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Sensory room helps preschoolers regulate brains and bodies

Space has evolved to meet students’ sensory needs

Kentwood — In a darkened room with soothing music playing and colorful lights dancing on the wall, preschooler Adam Abufarsakh lies on a cradle swing being pushed by interventionist Kim Stafford.

Each school day, before Adam starts his afternoon preschool class at Hamilton Early Childhood Center, he spends 15 to 20 minutes in this space, which has been converted from an unused classroom into a sensory room. The calm-down time allows him to transition from home to school and be more successful when he joins the class. 

“He just kind of curls on the swing and I push him,” said Stafford. “It just kind of calms him down and it gets him ready to learn in the classroom.” 

Other students who visit the room gravitate to what they find soothing in the space: lights, bubbles, stuffed animals, beanbags or tactile-based toys. Some who crave movement jump on mini trampolines, roll on exercise balls, crawl on large mats and ride on large toys.

The room adds another option to several other sensory-based resources in the school. Those include a sensory walk, where students can hop, skip and spin down the hallway, and a sensory garden, where students discover bright-colored flowers, velvety leaves and musical wind chimes.

The revamped sensory room has evolved from a place to “get the wiggles out” to a calming space that helps students by appealing to their senses. It is the brainchild of Joanne Johnson, an occupational therapy assistant, who said she modeled many elements of the room after areas in the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. 

“The purpose is to have a space where students have the opportunity to explore different sensory input and to organize and regulate their brains and their bodies to get ready to learn,” she said.

A Safe and Comforting Space

Some students who use the room have sensory disorders or Autism Spectrum Disorder. Others struggle with behavior due to sensory preferences or dislikes. Some, like Adam, begin their day in the room, while others use it when they become overwhelmed or overstimulated throughout the day. 

“Sometimes kids are just really internally focused and they are unable to interact with the environment, so they will come in here and they will be drawn to the lights. That will lead them to touch and feel and experience that tactile sense,” said Johnson, who has learned about sensory integration over the past 20 years working in the occupational therapy field.

Added occupational therapist Sharon DeWall, “It’s been a nice place for kids to come… It’s calming. Some kids just need a break from their classrooms and the stimulation in the classrooms to relax, recenter and reorganize for learning. Some kids also need that movement.” 

For many children, preschool is their first time in a school setting, and that can lead to anxiety and meltdowns. The sensory room can help them feel safe and comfortable and equip them with strategies to regulate their own emotions

Teachers also use many of the same tools in their classrooms so students can access those resources throughout the day.

“I feel like we are starting to see a change in the behaviors of some of the students, whether they may be less aggressive or agitated in general,” DeWall said.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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