Enabling Environments: All about ... Sensory rooms

Annette Rawstrone
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

It doesn't require a large budget, just plenty of imagination and some careful forethought about how it's going to be used, to kit out your setting with a sensory room, as Annette Rawstrone explains.

'In order to grow and learn, the human brain needs to be stimulated by sensory experiences that take place within a rich and varied environment ... a child needs to see, touch, hear, taste and smell, to play, explore, and experiment, and above all, to feel loved.' Vea Vecchi, 'Children, spaces, relations' (1998) Reggio Children

More and more mainstream nurseries are discovering the learning potential of sensory rooms. The exciting environment offers endless opportunities for cross-curricular learning and is ideal for helping develop children's cognitive questioning and thinking skills. Stimulating sensory rooms not only allow children to experiment and experience many different situations and sensations; they are also great places to escape the hectic pace of the playroom, and unwind.

'Young children develop through the senses from babyhood onwards. They are very tactile and learn from listening, looking and smelling things,' says Angela Stanton, head of Alfreton Nursery in Derbyshire. 'The whole ethos of a sensory room is to stimulate children in a way that appeals to them. It is important that children are aware of their own environment, that they look around them and see different things and work out what is going on.

'We have things on the ceiling as well as the walls, so they are looking up as well as down, and they will lie down and let the whole experience envelope them.'

If an early years setting does not have the space for a sensory room, similar effects can be achieved by using equipment in the nursery itself, purchasing a Dark Den (TTS Group, see further information and photo, left) or UV Booth (SpaceKraft, see further information). Or simply drape a blanket over a table and let children crawl underneath.

Sensory room trainer Tim Naylor stresses that there is no prescribed way to use a sensory room, and the possibilities are limitless. 'It is important to look at the sensory room as a tool and not a magical room where you put the children in and something happens all by itself,' he says. 'People have asked me "What will the room do for my child?" What they should be asking is, "What skills do I want to develop?" "What do I need to assess?" "Do we just want to have some fun today?"

'The most valuable resource is still the practitioner as an enabler, observer or assessor. The sensory room is a wonderful resource for developing all those early learning skills such as cause and effect, sequencing, colour work and turn-taking. It allows you an area to reduce outside distractions and focus on a specific task or activity.'

CASE STUDY: Dizzy Ducks Day Nursery, Billericay, Essex

'The sensory room acts as a unique selling point for parents looking for a nursery in the area,' says nursery director Sian Nisbett. 'We discovered that no other nursery in a 20-mile radius had a sensory room.

'When children walk into the room for the first time, their faces light up - you can really see the "wow!"'

Setting up the room cost around £6,000, with equipment including:

- Bubble tube with padded crawl area. It is interactive, so children can change the colours and mix them

- Mirrors - children enjoy looking at their own reflections and dancing and jumping in front of the mirrors. They can see themselves in three mirrors at once

- Projector, often used for imaginary play, such as pretending to be in outer space or walking on the moon

- CD with a range of relaxing and stimulating music

- 'Spaghetti leg' sensory table

- Velcro lights on the walls that the children can move around and turn on and off by tapping them

- Ball pool - some children need to build up confidence to go in the pool, but older children enjoy jumping into it and throwing and catching the balls

- Soft coloured building blocks

- Fibre optic lights - the children can manipulate the tubes with their hands and it's safe to put them in their mouths

- Twinkle lights hanging from the ceiling to encourage children to look all around them

- Shiny CDs and rubber, wicker and wooden coasters from a housewares store, fastened on to the wall so the children can explore the different textures.

Nursery nurse Sarah Linda says, 'It's nice for the staff to share the sensory room experiences with the children, and it helps them to bond.

'We find that when children have been in the sensory room they are a lot more focused and are touching and looking more. They seem more tuned in. They bring all the experiences from the room out with them and play more imaginatively.'

CASE STUDY: 4Street Nursery, Eastcote, Middlesex

The nursery successfully applied for a sensory trolley purchased by the Early Years Inclusion Team at the London Borough of Hillingdon. Staff have changed the 'quiet room' into a sensory room, complete with fibre optic strands, touch pads, a music centre, ultraviolet light, blast torches and a projector. Two team leaders attended a training session on how best to use the equipment and disseminated the information to the rest of the team. They also set up inventories, cleaning rotas and checking schedules to ensure that the equipment is well maintained.

'One of the most surprising messages we have gained from the training and the use of the room is that the preconceived idea that it must be a place of tranquillity is inaccurate,' says nursery manager Elaine Caffary. 'If the children want to have an upbeat Bob the Builder song while they play in the room, then this is more than acceptable.'

Staff are compiling a file of activities and resources for use in the room and have added more equipment. Alongside the sensory trolley resources, they now have a moon and stars neon glow curtain, a white igloo, many colours of sheer fabric, fibre optic lights and mobiles hanging from the ceiling.

As well as simply enjoying exploring the sensory equipment, the children enjoy having story sessions in the room. These are brought to life with the projector. A particular favourite is Michael Rosen's We're Going on a Bear Hunt - 'Imagine the swishy swashy grass projecting around the room, and then going into a dark cave and the light becoming dimmer and dimmer until, ahhhh, a bear projects across the room!' says Ms Caffary.

Children and staff are so excited by the sensory room that they shared it with visitors at the last parents' evening. They booked 15 minute-sessions to explore the room, which culminated in being treated to Marcus Pfister's The Rainbow Fish, with fish swimming merrily around the igloo.


- Discuss the idea of a sensory room with your staff team. Think who will use the room - what are their ages and their needs?

- Consider what you want to gain from the room - for example, developmental skills, learning cause and effect, exploring themes, storytelling, calming or stimulating children; or maybe all of these.

