A Special Educator and Behavior Analyst shares what a Sensory Room is, why your small church should consider one, and how to do it well.

Whether you are very familiar with sensory behaviors or you’ve never heard the term, Special Educator and Behavior Analyst Holly Sharpe is here to help. This post breaks down the basics and share how to safely provide a sensory room for those on either side of the sensory spectrum in your small church.

Pop quiz! Just kidding—but I do have a question: how familiar are you with the terms sensory seeking or sensory defensive?

Maybe you have heard these phrases instead:

  • Sensitive to sound/lights
  • Texture issues
  • Food issues
  • Toe-walker
  • Touchy-feely
  • Non-hugger

Sometimes these phrases are associated with people, particularly children, that are either sensory seekers or sensory defensive. 

Two Types of Sensory Behaviors

Sensory seeking behaviors happen when a child goes after a sensory input. Something the child sees, hears, can taste, smell, or feel. These are the kiddos who love to examine lights and light fixtures, who want the sound LOUD, who put everything in their mouths, who smell everyone and everything they get near, and who love to touch and feel different textures around them. 

Sensory Defensiveness

Sensory defensiveness happens when a child avoids a certain kind of sensory stimulation. These are the kiddos who squint or hide their faces from bright or moving lights, who cover their ears or cry at loud noises, who are picky eaters, who don’t like strong smells (like perfume or food), or who don’t want to be touched or get dirty.

Sensory defensive kiddos may need some accommodations in order to participate in class or ministry activities. Children who are sensitive to bright or flashing lights might wear sunglasses indoors or outdoors, or hats to protect their eyes. Keeping noise to a minimum or low volume can help, as can a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Give them a choice with their art supplies or whether to participate in certain sticky, slimy, or otherwise non-preferred hands-on activities in class. Talk to their parents and find out some preferred snacks/drinks to keep on hand for snack time. Ministry workers may show sensitivity by foregoing strong perfume or not using air fresheners in the ministry area for kiddos who are really sensitive to smell. 

Sensory Seekers

Sensory seekers can sometimes have their ‘sensory bucket’ filled easily when in class or children’s ministry. Holding play doh/silly putty, a small blanket to feel, a small toy that lights up, playing music in the background, or giving them something appropriate to chew (with parent permission of course) helps them regulate their sensory input while they participate in regular activities. 

Those are some ways to include sensory regulation in the ministry area or classroom, but what about a special place for a child to have the opportunity to regulate themselves? That is a job for the sensory room!

What Is A Sensory Room?

A sensory room is a separate space or designated area that contains items to help sensory seekers get the input they need. It is also set up to be a soothing and restful space for sensory defensive kiddos who need a break to reset. 

A sensory room is often painted a soothing pastel color, with dim lights, beanbags or pillows, and soft music. An aquarium or other feature of visual interest like a lava lamp or twinkle lights may be included. These items can intrigue the sensory seeker while also being less overstimulating visuals for those who are sensory defensive to lights. There may be musical instruments to use (or not use) and a variety of tactile items to explore, such as different fabrics, sequined pillows, a fluffy rug, etc. It is difficult to include a scent component for those sensory seekers who love a strong smell without putting off our sensory defensive kids who may get headaches or be overwhelmed by an air freshener. You can include things in closed containers for sensory seekers to smell. Coffee beans or grounds, scented wax melts, dryer sheets, or potpourri are my suggestions. 

What A Sensory Room Is NOT

The idea of sensory rooms is not new; they have been in use for years in the doctors’ offices, speech pathologists, and occupational therapists who work with children. Now, the trend is beginning to creep into public schools and even churches that serve children, teens, or adults with sensory needs. 

Unfortunately, in public schools, sensory rooms have been created and used inappropriately for seclusion when a child is exhibiting challenging behavior. This is not the purpose of a sensory room. A child should not be placed against their will into a sensory room and left alone with a closed door. 

A sensory room is not a time-out room for children who are misbehaving. Never use a sensory room as punishments or consequences for undesirable behavior. 

3 Steps To Creating A Sensory Room In Your Small Church

Now that we know what a sensory room is for and what it can look like, let’s talk practical steps to making it happen in your small church ministry!

  1. Designate an area for sensory regulation. 
  2. Gather materials and set it up!
  3. Decide how it will be used appropriately. 

1) Choose An Area

A sensory room can be a room, but it can also be a designated area. Many classrooms or pediatric professionals’ offices have a corner or space within a room dedicated to sensory regulation. What works for your small church? Can you spare an entire room (even a small room) for this purpose? Would you consider setting up a sensory regulation area within a classroom?

When choosing an area, think about the sensory events that already occur in that area.

  • Is there a giant window where the sun shines in?
  • Is there noise from the sanctuary, fellowship hall, or neighboring classroom?
  • Is it next to a staircase or exit where children would have to be watched carefully?
  • Is it cluttered?

