Mental Health

How to Provide Cost-Effective Sensory Spaces for Students

School counselors can offer teachers a variety of tools to use in their classrooms that support students’ mental health.

November 29, 2023
Nikada / iStock

Student mental health has become such a critical discussion point over the last years. Studies show how mental health can affect so many different factors of learning, including attention in class, behavior, retention, and overall affect within a classroom. School districts are increasingly requiring schools and classroom teachers to have sensory options and outlets for students to regulate their emotions, but selecting the best options for students can be overwhelming and expensive.

As a school counselor, I’ve found impactful and economically manageable sensory options for school and classrooms, all under $100 or $150. These sensory options help students regulate their emotions, decrease student behavioral outbursts, and provide students with creative outlets. Let’s look at how to provide amazing spaces in classrooms and schools.

Keep Items Varied and Costs Down 

When I helped teachers create sensory spaces in the classroom, I was able to complete each classroom sensory space for less than $150. At the time, we were given Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money from the district to create sensory spaces at our elementary school. We were given the total amount that we could spend, so I took the total and divided it by the number of classroom teachers that would get a sensory space.

I created four variations, and each one had seating, creative expression options, and emotional regulation options. The four seating options that teachers could choose were castle tents, a Big Joe bean bag, a small tent, or a large classroom tent. The teachers enjoyed having a choice, as well as not having to feel overwhelmed by a lot of variety.  

For creative expression options, I placed crayons or colored pencils, printouts of coloring pages, mini takeaway journals, or scratch art in the sensory space. These are cost-effective ways for students to have a creative outlet that allows them to reflect on their day. It may not seem very impactful at first, but with so much time placed on academic rigor through the day, students relish the opportunity to just relax and create.

For emotional regulation options, sensory items are important to help students recognize and understand feelings. For some of the options, I put squishies, fidget spinners, or stuffed animals in the sensory space. I also added the option of a book to help students recognize and manage feelings in real time. 

Here’s a breakdown of the four options I offered: 

Option 1: A four-pack of fidget toys, Thought-Spot’s I Know What to Do When I’m Feeling... book, a portable sound machine, and a large bean bag chair

Option 2: Textured bean bag squares, a cat squishy toy, a liquid motion spiral timer, mini emotion plush toys with the A Little SPOT of Feelings hardcover book box set, and a play castle tent

Option 3: Robot sensory fidgets, putty tins, colored pencils, coloring books, a giant pop-it toy, and a medium teepee-style tent 

Option 4: Aroma putty and one giant tent (teachers with many sensory tools selected this option) 

The best way to use these spaces is to set a timer for five to 10 minutes. I prefer sand timers, as they don’t make noise during transitions. This may be a difficult option for younger students, because they might pick it up and play with it. Informing students of times when they can and cannot use the space is a helpful rule to implement if you notice specific students using it to avoid doing work, as opposed to using it for the intended purpose, self-regulation.

Create a Simple Sensory Bulletin Board

I personally applied for grants to get an interactive sensory space placed in my school. We were successful, but it was expensive, and we had the challenge of having to take students to utilize the space. It was tucked away a bit, and students needed to be accompanied by an adult in the building to go there. This could be a teacher, paraprofessional, or school counselor.

I quickly realized that I needed to find an inexpensive option that all students could easily access for sensory needs. That became a square bulletin board outside of my office. I have been amazed at how popular, easily accessible, and frequently used this bulletin board—created for less than $100—is. It was fun to create, and due to the impact and low economic cost, I am hoping to add more throughout the school.

Rethink your hallway bulletin boards. While positive messages are a nice addition to the climate of a school, there are more impactful ways to utilize your bulletin board. This is an easy way to create an amazing space.

  1. Start with butcher paper. Think about the theme of the sensory bulletin board, and cover it with butcher paper.
  2. Get some sequin fabric. It’s the fabric on children’s clothes, pillows, and some stuffed animals that changes color when you move your hand one way.  I chose blue for mine. Our school is close to the ocean, and I wanted to do a nautical theme. Put the fabric on the bottom half of your bulletin board. The whole board is not necessary, because most students can’t reach that high, plus it allows you to add to the experience. 
  3. Put a border around the board and the space between your sequin fabric and the top of your butcher paper for your themes.
  4. Add visual details. For my sensory board, I added some puffy clouds (fabric clouds with air pockets) and a small wooden boat to sit on the “water” sequin fabric.
  5. Add your positive message inviting students. My board says, “Have a mini sensory moment.” 
Photo of bulletin board
Courtesy of Sheila Garth

At first, students didn’t quite know what to think. Traditionally, students aren’t supposed to touch things in the hallway. I had a lot of students ask permission before they touched the sensory bulletin board, just to make sure that it was OK. Now, every day, students interact with it as they walk by or stop for a bit. It is the perfect amount of time for a small sensory break. When creating sensory bulletin boards, it is important to place them in high-traffic areas within a school and create an inviting message to let students know that it is OK to interact with the sensory board.

Both the classroom sensory space and the sensory bulletin board are cost-effective ways to support all students within a school and classroom. Each option provides a diverse option for helping students self-regulate. Plus, they’re so fun to put together.

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Filed Under

  • Mental Health
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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