- Decide where to locate your room - it does not have to be a large area. Some settings even turn storage cupboards into sensory rooms. Ideally it needs to be situated where external noise can be controlled to avoid distraction - for example, away from a lively play area.

- Small rooms can get uncomfortably warm, so give thought to heating, cooling and ventilation. If air extraction is used, then try to get a 'whisper' model to reduce noise.

- The walls of the many sensory rooms are either black, because it gives good visual lighting impact, or white, which can be projected on. But this is not obligatory. You could have a coloured room, or even go for black and white together.

- The room will need to be dark for any lighting effects to work, so consider curtains, blinds or, ideally, black-out curtains.

- Also think of the flooring - hospital-grade carpet with underlay provides a solid floor, but it's also good to have cushions and padded areas so children can crawl, sit and lie comfortably. Ensure that padded flooring or walls meet fire regulations.

- When designing the room, always go for more power sockets or switches than needed so that you can add equipment later. Position sockets as close to equipment as possible, and avoid trailing leads.

- Ensure that there is a residual current operated circuit breaker (RCCB) or safety cut-out in case of any electrical faults.

- There is no set cost for a sensory room. It all depends on what equipment you choose. But remember to budget for the electrical work and decorating the area.

- Think about what equipment you would like - bubble tube, fibre optics, projector and a sound system tend to be the key pieces. Mirrors are also good for increasing lighting effects and for helping the children to develop self-awareness.

- Plan who is going to be responsible for the room and be trained in using the equipment - this can be one staff member or a few.

- Contact specialist companies for a range of quotes and for help planning your room, because it is important to locate products carefully to get the best from the equipment. Many companies offer a free design service.

- Be sure to ask questions and explain what you want from your room to ensure you get equipment that is fit for purpose - there is no point buying top-of-the-range interactive equipment if it is to be used solely for calming children.


- See things in a new light with a light box (Reflections on Learning - see further information and photo, bottom). Children can arrange and sort a selection of natural materials such as leaves, flowers and man-made materials including fabric, paper, glass and acrylic. They can look at the different details, which can create a sense of wonder about the world around them.

- Put coloured translucent plastics on a light box and overlap them to experiment with colour mixing. Extend this activity by investigating mixing coloured paints outside of the sensory room.

- Investigate different materials by shining torch light through them - will it shine through various fabrics? How does it react with plastics? Submerge waterproof torches in coloured water to see what effects are achieved.

- Blowing bubbles can be used for counting games, running, jumping and popping them. Or for added interest, try scented bubbles - can you guess the smell before they pop? - or UV bubbles. Compare the bubbles to those in the bubble tube and mimic floating like a bubble.

- Use the projector wheel to create different themed environments such as space, dinosaurs or underwater. Project on to walls, the ceiling, sheets or even each other. Bring the situation to greater life by playing matching sound tracks and having smell boxes to stimulate imagination and language.

- Select UV reactive toys and resources and encourage the children to investigate them under a UV light source - the glowing items focus interest and encourage tactile exploration and fine motor skills.

- Mirrors can be used to develop mathematical understanding of large numbers, repeating patterns, symmetry and counting.

- Gather balls of different sizes, colours and textures. Hide them amidst fibre optic lights, behind bubble tubes or in the ball pool, and encourage the children to find them. Give them clues and tell them whether they are hot or cold.

- Include enriching materials such as scattered baskets and bowls with natural, shiny, flashing objects, spinners and reflective materials that light up and provoke different visual stimulation.

- Encourage children to be self-aware and to develop their sense of identity by looking at themselves in mirrors and seeing the reflections of others. Curiosity will make them want to touch the images and see whether they are real people. Have fun pulling faces and mimicking expressions while looking into hand mirrors.

- Painting in the sensory room on reflective paper with dim lighting gives a new dimension to children's creativity. Or use fluorescent paints and pens.

- Take musical instruments into the room and have a vibrant music session with backing tracks, or lighting accompaniment.

- Reclaimed sheets of acetate and clear plastic can be drawn and written on and illuminated from below with a light box.

- Encourage drama, action and dancing in the soft environment and in front of mirrors.

- Foam blocks can be used as stepping stones for fun balance games, or developing gross motor skills by stacking and building with them.

- Use the room for story sessions with a difference. Julia Donaldson books are great in sensory rooms - The Gruffalo and Charlie Cook's Favourite Book, for example. Record each page on an Iris Qube (Experia - see further information) and allow the children to control how the story is told.

- Show the children how to write their name in lights or with glowing fluorescent letters.

- Make your own tactile wall panels to encourage hand-eye co-ordination, fine motor skills and exploration by securely fastening a range of inexpensive resources, such as brush heads, wooden flaps, a small mop, buttons, different textured coasters, chains, fabric and so on, on to a board. Ask questions such as, is it soft or hard, warm or cold, rough or smooth, round or angular?


- Experia, 0845 644 0977, www.experia-innovations.co.uk
- Reflections on Learning, 01732 225 850 (light boxes, resources and
mirrored equipment), www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk
- The Sensory Company, 0845 838 22 33, www.thesensorycompany.co.uk
- Sensory Plus, 0800 212709, www.sensoryplus.co.uk
- SpaceKraft, 01274 581 007, www.spacekraft.co.uk
- TTS Group, 0800 318 686, www.tts-group.co.uk
- alc associates, 01872 264 603, www.alcassociates.co.uk
- Concept Training, 01524 832828, www.concept-training.co.uk
- Experiential Play, 0141 557 3304, www.experientialplay.com
- Hirstwood Training, 01524 426395, www.multi-sensory-room.co.uk
- Tim Naylor Training and Consultancy, 0113 815 1567,

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