A couple years ago our children’s ministry faced a dilemma: we had several children with disabilities and teaching the larger group became challenging. One day as we brainstormed ideas of what to do to include all kids and be effective teachers, one of the volunteers brought up the idea of a having sensory room. After some planning and generous donations, we made that idea a reality. Here’s the what, when, and why of sensory rooms, based on my church’s experience.
All About Sensory Rooms
What is a sensory room?
It’s a safe space where children who struggle with sensory experiences can go to take a break and calm their senses. Typically, a sensory room is calming, with soft lights, soft music, and activities that help the body settle.
Why sensory rooms?
Many kids with disabilities have sensory issues. That means they respond to common sensory experiences and stimulation differently than typical children do. Most of the time the child has an over-sensitivity to stimulus, which he or she experiences as an overwhelming and oftentimes intolerable sensory experience. Other times, a child requires more sensory stimulation to “feel” the sensation.
Think of any sensory experience as eight ounces of water. Most of us have eight-ounce cups where the eight ounces of water fit perfectly. However, for children with sensory issues, their containers come in four-ounce cups or 12-ounce cups; so if they have eight ounces of a common sensory experience their cups easily overflow, or are never quite full, causing certain behaviors.
When are sensory rooms helpful?
If a child seems overwhelmed with an experience, it may be time to visit the sensory room.
Here’s what sensory rooms offer:
- Respite from overwhelming sensory stimulation
- A place for kids to regulate themselves before rejoining others
- Seclusion from distractions, where they can continue learning about Jesus
- A location kids with disabilities can comfortably belong
Ever since we created our sensory rooms, they’ve been a blessing to the families and children who want to be part of a church.
Get Out Those Wiggles
Have kids with the wiggles? Try using a core disk (available on Amazon), which provides just enough input to dissipate kids’ wiggles and help them focus. Kids stay in place while moving their body without being a distraction to others.
The “How” on Creating a Sensory Room
Here’s a quick overview of how to get your sensory room ready.
1. Find the space.
The size of your room doesn’t matter as much as ensuring it’s accessible to children with special needs. For example, if your church building doesn’t have an elevator, having the sensory room in the basement won’t work.
2. Dim the lights.
Invest in a light dimmer for the room; soft lights provide a calming effect. Cover windows with heavy curtains and put white Christ- mas lights around the room for a soft, glowing effect. You can also include other fun lights like lava lamps or ocean light reflectors, which provide movement to the room and are visually stimulating yet also calming.
3. Invest in a therapy swing.
A therapy swing (available at autisim-products.com) is not the type of swing you find on a playground. A therapy swing provides enough stimulation that it helps a child regulate his or her body. I recommend a lycra or platform swing.
4. Provide soft places to crash.
Think of a comfy beanbag chair, a crash pad, or large pillows or cushions.
5. Play calming sounds.
Have soft music or white noise in the background. Natural sounds such as waves, birds, or other calming sounds also create a relaxing atmosphere.
6. Provide textured rugs or surfaces.
Whether these are on the floor or you’ve mounted them on the wall, some children will migrate toward these as a source of comfort.
The Champions Club Curriculum
When you have the appropriate tools to meet the needs of kids with disabilities, you’ll be more effective in your role. This is the first curriculum designed for kids with disabilities. It addresses their needs spiritually, intellectually, mentally, and physically. It also offers a model to create sensory and learning rooms that can be adapted to fit the needs of any church. $299.99; championsclub.org
Ellen Stumbo is the Director of Disability Matters where she encourages every church to embrace disability.
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