George Lucas Educational Foundation
Special Education

How—and Why—to Create a Sensory Space for Neurodivergent Students

With around $150 and help from the leadership team and support staff, two educators created a space where students can release stress.

July 22, 2022
Young child jumps into a colorful plastic ball pit
skynesher / iStock

When you enter our classroom, it’s hard to miss the inflatable ball pit.

Four years ago, we noticed a need for an area where students experiencing complex behavioral issues could release pent-up energy, relax and meditate, or process overwhelming feelings from home or the classroom. With help and encouragement from our leadership team and support staff, including occupational therapists and psychologists, we created the sensory room—an indoor space where students could deal with stress of any kind that built up throughout the day.

This environment, combined with sensory activities, allows students of all ages to learn, grow, and thrive at school each day. Just 15 or 20 minutes of time in the sensory area helps students return to class feeling refreshed and centered.

Neurodivergent children are often told that they “aren’t doing it right.” They spend a lot of their energy and focus wondering: Am I sitting still enough? Am I being quiet enough? If I ask this question, will they think I wasn’t paying attention? If I add this comment to the conversation, will everyone think that’s a weird thing to say?

But there is no “doing it wrong” in the sensory space, as long as they aren’t hurting themselves or others. Students don’t need to worry about being teased or made fun of—this is a place of true acceptance. We work hard to make this a safe space for any student, but especially for our neurodivergent students who don’t process physical sensation, time, or interactions with other people the same way.

This is their space to be who they are.

A Look Inside

In the past, we had a dedicated sensory room, but due to pandemic-related space restrictions, the motor break and sensory space now takes up about half of our shared special education classroom—just beyond our teacher desks, library books, and curriculum materials.

The largest feature is the ball pit, an inflatable pool filled with donated plastic balls. Hanging above is a string of LED lights—students can use a remote to change the color and flash patterns. We also have some large foam blocks, a small trampoline, flexible seating options like yoga balls and bean bag chairs, and bins full of sensory items like clay and kinetic sand. There are also a number of fidget spinners, Pop-Its, soft toys, and imaginative play items like a mermaid and a dragon tail.

It’s hard to pinpoint the most popular items in the room, as each student uses the space for what they specifically need. Some use the space to get extra energy out through movement, while others like to simply lie on the floor.

The ball pit is a huge draw for students who benefit from motor breaks and those with sensory needs. One of our most energetic students loves to toss himself in the pit over and over, using the trampoline as a launch pad. Another enjoys completing class assignments while seated in the pit. Students know that as long as they are being safe and following the clearly posted rules, just about anything goes.

The sensory bins get a lot of use, as well. In our current space, we make different toys or fidgets available at different times. For kids with ADHD, anything new beats anything they’ve seen before, so changing out Play-Doh for Silly Putty or kinetic sand for sensory beads every month or two can keep the space interesting all year long.

Sometimes we have to take away certain objects because students can get a little carried away. We had a fifth grader this year who got so involved in playing Star Wars with a pool noodle that he was slamming himself into the floor. When warnings to be careful were quickly forgotten, we had to take away the noodle to keep him safe. Other times we have to give a particular toy a time-out, and then the student can try again with it the next day.

Planning and Logistics

As we saw the benefits of the sensory area firsthand, we expanded its access. For any student identified as needing additional support—from calming classroom jitters to processing trauma—the sensory room is a safe space to decompress throughout the school day.

Some students have sensory or motor breaks written into their individualized education programs and will visit the space as specified in their plan. Others are identified by either special education or general education teachers as students who would benefit from a scheduled break when they are feeling stressed.

When a student needs an unscheduled break, a teacher can call our room and ask if it would be a good time for a visit. If, for example, we’re in the middle of giving a test on the classroom side of the shared space, we suggest alternate times. We try to keep no more than about three or four kids in the space at a time, but that can flex depending on who is in the room.

One thing we didn’t anticipate was how popular the space would be and how fast word would travel around school. This led to a lot of students asking why only a few kids from their class were allowed to have “recess” in our room. With student privacy in mind, we tried to explain why we couldn’t let all 450 students come and play in our room—especially while we were also teaching in it—as well as how their classmates were selected.

Getting Started

It didn’t take much to get the ball rolling—just a few everyday items that can be picked up at any Walmart or Target. When the space was first created four years ago, we were given a budget of $150. Our occupational therapist was able to get us things like a jogging trampoline and balance board from her budget; our PE teacher donated some large gym mat shapes; and an outside source donated the inflatable pool and a few hundred ball pit balls.

With a grant that our department was given this year, we’ve gotten the supplies to introduce a creative art break station. We have little models to paint, beads to make jewelry with, and other art supplies for the kids. Additionally, we have a library of more than 30 coloring books and markers, ink pens, colored pencils, and crayons.

But honestly, you don’t need much to give kids a brain break. We once had a fourth grader who wanted to do nothing more than scoot around the room on a chair with wheels. Likewise, a third grader with significant behavior issues just wanted yoga music played while they did the savasana pose.

Recently, a student yelled, “Freedom!” as he jumped into the ball pit. For our students, freedom is exactly what the sensory area provides.

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Filed Under

  • Special Education
  • Learning Environments
  • Student Wellness
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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George Lucas Educational Foundation