I grew up on a concrete boat built by my parents when they were students. Together my family (myself, my little sister and my mother and father) spent my early years at sea. We occasionally met up with my grandparents who, at that time, also lived aboard a yacht.
My early sensory experiences are likely to have been very different from those of the children in your settings. Those early sensations were a part of the foundations of my identity and cognition, just as the experiences your children are exposed to will found theirs.
I am closing in on 40 now. I have spent my working life in education and inclusion. I have worked supporting students with special educational needs and disabilities in early years settings, mainstream primary and secondary settings, colleges and universities. I spent a good chunk of time as a teacher for children with severe and profound special educational needs and disabilities in a school in Penzance and was fortunate enough to be considered Outstanding by Ofsted.
In my private life, I have been a registered foster carer for children with severe special educational needs and disabilities, and I have also been a big geek consuming all the research I can lay my hands on about the sensory world and its effect on people young and old. And, to this end, I have completed a masters in special education.
In 2010 I set up The Sensory Projects with the aim of sharing the knowledge and experience I have amassed (and continue to amass) to provide little sparks of creativity or insight to light fires within the people who support children, and adults, of all abilities. I am constantly amazed by how far people run with the ideas I share. You can find out more about the three projects that have run so far on my website, where there are also a lot of other resources and links that may be of interest if the sensory world is something you are curious about.
I have written a series of articles for the Parenta magazine with a sensory theme to link them all, starting with the creation of sensory spaces. I hope you enjoy them!
How to create sensory spaces
As a childcare provider, you will know how foundational the experiences of the early years are to our brain’s development. Between the ages of 2 and 6, the brain makes extra effort to work out what information is useful to process and what is less important. This is done in response to the environment it encounters, so that by the time the child hits 7 – the age mentioned in the famous adage “Take a child until he is seven and I will show you the man” – we have developed a brain that is bespoke to the environment we grew up in.
Consider the contrasting environments the children in your settings may have grown up in and how these might affect their experience of your setting. For someone like me, who grew up at sea in an expanse of quiet low stimulating space, the classroom is going to feel noisy, bright, bewildering (and trust me, it did!). For someone who grew up in a large family, sharing a bedroom with siblings and clutter all around, your space may seem surprisingly calm. These things are happening for children with typically developing brains. If you also have children who are experiencing difficulties with their sensory processing (for whatever reason, and some of these reasons will be considered in my next article) then your environment could be all the more challenging.
Evaluate the spaces in your setting
One wonderful thing you can do is to create different spaces or zones within your setting that offer different types of sensory experience. In a free-flowing setting, such spaces can allow children to locate themselves where they feel best able to learn and engage. Creating spaces can also inspire role play or engagement with a particular topic. I know you will already be super at creating these sorts of spaces, so what I want to do here is challenge you to take them to the next sensory level or to evaluate them through sensory eyes.
Do you have a low arousal space, somewhere that isn’t too bright, doesn’t have lots going on? If you don’t, create one immediately – they can be a lifesaver. If you do, consider whether you have thought through all the sensory systems. Did you just stop at visual experience? Consider what the difference in sound is within that space. You may not be able to block out sound from the rest of the room but, by providing a source of white noise sound (there are even apps that allow you to do this on your phone), you can dampen the other noises and create a calm auditory environment.
Consider the seven senses
What about touch, smell, or even taste? At The Sensory Projects, I explore seven sensory systems (see The Sensory Projects Seven Senses – free to download here). I am often tempted by an 8th and 9th sense, so you could go even further than me. Arguably, there are 33 senses as we have 3 sets of neurons that control our sensory systems, so you don’t even have to stop at 9!
If you support children with complex disabilities, autism, attachment disorders, anxiety disorders or sensory processing disorder you may be interested in learning how the sensory systems develop. Creating environments rich in early developmental sensory experiences can be especially beneficial to these young people. This information is contained in the Develop Your Sensory Lexiconary Day and in my book Sensory-being for Sensory Beings.
I’m going to end this article with a quote from a piece of research I read recently. The geeky me was thrilled by it, as it so perfectly encapsulates the power we have within our environments if we think in a sensory way as we seek to support the young people in our care:
“Understand behaviours as a manifestation of brain function that exists within an environmental context….Both the individual and the environment are malleable and may respond to interventions.”
Put simply: Changing the environment changes behaviour! Think with all your senses as you create sensory spaces within your setting and notice the changes.
 Pei, J Flanningan K, Walls L, Rasmussen C (2016) Interventions for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder meeting needs across the lifespan. Int J neurorehabilitation 3:192.doi 10.4172/2376-0281.1000192
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, Trainer, Author, TEDx speaker and Founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and diverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna’s books Sensory Stories for children and teens and Sensory-being for Sensory Beings sell globally. She has a further five books due for publication within the next two years, including four children’s books.