4 Expert-Approved Tips on Setting Up a Sensory-Safe Room for Kids

published Nov 12, 2021
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Credit: Nancy Nguyen
Nancy Nguyen decorated her son’s room in muted colors and neutral tones. “It gives him a calm environment where his imagination can be free to explore,” she says.

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Sensory rooms aren’t just a buzzword you’re hearing lately. They’re thoughtfully designed spaces meant to soothe children with sensory processing disorders. But what exactly is this condition that affects 5 to 16 percent of school-aged kids?

“We all learn about the world through our senses,” says Lindsey Biel, a New York City based occupational therapist. Sensory processing is how we receive and interpret these sensory signals into information for the nervous system. Kids with sensory processing disorder, or S.P.D. struggle because their brains aren’t registering the information needed to respond appropriately, or it comes in wonky. “Things can come in too loud — lights are too bright, clothes feel itchy,” explains Biel, who is also the co-author of “Raising a Sensory Smart Child.”

Credit: Nancy Nguyen

One way to regulate sensory issues is to create an at-home haven. But before you go to Target and load up on sensory toys or order a rock climbing kit, get your child assessed to find out what’s really going on. 

“Parents should work with an occupational therapist to help identify which type of sensory support their child needs and then design accordingly,” say Judith Miller, a psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and a senior scientist in the Center for Autism Research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Well-designed spaces match the sensory input to the purpose of the room she says. “For some children, a sensory-friendly room means neutral colors, protection from loud sounds, and generally less stimulation,” says Miller. “Another child’s sensory room may include swings, trampolines, yoga balls, or hammocks.” 

Regardless of your child’s sensory profile, here are some easy fixes to tackle immediately.

Natalie Marshall’s son Harry is on the autism spectrum so she designed a sensory room to allow him to focus and explore. “He was obsessed with lights, they relaxed him so we added as many as we could,” she says.

Start with the lighting

All children need really pleasant lighting, stresses Biel. “It instantly changes how a child feels.” The expert steers away from blue LED or fluorescent lights, which she says kids can hear as well since they often omit a humming sound. When working with clients the first thing she’ll do is switch out any offending lights for warm LED (though she says incandescents are the best for most kids). Another tip is to install a dimmer switch to control the intensity during stressful moments and to use a soothing night light at bedtime.

In addition to ceiling fixtures and lamps, sensory specific lights provide mesmerizing visual effects that can help to calm and focus or stimulate a child. Biel likes BlissLights Sky Lite Laser Star Projector which transforms any ceiling or wall into a planetarium with gorgeous green stars drifting across a blue cloud.

Credit: Reprinted from MINIMALISTA by Shira Gill. Copyright © 2021 by Shira Gill. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Photographs copyright © 2021 by Vivian Johnson.

Create separate, designated play spaces and sleep spaces

Not everyone has the luxury of having a dedicated playroom in their homes. However, if possible, try and carve out a corner of a living room as a play area, to keep bedrooms free from chaos. “You want kids to associate their room with relaxation and sleep instead of active play,” says Biel. One tool to help calm their bodies down during nap or bedtime is a weighted blanket like Bearaby’s organic kids version. “It should never be more than 10 percent of the child’s body weight, plus one or two pounds,” says Biel. 

As for the kids area, whether a playroom or some other nook of the home, model the space like a kindergarten classroom, says Biel. What makes kindergarten rooms so efficient and special is that they’re divided into clear zones, for example the block station is easily identifiable from the art center making it easier to focus. Place a small rug or floor mats down to designate the play area and add a shelf with clearly labeled bins. Bonus: It will be easy for everyone in the family to tidy up. 

Laurie Morris created a sensory room for her son Easton, who is on the autism spectrum, with all the things that soothe him when he needs to reset. “He can climb, swing, and play rain or shine,” she says.

Clear the clutter

Raise your hand if your kid has a gazillion toys and they’re currently all over the living room floor. “I think parents put out a ton of toys thinking, ‘He’s going to find something he enjoys playing with,’” says Biel. But this approach is likely contributing to overstimulation. To help, rotate a selection of playthings. Pick out a couple of toys and games at a time and put the others away. “Instead of ten puzzles, let’s pull out one,” she says. For kids who are deregulated by too much stimuli, organizing and creating a clutter-free home goes a long way. “Think about the difference between walking into a hectic environment versus a calm environment. It makes you feel differently,” says Biel. “You don’t want to overload them with conflicting visual stimuli. It’s too much.” 

Shira Gill, professional organizer and author of the upcoming “Minimalista,” agrees that limits on toys are important. Her suggestion: set up a “toy library” in a storage area or closet to rotate out items as interests shift. Two toy organizers we like include IKEA’s Trofast system which can be configured to fit a wide variety of spaces and Lovevery’s Montessori Playshelf, complete with a hidden storage compartment for out-of-rotation toys.

Gill also recommends using uniform storage bins or baskets to contain toys by type and create a cohesive feel. For the containers stick to neutral colors and soft textures. “Felt or cloth bins provide a soft (read quiet) landing for toys and are a great alternative to metal or plastic storage options,” says Gill.

Include visual cues on time

Kids on the autism spectrum or who have sensory processing issues often have problems transitioning from one activity to another. Beil says it’s key to have visual supports on hand in order to set expectations. For non verbal kids this could mean making a schedule board with pictures of therapists to show them before an appointment, or an image of food to signal snack time. Another device the expert recommends having at home is a Time Timer, a clock with a disappearing colored disk that teaches kids about time passing and indicates when TV or bathtime is coming to a close.