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I’m Jo Grace: a Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist and Founder of The Sensory Projects in this series of 10 articles I am going to share some of my passion for understanding the sensory world with you. In this article, I will explore the impact of sensory overload in early years settings and highlight the importance of balance.

Setting The Scene - What Came Before Sensory Environments

Somewhere in the back of all our minds is an image of an old-fashioned classroom with tiny windows at the top of high walls – high up so the children cooped up inside could not get distracted by looking outside At the front is a blackboard and an adult droning on, the children must all sit still, look this way, listen and copy. In this room there is no independent thought, there is no recognition of the children as autonomous human beings, there is no creativity, and there is nothing other than rote copying and boredom. We do not want our rooms to be like this.

There was a time a little after our first imagining, when adults frustrated by children getting bored and zoning out from the teaching and gazing around the room daydreaming, decided to slap educative materials up on the walls. They figured if they weren’t going to comply with looking towards the front, they would get the information into them through their eyeballs, so up went the ABCs and the times tables charts. Now when you walk into most education settings, you’re met with a dazzling array of colour floor to ceiling, across the ceiling, across the room, even the tables in early years and primary settings are likely to be bright bold colours. no, nothing is boring about our environments anymore. We are NOT like those old-fashioned rooms in which children were imprisoned in boredom.

But have you ever wondered if we have gone too far? Perhaps a day when you had a headache and it all felt a bit much visually for you!

Understanding Sensory Overload

It is a lot. Sensing things is work If your environment is full of sensation it is full of work for children’s brains to do. And whilst providing things to do is wonderful, if it is indiscriminate, it can end up drowning out the gorgeous focused work of play itself, the marvellous flow state of total absorption in a task. Recently I took my two-year-old to the beach. Living rurally we are lucky enough to be able to find beaches with no one else on. It was a grey day, the pebbles on the beach were grey, the waves before him grey, and his focus was spectacular. He hunted for stones, chatting quietly to himself about which would be best for skimming (no he cannot skim a stone, but in his mind he can, he is on his way to being able to do it like his Daddy and his Grandpa).

We all have different sensory needs, (just look at the differences in how we choose to decorate our homes). For some children, these differences will be more pronounced than others. There are children for whom the average brightly decorated classroom/nursery environment is physically painful. Often when children are very young they do not have the language to tell you this. They might not even know it is because of the over stimulation of the environment, they just feel what their bodies feel, and it is too much for them.

Your Homework!

In my next two articles, we are going to look at how we can adapt to meet the differing sensory needs of our neurodiverse population. But for now, it is worth reflecting on other environments you have been in with the children, or chatting to their families about the other environments they occupy. How are they different when they are outside beneath the sky instead of inside surrounded by brightly coloured walls? Do their families report their behaviour changing at noisy family gatherings, or a preference for being in water (itself such a unique sensory environment)?

There is a brilliant equation to consider when it comes to behaviour: Behaviour = The Individual x The Environment. Often, when we are looking to change behaviour, we try to change the individual; we reprimand, we guide, we motivate, we coax... it may have some effect. But environments are far easier to change than people, spending some time considering how yours could be adjusted could be a really useful way to change the energy in your room. In this article, I have mostly been talking about the visual environment, but of course, this applies across all the sensory systems, sound map your space, smell map it... explore it at a sensory level. Is what it holds, is too much, too little, or just right? We are looking to find those 'Goldilocks moments' in the space for all the children in our care.

In my next article, we will explore how we could create different provisions within one space. Until then, enjoy engaging your senses in a reflective audit of your space and feel free to connect with me on social media to watch my current sensory adventures unfurl. All the connection links can be found on my website www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

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