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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, we will explore the importance of a multisensory room in your early years setting, assessing pros and cons to identify optimal sensory activities to meet the children's varied sensory needs. 

Let's consider sensory rooms. In 2018-2019, I conducted a piece of research which looked at the use of multisensory rooms in the UK. What I found was published by Routledge in the book “Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic” and in the peer-reviewed journal The Tizard Review as “Multisensory Rooms: Essential Characteristics and Barriers to Effective Practice”. Multisensory rooms are something I have considered a lot! 

First up: they can be amazing spaces, transformative, in fact. In my last two articles we have been thinking about how changing the sensory environment can be supportive of children’s mental health and their ability to engage with activities and people around them; also, how a multisensory room can provide a fantastic adaptable sensory environment. So, it is no wonder that you hear testimony from people who have experienced the rooms saying what an amazing impact they have had.  

Multisensory rooms also pack a significant wow factor: if people are going around your setting to look at what you provide, they’re going to be seriously impressed if you have an “all singing, all dancing” sensory room there. Having a sensory room acts like a badge of honour, signalling your willingness and intent to provide for a diverse range of needs (It was funny when I was doing my research, I asked people why they had had their sensory den installed and many answered it was because they wanted to impress people! The fact that this was their first answer, not, to meet the needs of these people, tells you a lot about what the rooms are for!).

I used to work in a school for children classed as having severe and profound special educational needs and disabilities and I have memories from moments shared in the sensory room that will last me a lifetime. So, I am not against the rooms in any way, but did you notice how I said they “can” be amazing spaces? 

This is the thing: most multisensory rooms in the UK are not having an amazing transformative effect on the people who they’re intended for - some are even harming. When people are thinking about getting a multisensory room, they often ask me what equipment they should buy, or what activities I recommend they do inside of the rooms. The difference between the rooms that have amazing life-changing effects and those that are purely decorative, or worse still do harm, is not to be found in the equipment or the activities. In truth, you do not need any of the equipment to have a profound impact on the people sharing the space with you.  

When I did my research, I asked lots and lots of people who use multisensory rooms about their experience of those rooms. I asked them what was essential for effective practice in the rooms. I asked them what barriers they encountered to effective practice. I have hundreds and hundreds of pages of interview transcripts, and hours upon hours were spent discussing the rooms with people. I found eleven positive characteristics of the rooms, two negative ones, and ten barriers to effective practice. But I can summarise it all for you in one sentence: the magic to be found in a multisensory room is found in the people within them, not in the equipment they are built from.  

People entering a sensory room with someone who “gets them", who understands their sensory needs and abilities, who is willing to engage with them in a manner that best suits them, have a magical time in the rooms. If someone is in the room with someone who does not get them, it doesn’t matter how expensive the room was, how well designed, or how impressive, very little of any impact is likely to occur. If you understand the children you support in your settings and you have the thousands of pounds needed to install a sensory room, by all means, go ahead, as I said, they’re amazing spaces, But, if you do not have that kind of money kicking around in your pocket, have a look at the three most significant positive characteristics I discovered for sensory rooms and think about how you could improvise them. 

The three most significant positive characteristics of effective sensory rooms that I identified in my research were that they were dark, activity-associated, and uninterrupted spaces. Let’s take them one by one: 

Dark: Can you create a dark space in your setting? It could be a pop-up dark tent (I have a fab one from TTS), it could be dark fabric thrown over a table, or it could be a huge cardboard box (did you know motorbikes get delivered to dealerships inside big cardboard boxes?) You could buy some blackout blinds to cover your windows, or just cut cards to shape and attach Velcro dots to your window frames to allow you to pop them up and down. 

Activity-associated: People found response levels were high in the rooms because the people entering them knew what they were going to do there. A bit like how people know they’re going swimming when they smell the swimming pool, or they know they will be cooking in the kitchen. This effect is powerful, and it does not have to be about a sensory room, creating a sensory orientation to activities (like with the sensory scaping we talked about in my previous article) helps people to tap into their understanding from the last time they were in that space and engage more quickly. 

Uninterrupted: This one speaks for itself, doesn’t it? If you are going to try and connect with someone, engaging deeply in an activity together, but one of you gets called away by the phone or distracted by someone else, then the magic that builds up around that shared experience will burst like a bubble. Again, this is a characteristic that is not just valuable about a sensory room, think about how you could protect key activities – is there a sign you can put on the door to ensure no one walks in during storytime? Is there an area of the room that is occupied just by an invited group and everyone else knows not to go in until it is their turn? 

The magic of multisensory rooms is not found in bubble tubes or fibre optics, it is in the humans within them and in their willingness to listen to one another with all their senses. Connecting in a moment of shared sensory understanding.  

My first three articles were about why and how to offer engaging sensory experiences within your setting; these three have been about considering the sensory landscape of your setting, and the next two are going to be about providing for individual children who have particular sensory needs, and later in this series, we will look at eating. Please 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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