In my last article, I wrote about children who bite in response to feeling stressed or anxious. I spoke about how, for children who experience sensory differences, the environment can sometimes be a trigger. Finding sensory ways for the environment you work in to signal safety to people can be helpful for everyone within it, not just those who have particular struggles.
Here are some sensory adaptations you can consider making. I am not saying that you should make them all, but exploring these ideas may help you to find something that is right for you and for the children you support. A calmer workspace is good for adult stress levels. Children learn far more when they are calm than when they are excited or anxious.
- Install natural tone roller blinds at the top of display boards and draw them down to give you a visual break from the clutter of brightly decorated boards
- Use padded display boards to create quieter areas. The padding of the boards will absorb sound, soft furnishings will do the same: could you add curtains, cushions, blankets to your setting?
- Open the windows. It is important to feel warm and cosy of course, but even in the winter having the windows open a crack can allow fresh air to circulate. Not only is this a good strategy for keeping germs at bay, it will allow the scent landscape in the room to be constantly refreshed. Perfumes, soap, cleaning products, food, shampoos, and nappies all release odours. Smell is our only sense processed by the limbic brain which means it is particularly easy to overwhelm someone who is sensitive. Think about how you would feel in your environment if you were a little queasy, would you prefer fresh air or the warm fug of food mixed with soap and other people’s perfumes?
- Add texture to your environment. Think about what children touch in your setting, is it predominately smooth surfaces? Plastic worktops, plastic toys, painted walls? All of these things offer very little feedback. Something that offers strong tactile feedback tells someone at a sensory level that they are here and present, and that feeling of ‘presentness’ is a little bit of mindfulness. Being your embodied self in the here and now is the opposite of being your in-your-head self worrying about the future or troubled by the past. Can you add texture? Hessian covers or cushions? Even sandpaper stuck to a texture board?
- Is there somewhere you can press yourself into? Our instinct when we feel scared is to hideaway. Think of the safety of a secure embrace. Things like hammocks or fabric chair seats that stretch around us and press against us can be the next best thing to a big hug. Hideaways, like egg chairs, or little dens are also great for people who need to escape for a moment. As an adult, it is likely that you use the toilet cubicle in the same fashion! That small plain space away from it all is a little oasis of calm
- Play white noise sounds. White noise is innately calming to us, it is why parents hush their babies by creating white noise orally “Shhh shh”. It is a reminder of the noises from the womb where we were safely sheltered. You can get white noise apps on your phone. Or think of natural white noise sounds – the rustling of leaves, the breath of the ocean slowly lapping on the shoreline. You will be able to find these sounds online. The BBC have released their whole sound archive for public use, there are some wonderful finds in there: http://bbcsfx.acropolis.org.uk/
- Rock. We are soothed by the vestibular sensation of a gentle back and forth. You may already have swings and rockers in your setting. These are great for people who have the motor skills to use them. Think of ways you can provide the same sensations for people who do not have those skills. And think of ways you can access them yourself, perhaps you need a rocking chair for the storyteller?
- Space. A landscape full of toys and things to do can feel to a child like a desk piled high with papers feels to an office worker. As Maria Montessori said “Play is the work of the child” make sure there is space just to be without pressure to do or engage. Everyone needs a break from work every once in a while
I am writing this at a desk strewn with half-made origami wonders from my 6-year-old, books, baby toys, and coloured pencils! I am off to try and practice what I preach. It is so much easier to think about these things than to do these things. I wish you all the best in creating a calm environment for yourself and the children you support.
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 neurodivergent conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published four practitioner books: “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic”, “Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”, “Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” and “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia”. and two inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I”. There is new book coming out soon called ‘”The Subtle Spectrum” and her son has recently become the UK’s youngest published author with his book, “My Mummy is Autistic”.