by Aubrey Schmalle OTR/L
How important is it that my classroom is “sensory friendly” and digitally aware?
Every year, there are many blog posts encouraging you to set-up a sensory friendly classroom. And some of you may be asking, why focus on this when the children in my classroom have so many different learning needs? Am I building my classroom around just one type of student?
The short answer is NO….and yes. You are setting up your classroom for sensory learners growing up in a digital world. Let me explain what I mean.
Every preschool teacher has heard of sensory tables. They usually include water, sand, or various other tactile materials for children to explore with their hands. If you are familiar with the Montessori philosophy, then you are also familiar with Sensorial Materials – which have nothing to do with sensory tables but rather include real life objects (watering cans, kitchen items, polishing tools) as well as wooden, weighted, hands-on materials that children can manipulate while experiencing the benefits of kinesthetic learning. These materials create a multi-sensory experience that optimizes the way the brain learns. And then there is the term “sensory friendly,” which most people take to mean not too much, too loud, or too bright. So setting up the classroom requires a balance of sensory opportunity and sensory friendly organization.
The senses are the primary way through which we experience the world, impacting our arousal, energy level, state of mind, and the way that we learn about the world. Seeing trees in a picture on the computer would never evoke the feelings of what it’s like to be outside in nature if you had never dug in the dirt, put your hands on the bark of a tree, played with a stick, or picked up fall leaves. The feeling of the wind, outside temperature, texture of the leaves and bark, heaviness of the stick, and shades of color can never be replaced by a picture on a screen when it comes to learning about the world. But we do know that the areas of the brain activated as a result of that multi-sensory experience get activated again when we see an image that evokes that memory. And we can’t argue that the senses then, become a critical consideration for learning when you want to enhance a child’s ability to learn the concepts you are teaching.
So as you think about setting up your classroom, consider how you can create a supportive environment that is not overloading to the senses but provides a balance of opportunities to meet the needs of the many diverse learners in your classroom. The goals is to activate the senses for learning and being aware of the balance between technology and multisensory experiences.
#1 : Color is Key
Choose blues and greens that are more natural (versus bright) to create a sense of calm and focus. Stick with one type of colored paper throughout most of the room to minimize alerting (and sometimes overwhelming) color contrasts in the environment.
#2: Visual contrast has a place
#3: Add an Energizing and Activating Corner
Have a brighter, more colorful area where it’s okay for kids to do exercise, move and jump for those that need more movement to help them stay alert and engaged. This is great for children with ADHD who need movement to support their ability to think. Consider adding kinesthetic learning games to this area as well to increase a child’s ability to learn and retain information on a given instructional unit.
#4: Add a Restore corner
This corner should be a calming color with minimal stimulation but includes opportunities for Rhythm, Pressure, and Respiration. This could include headphones with rhythmic music, weighted objects/lap pads/snake socks, beanbag chairs, materials for squeezing, and yoga and meditation cards for breathing. Sometimes a child also needs to block out visual stimulation by wearing a blindfold or crawling into a cubby space.
#5 Reduce Visual Distractions
Concentrate your posters on one wall/area of the room if possible to reduce visual distraction and overwhelm. Children with ADHD struggle to keep their eyes fixated on objects, so it’s more likely they will be distracted if the posters surround the group learning area. Similarly, a child who needs to reduce visual stimulation should not go to the calming corner surrounded by posters and other children’s work products. Hanging objects from the ceiling can also become overstimulating for a child who looks away from tasks at the ceiling or out the window for a vision break.
#6: Add flexible seating
Flexible Seating is becoming increasingly popular in classrooms. However, it’s important to consider the body needs of the children you may have in your classroom before you invest. Bouncing and rocking may help a child actively listen, but it’s not going to support focus when they have to keep their eyes on a computer screen. Standing desks allow for weight shifting and position changes if you struggle with postural control. Seats that you can lean into and curl up on reduce postural demands and may be supportive for children who struggle to sit upright while reading or listening. Stools that tip or allow a child to balance with two feet on the floor may work well for children who need to keep their muscles activated to stabilize their body while working. Whatever you choose, test them out to build your awareness of the sensory experience and body demands it takes to use each seating option and have a conversation with your students about this too. Sensational Self Awareness is key when helping a child understand what puts them in the right place for learning.
#7: Balance the use of Screens and Technology
Technology is becoming an ever increasing part of a child’s educational and leisure time. Many teachers express frustration at hearing their students talk about video games all day. It is critical to remember that screen time, even when it’s educational in nature, needs to be balanced with non-screen time. Kids need movement breaks, vision breaks, opportunities for calming/focus, kinesthetic learning, and face to face peer interactions. If you have the environment set up and the routines in place to optimize your learning environment, then technology will become a vehicle for creativity and productivity rather than a distraction or disruption.