Sensory Engagement – the role of portable sensory environments
The development of our sensory systems is essential to explore and engage with the world around us. But for some children, particularly those with complex needs or autism, their sensory development is impaired, and the learning experiences offered should focus on developing and strengthening these sensory systems.
So, what space might offer the flexibility and creativity to deliver more personalised sensory stimuli?
If you don’t have access to a multisensory room? What can we offer?
Most infants from birth have been placed in mini sensory environments to rest – from mangers, baskets, cribs to cots. Cocooned and secure, the infant develops their sensory skills by interacting with carefully selected sensory experiences in this small environment designed to encourage responsiveness, curiosity, investigation, discovery, persistence, anticipation, and initiation.
Lilli Nielsen, a Danish psychologist, developed this idea further in her work with sensory impaired children (Nielsen 1992). Her ‘Little Room’, a purpose-designed box, allowed learners the freedom and security to explore objects in an environment that was safe and consistent.
We too can use this information to develop mini sensory environments which highlight some of the aspects of a sensory room we want, along with benefitting from additional features that the sensory room might not offer! So, for learners with complex needs and autism, catching ‘the moment’ of engagement is essential. This ‘moment’ however may not happen in a pupil’s timetabled slot for the multisensory room. With a few, easily deployed tools we can quickly create a mini-environment in which to capitalise on a pupil’s readiness to engage in learning.
These tools are ones that you may already have or can easily acquire. Improvised screens and stands can divide up a space within a bigger space to create a semi-permanent sensory arena or ‘island of learning’. More easily still could be the use of umbrellas or a pop-up tent. These could range from a small umbrella, perhaps with the addition of themed hanging objects, for one-to-one work, to an outdoor parasol for larger spaces and group work. Similarly, pop-up tents can accommodate one or many individuals depending on size. One really useful trick with a tent is to cut the bottom out of it. This enables you to instantly ‘transport’ an individual into a tent environment – as well as to instantly transport an individual out of the tent environment!
Bed sheets are another fantastic way to create a backdrop, draped over stands or laundry racks to create a sensory space; or just laid on the floor to provide an instant contrast for lighter objects. Fibre optics on a black sheet will show up even in a brightly lit room. We can’t always black out our classrooms or learning spaces but using a black sheet over a table/tent/umbrella will help the individual focus more upon the materials that we are offering rather than on other competing stimuli.
Coloured sheets can also be used to create a theme for sensory storytelling, e.g. using blue sheets for water-based stories, such as ‘The Rainbow Fish’. Fibre optics draped over the blue sheet will create the shimmering sea for the story to take place in.
Green sheets provide a backdrop to jungle or forest tales – add some bird sounds, leaves rustling (using sound files on your iPad or dried leaves). A fan placed behind the sheet adds movement and atmosphere to the scene by blowing the sheets/leaves and other props!
Whichever curriculum or pathway you use, engaging learners in sensory experiences strong enough to register on the pupil’s sensory abilities, in or out of the multisensory room, is key to successful learning!
What is needed is an exaggerated sensory stimulus, one which will invite pupils’ instinctive responsiveness and curiosity, increasing their desire to investigate and discover, and through this, developing their capacity to persist, anticipate and initiate.
Ackerman, D. (1990) A Natural History of the Senses. London: Vintage Books.
Ackerman, D. (2000) ‘There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses’, SunSentinel, 7 May. [Online at: http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2000-05-07/features/0005110359_1_senses-span-body/2; accessed: 1.5.18]
Bozic, N. (1997) ‘Constructing the room: multi-sensory rooms in educational contexts’, European Journal of Special Needs Education, 12 (1), 54-70.
Carpenter, B., Egerton, J., Cockbill, B., Bloom, T., Fotheringham, J., Rawson, H. and Thistlethwaite, J. (2015) Engaging Learners with Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities in Learning. Abingdon: Routledge.
Nielsen, L. (1992) Space and Self: Active learning by means of the Little Room. Copenhagen: SIKON.
Pagliano, P. (2012) The Multisensory Handbook. Abingdon: Routledge.
Standards and Testing Agency (2016) The Rochford Review: Final Report. Review of assessment for pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests. London: STA.