two bubble tube mirrors put in to give the illusion of three tubes rather than one. In most cases, a platform is created surrounding the tube such that pupils may sit close and touch the tube. There are many reasons for installing Bubble tubes in sensory rooms:

1. Sensory Stimulation

Bubble tubes provide visual sensory stimulation. They often have LED lights that change colours and watching the bubbles float up through a variety of lighting effects provides sensory input. Some bubble tubes also have a vibrating component that allows for a multi-sensory experience.

2. Calming visual focal point

It is a widespread calming activity is to find a place to focus while relaxing one's mind. Most learners will be motivated to keep their focus on their heartbeat, breath, or “visualize” an object. Most of the times, it is easier for the learners to focus their attention on something external. The harmonic motion of the bubble tube offers a calming, concrete, visual focal point.

3. Meeting IEP or learning goals

Some bubble tubes come with switches that allow students to change colours, turn them on and off, or change light patterns. Teachers will use these switches to teach a variety of IEP goals including cause and effect, colours, or other attributes such as on and off).

In schools, Sensory Spaces allow children with autism to deal with all sorts of sensory emotions in a calming and relaxing yet provocative environment.

4. Sensory stimulation

Bubble tubes may give rise to visual sensory stimulation. Bubble tubes mostly have colour-changing LED and watching the bubbles drift through a wide range of effects of lighting offers sensory input. Many bubble tubes encompass vibrating component that facilitates a multi-sensory experience.

Sensory Spaces offer mental and physical stimuli for individuals with sensory impairments, developmental delays and physical disabilities. For those with physical disabilities, interaction with Multi-Sensory Environment may help to develop touch, sound, sight, hearing, and autonomy. The use of sensory equipment may enable children with Developmental Disabilities to build and apply various skills, including:

How do children with special needs benefit from sensory rooms?

Spending time in a calming environment of a sensory room has a positive impact on fine and gross motor skills, as well as, tactile, auditory and visual processing. By offering a sense of comfort and calmness, calming space of a sensory room enables learners to self-regulate their negative behaviours, which eventually improves focus.

Occupational therapists (OTs) have been using the concept of a sensory room for years, but the advantages of "Multi-Sensory Environments of sensory rooms" are so tremendous that a lot of people are building a calming environment of a sensory room in their schools or homes as well.

It is suggested that certain children with special needs might benefit from spending at least half an hour in the sensory environment under the supervision of a physical therapist, occupational therapist and educator. The educator, occupational therapist and physical therapist will work together to create lesson plans and care programmes for those with special needs.

Learning does not take place only in the classroom environment. In fact, for a lot of students with learning difficulties, the environment of a regular classroom is not suitable for learning and digesting information. However, the environment of a sensory room may allow these students to learn at their own pace.

Equipped with things such as bean bags, mirrors, mats, cushions, lights and toys, the stimulating learning environment of a sensory room may offer an opportunity for each student to thrive. Every person has a unique learning style: some may grasp new information better when they are provided with the information visually, whereas, some may prefer a more hands-on strategy (tactile learning). The multi-sensory strategy of a sensory room makes it suitable for all the students with different learning styles, offering education tailored to fulfil all of the student's needs.