Picture a dimly lit room with music playing. A chair pulses with the beat. A swing hangs from the ceiling. A lava lamp bubbles in the corner. Images of leaves, balloons and fireworks are projected on the wall. Everything in this room waits to be interacted with and morphed. This is one of the many sensory rooms being installed in schools across the country for students with disabilities.

The concept comes from a Dutch philosophy called Snoezelen, which is a combination of two words meaning “to explore” and “to relax.” The researchers who initially created the concept believe that the atmosphere of a room has an impact on behavior. They sought to create relaxing spaces for people with disabilities. The idea of a room filled with sensory objects was also initiated by Dr. Lilli Nielsen, a therapist known for working with severely disabled children through her philosophy of “active learning.” Because Nielsen believes that children learn through active stimulation, she created the concept of the Little Room, wherein children interact with sensory objects made of different materials. Some sensory rooms are built with Nielsen’s original Little Room in mind, like Terman Middle School’s room in Palo Alto, California.

A whole myriad of students can benefit from sensory rooms. In addition to aiding severely disabled students like the ones Nielsen’s Little Room was intended for, the rooms help students with sensory processing disorder (SPD). According to the SPD Foundation, SPD disrupts the daily lives of about 1 in 20 students. It is often found in people on the autism spectrum and people with other mental disorders and learning disabilities.

Entering a sensory room calms students, helps them focus on their schoolwork and diminishes aggressive behaviors. Many schools incorporate visits to the room into students’ daily routines, which helps them develop the ability to regulate their emotions and behaviors. Rebecca Edenfield, director of Rutland Academy in Athens, Georgia, says they have seen progress in many of their students. Students learn to calm themselves down in the sensory room, then return to class relaxed, focused and ready to learn. Edenfield said, “Some students already are recognizing when they’re on the verge of a tantrum and have used swings or lights at their own homes to help cool down and collect themselves.”

Students also find comfort in knowing they can go to the sensory room when they feel overwhelmed. Andrew Smith-Hinson, an 18-year-old student with behavioral issues at the Felician School for Exceptional Students in Lodi, New Jersey, says he likes going to the room to relax and talk about his problems with a therapist. “I like seeing those fishes going in a circle. It helps take my mind off stuff,” he said about a projected image of colorful fish.

The beauty of a sensory room is that each student chooses to interact with anything they want. The fish that relax Andrew might not relax someone else at his school, but each student is free to explore the room in whichever way benefits them. In this way, sensory rooms provide a collective therapeutic experience that can be tailored into a uniquely beneficial regimen for each individual.

Did You Know?

You can create a sensory room in your own home! If you live too far away from a facility with a sensory room but think your child can benefit, read this helpful guide for constructing a sensory room on a budget. The author of the article, who is the parent of an autistic child, created her own sensory room with sensory stones, a ball pit and a swing. She also filled other rooms with repurposed sensory objects like tickly cat mats from a pet store. The most important thing about creating a sensory room is to be creative and flexible. Professional therapeutic sensory rooms can cost up to $1 million, but it’s easy to fill your child’s needs in your own home without breaking the bank.