When Penguin was younger, we sometimes visited a place that had a ‘Sensory Room’, also known as ‘Snoezelen’. In hindsight, we could have got so much more out of those visits if we’d been guided by an occupational therapist on how to make the most of it all, but at the time I didn’t know much about sensory processing or indeed what part an occupational therapist could possibly play for my child with ASD.
The space they had designated as Snoezelen was divided into two rooms, one bright and one dark, both filled with things like swings, cushions, bubble tubes and coloured lighting of various kinds. It was always a great feeling to step into that magical world, diving into a ball pit with transparent balls lit up by colour-changing lights, wobble about on a big waterbed, lay back on a swinging platform with strings of light dangling around you, or just sit in front of a bubble tube watching the glittering streams of bubbles.
Penguin really enjoyed those visits, and at home we created some “tasters” of similar experiences, mainly by constructing some dark snug spaces with special lights in. We also had an indoor swing (this), which was brilliant for years, until Penguin became too big and boisterous and in effect made it into a wrecking ball…
In the back of my mind I’ve been harbouring dreams of creating a proper, good size sensory room at home, but the reality is that I may never have the space or resources to do this. That used to bother me, making me feel that I wasn’t doing enough to help my son. But, for almost a year now our living space has been quite small, much smaller than we the house we used to live in previously. On the other hand, we’ve spent A LOT more time out and about, and this is why I no longer feel that our life is lacking in sensory lights and ball pits. Don’t get me wrong, I’d LOVE to have a giant ball pit! But I no longer worry about Penguin missing out on something of momentous significance for his development by us not having a sensory room.
I now feel that most of the benefits of a good sensory room can be achieved by stepping outside, searching out great sensory experiences in nature. And in contrast to the frankly extortionate prices of quality sensory equipment, most nature experiences can be had pretty much for free.
I don’t mean to diss sensory rooms though. I think they’re lovely spaces and I’d be very happy to visit one again sometime. And if I win the lottery I might still invest in one… maybe. However, in this post, I’d like to highlight some of the sensory benefits which can be offered by the great outdoors.
On the Snoezelen webpage, four areas for which their sensory environments can be useful are highlighted: Relaxation, stimulation, development and therapy. They also describe what the sensory rooms aim to offer in these areas, such as: “to calm and reduce agitation through the use of gentle light, soothing sound, relaxing smell and touch”, “to stimulate users by providing exciting visuals, music and sounds, invigorating smells and textures to explore”, and (for learning aspects) “color matching, understanding of cause and effect, and creating themed environments to teach within”.
I’m feeling quite confident that nature can offer those same things, except perhaps music, which on the other hand is perfectly possible to add yourself, if you wish to do so. I realise that there are some aspects of indoor sensory rooms that can be positive, such as them not being weather dependant. For example, strong winds can be overstimulating for Penguin (and many others), so on a windy day nature would perform quite poorly as a calming space, unless we’d find somewhere well-sheltered.
Now, to take a look at how nature measures up, I’ve created three short slideshows from pictures taken over the past year. The first slideshow focuses on calming sensory experiences, the second on more alerting sensory stimulation, and the third one relates mainly to learning and development.
Before you watch these, it might be useful to know that sensory rooms with light walls are generally meant to be more calming, while ones with dark walls are more stimulating/alerting. This might seem to go against what is usually said about how light and interiors affect us, but in this context we need to consider the contrasts created by the sensory lights and other equipment that these spaces contain. To put it very simply, if you have disco lights on in full daylight, they don’t seem half as exciting as they do in the dark. Also, in the dark, our senses tend to become more alert, sharpened, to register more information from all our sensory channels, rather than relying mainly on visual unput (as we tend to do in daylight). When translating this into natural environments, I also find that spaces which have several contrasting stimuli going on simultaneously are generally more stimulating.
How a person percieves sensory stimulation varies between different individuals, and can also vary from time to time within the same individual. Not everyone will find it calming to watch the rythmic, rolling movement of waves, though I think we can agree that most of us will. Maybe you’ll find that something I’ve suggested as an alerting experience here, would probably have a more calming effect on you, or on your child. While something that has a calming effect on a sensory seeking individual might be alerting and even overwhealming for someone who is hypersensitive to that kind of stimulus.
With that said, I hope these images of nature as ‘sensory room’ can serve as inspiration and food for thought. These environments are out there for us to enjoy, and I think they can be put to great use, when consciously considering these sensory aspects.
I. Nature as a “calming sensory space”
II. Primarily alerting sensory stimulation
III. Aspects of learning (rythm, counting, motor skills, cause & effect, balance, science, art, litteracy, body awareness, social interaction, joint attention, defining textures, colours, shapes, scents, sounds etc.), in nature as a space for sensory development
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Maybe you’re someone with great experience of sensory rooms, in which case I’m sure there are one or two things you’d like to add. Maybe you feel I’ve missed some important aspects in this post? Please let us know in the comments, I look forward to hearing from you!