Creative space solutions

Even if it is not an ideal space, there may be a way to make it the best it can be! Take the examples I listed already—if there is a big window, plan for blackout curtains to be available. Find creative solutions for adding some sound-proofing, like hanging fabric panels or even cheap egg crate mattress pads from a dollar store. Put up a baby gate. Recruit some help to get it organized and de-cluttered. 

If you are going to attempt a sensory regulation area within a classroom, choose an area away from where the activity/instruction takes place. Consider hanging a curtain or having a room divider to give privacy, or use a tent as a makeshift mini sensory room! You may need to be creative about how to control light or sound if the sensory area is within a room, but it can be done. A tent provides shelter from bright classroom lights, or you can set up a makeshift canopy to provide ‘shade’. Having a white noise machine may be an effective way for a sensory defensive child to be able to tune out some of the classroom noise without adding to the din. Also keeping a pair of noise-cancelling headphones in the area is a good idea. 

Whatever area is available for you, plan ahead about what challenges to sensory regulation may present themselves and how you can address them. 

2) The Fun Part: Gather Materials and Set It Up!

Decorating and setting up a sensory room or sensory area is so much fun! You might find out more about your own sensory preferences in the meantime!

There are plenty of materials that are marketed specifically for sensory use, but you don’t have to spend a lot of money on specialized items. Think sensory: how does it look, sound, feel, or smell? I have omitted taste here unless you have parent permission to offer snacks—if so, go for it!

How it looks:

Cool, calming tones of blue or green are often recommended, but not necessary. If you have a bright color that you can’t change or don’t want to change, just think about keeping the area decluttered with minimal visual overwhelm. Use containers for toys/books, and don’t go overboard with visuals on the walls. You can include visual elements that sensory seekers will love, but that can be turned off for the sensory defensive. Such as twinkle lights, lava lamps, a table or floor lamp with cool lamp shades, flash lights, lanterns, etc. 

How it sounds:

You can keep a white noise machine for soothing sounds, play low music, have musical instruments available, and keep a set of noise-cancelling headphones handy. 

How it feels:

Nix the chairs and have floor pillows or bean bags to lounge on. Include a textured rug and a couple of different textures of blankets available. Stuffed animals or throw pillows made with different fabrics work, too. Toys that are textured like legos, play doh, silly putty, slime, kinetic sand, etc. When sensory defensive children visit the area, these things can easily be avoided. I like to include a couple of carpet squares for those kiddos who aren’t into fluffy rugs or pillows. 

How it smells:

Keep it clean, but avoid cleaning it right before a child could use it—the smell of cleaning materials may be enough to give someone a headache or overwhelm them. I recommend keeping scented items in closed containers, like coffee beans, different scents of wax melts, or potpourri. They are easy to explore and put away when needed.

How it tastes:

When including snacks, be sure they are parent-approved and kept away from anyone who may have food allergies.

You can get many items donated, and find plenty more at yard sales or thrift stores. That is almost exclusively how I have created sensory areas in the past! 

3) Decide How It Will Be Used Appropriately

Here is the biggie: what is the right way to use the sensory room? We definitely do not want it to turn into the time-out room. 

Before:

If you have a child that is a sensory seeker or sensory defensive, visiting the sensory room before beginning class or church activities for the day can give them a chance to get the input they need or calm themselves first. That sets them up for success!

During:

If you get to know a child well and begin to notice ‘warning signs’ that they are reaching a point of discomfort or need, make a trip to the sensory room to give them a chance to regulate themselves. Our sensory seeking kiddos tend to begin getting wild and bouncing off the walls when they are needing more sensory input. When our sensory defensive children begin showing signs of avoidance or lacking participation, those are some good signs that they need to recharge. 

After:

Transitions from a fun day at church to leaving and heading home can be challenging. A visit to the sensory room before dismissal can help kiddos regulate themselves and feel good about moving on to the next part of their day. 

Anytime they need it:

There are some children who will really benefit from using that sensory room. If you can provide that time for them, then I encourage you to do it! Even short bursts of time like 2 or 5 minutes can be enough for them to get the input they need or reset their minds and bodies. 

It is best for children with sensory regulation issues to get to use the sensory area alone or with one other child. Too many children leads to overstimulation. 

If neurotypical children who do not really have sensory regulation issues show interest in the sensory area, it is fine to let them explore it; however, make sure those kiddos who truly need that sensory time have it when they need it. 

You should always include adult supervision in a sensory room visit. 

When your team agrees on how they want to use the sensory area, write it down, give everyone a copy, and post a copy in the sensory room. Ensure that expectations are clear and available for reference. 

Ready, Set, Go!

Now that you know more about sensory regulation issues and how to create a sensory area, I challenge you:

  • Who are the children in your ministry that would benefit from a sensory area?
  • Can you identify a space that would work as a sensory room or area?
  • Are you ready to give it a try?

Find me at The Creative Little Church on Facebook if you have questions!

Read more on special needs ministry:

3 Essential Things Your Small Church Needs to Know About Autism

Understand 2 Types of Special Needs Ministry for Your Small Church