Sensory Engagement – the role of the multi sensory room and portable sensory environments

What is the role of the senses in our lives?  From conception to death, our lives are governed by the sensations we experience.  Sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste and the vestibular and proprioceptive senses all combine to ensure our safety and survival.

Indeed, Ackerman (1990, 2000) argues: ‘There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses.’

So, 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.

More recently, The Rochford Review promotes ‘seven aspects of engagement’ (Standards and Testing Agency 2016) for those pupils not engaged in subject specific learning.  These are ‘responsiveness’, ‘curiosity’, ‘investigation’, ‘discovery’, ‘persistence’, ‘anticipation’ and ‘initiation’ (Carpenter et al 2015).

The seven aspects provide a further framework for practitioners to assess, adapt and personalise the learning experiences they offer.

So, what space might offer the flexibility and creativity to deliver more personalised sensory stimuli?

Our first port of call might be the multi sensory room.  A multi sensory room offers practitioners a controlled space to focus on the development of a learner’s visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, vestibular and proprioceptive senses – the whole sensory system.

Unlike other spaces, such as a classroom, practitioners have a high degree of control over the sensory stimulus presented and Professor Paul Pagliano (2012) reminds us that a well designed sensory room is a place where we can ‘increase or decrease a stimulus and use it in isolation or in combination’.  In other words, we can custom design the space and sensory stimuli for optimal learning for an individual.

Here’s where the ‘AAA’ principles of a multi sensory room also fit in – availability, appropriateness and achievability! Your multi sensory tools and equipment need to be available when you need them – and to work first time.  Does your multi sensory room really suit all of the learning styles and needs of the learners who use it?  For example, a visually cluttered room certainly will not suit the learning style of those with autism. Perhaps this bombardment reduces the learner’s ability to respond to the stimuli offered?  Does the design of your multi sensory room mean that it allows all practitioners to use the equipment without a vast technical knowledge?  Simplicity is often the best way forward – why have lots of complicated-to-use equipment (that no-one will use) when you can have a few, easy to operate and effective multi sensory tools which will be in continuous use?

In terms of their sensory system, what can the learner experience in a multi sensory room?  Here, the potential is only limited by the practitioner’s imagination!  From the more obvious visual awareness/fixation/tracking to reducing light sensitivity; from auditory discrimination to auditory sequencing; from awareness, responding and initiation to awareness of others; whether exploring ‘self’ or turn-taking with another, the learning opportunities are endless. Bozic (1997) comments that ‘educational technology cannot be evaluated in isolation from the educational practices within which it is situated’.  In other words, the technology itself is only as important as the way in which the practitioner uses it.

But what if you don’t have access to a multi sensory room?  What can we offer then?

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 which 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 multi sensory 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 multi sensory room, is key to successful learning!

What is needed is an exaggerated sensory stimuli, 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.

Richard Hirstwood

Hirstwood Training Ltd

April 2018

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.