The importance of sensory equipment in promoting educational development
At a time when education budgets and support for students with SEN in mainstream schools become more stretched, staff and governors will be forced to look at incorporating specialist equipment within their day-to-day learning and buildings to cater for students with a range of abilities.
Around 700,000 people in the UK are thought to have autism, more than one per cent of the population; an estimated one in 400 babies is born with cerebral palsy and a report suggested there are more than 350,000 children in England alone with some form of learning disability1. Taking these figures into account, the number of children in need of specialist educational support and equipment, and the impact these children can have on other students in mainstream schools if not properly supported, can seem overwhelming.
According to the National Autistic Society, 63 per cent of children on the autism spectrum are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them, whether this is due to teaching, students or facilities. Yet every school, whether mainstream or special education, can help to support their students through the use of specialist sensory products and equipment.
For the hundreds of thousands of children in the UK who have SEN, sensory products are an engaging way of stimulating the development of different skills and abilities, as well as promoting relaxation and de-escalating potentially disruptive situations to improve their state of mind. Many specialist learning centres across the country already use sensory products or rooms to aid with educational and sensory development, helping students progress and develop their movement, vision, balance and understanding of touch.
As funding for students with SEN becomes increasingly restrictive, we are now seeing more and more mainstream schools investing in sensory equipment and technology to provide specialist learning rooms and experiences for their students within their existing buildings, making best use of the facilities available to them. Even just a few items of sensory equipment can deliver a wide range of benefits for users, and equipment can be mobile to make the most of limited space.
Sensory rooms and equipment can provide great cause and effect learning and facilitate the development of motor skills. For those with learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sensory equipment can help with relaxation and focus. It can also be invaluable in promoting feelings of calm, as users can be in control of their own sensory experience. This helps individuals who may otherwise struggle to concentrate to focus on tasks. The right equipment can provide these children and young people with stimulating tactile experiences and help them communicate, develop a feeling of security and explore their feelings.
In addition to its roles in stimulating development and helping users to relax, specialist sensory equipment is often used as an aid to education and also as a treat. Occupational therapists often support staff in the setting to use sensory rooms for regulation – to get the user into a “just right” state for a particular function. This may mean preparing them for learning, going shopping, being able to sit next to someone or being able to eat a meal. Sensory products are valuable in creating these calming environments, enabling users to relax and focus on tasks which they may otherwise be distracted away from in their usual day-to-day life.
Meeting sensory needs
There is a range of sensory equipment available to stimulate each of the senses. For example, for users who find their vision over or under arousing, colour panels, bubble walls, infinity tunnels, mirrors and mirror balls are especially effective in encouraging focus. Therapists and health professionals also work with a range of products to help users develop their understanding of touch and feeling, with products to encourage tactile interest, including interactive auditory and visual panels, fibre optics, sensory backpacks, jet streams, bubble tubes and tactile discs. For those users who want to develop their movement, balance beams, bolster scooters, visual and auditory panels and mirror balls are really effective products in helping users manage movement limitations.
Whilst many rooms traditionally include products such as bubble tubes, fibre optics and projectors, developments in technology mean sensory rooms can now deliver new educational and therapeutic opportunities. As the equipment develops, therapists recommend ongoing training to ensure equipment is used correctly and that staff are using it to its full potential. Educational themes are now often used to enhance users’ learning, while technology is used to create immersive environments, controlling everything from touch and movement, to colour, smell and light. These themes can be crafted to develop the users’ transferable life skills, replicating scenarios such as “we’re going on a bear hunt”, an underwater world or a space theme to deliver scenarios that users can relate to.
Ready to learn
Cedars Primary School in Cranford, Hounslow recently had a sensory room installed; the special school, which has 61 pupils aged four to 11, will use the room to create positive learning environments for children with a range of social, emotional and mental health needs. The room includes a bubble tube, soft play area, infinity tunnel, sound equaliser and musical touch wall which will be used to benefit children with a range of therapeutic conditions.
Emily Bush, a teacher at the school, says: “Having our own sensory room will make a big difference. The equipment and sensory environment helps to keep the children calm and enables them to focus, ready for learning. We have a large number of children with autism, both verbal and non-verbal, and the room gives them a really important tactile experience by experiencing things like the vibrations through the bubble tubes.
“I am really over the moon with the sensory room and the kids love it as well. They’ve called it the Rainbow Room because of the coloured lights and because we were learning about colours when it was installed.”
With the imperative to accommodate a wider range of pupils spanning different needs and requirements, an increasing number of schools are turning to sensory equipment and sensory rooms as an innovative way of promoting educational, developmental and emotional benefits for children with special needs.
Gareth Jones is the founder of Experia, a company which designs, manufactures and installs sensory equipment and environments for schools, hospitals and community centres:
Sheena Hardwick is an occupational therapist and Director of Sherwood Therapy Services. She is an expert on sensory integration therapy: