Creating a Sensory-Friendly Environment

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Motor development for a child involves the ability to process the sensory information in their environment—touch, movement, sight, sound, taste, smell, and pressure—and integrate them, along with sensory-motor and perceptual-motor skills. If a child cannot process the sensations around him, he may not be participating in the functional play needed to acquire integrated motor skills for learning. As a result, there may be observed behavior problems, such as difficulty transitioning from tasks and refusal to participate in activities.

Little girl on bean bag

This child may appear to be always “on the go,” never stopping and/or appearing uninterested. He may begin to receive labels of “moody,” “lazy,” “aggressive,” “oversensitive,” “unsocial” or “cautious.” These and other “inappropriate” responses to development and participation may be clues that the child’s inability to process the environment is making it difficult to participate in functional learning and skill maturation.

Consider the following items when establishing a sensory-friendly environment. They may improve a child’s ability to feel safe, participate in play, and enhance learning.

    1. Lighting:
      Natural light is always the best choice. In most commercial buildings, florescent lighting is used. With its constant flickering, it can be visually over-stimulating. If you have many florescents, try covering a few with a draping fabric to diffuse the sensation. If there are many windows, try to cut down the distraction by using sheer panels to allow light and decrease visual intensity. Some kids may insist on wearing their hats outside of the home to block out the intensity of the lights.
    2. Color:
      The colors used on the walls can set the tone for alertness or calmness. Think about what you are looking for in particular environments. Alerting colors such as red, orange or yellow may be useful in an active area, though be careful not to use too much color. Earthy, neutral tones are best for keeping over-stimulation to a minimum. Accents of blue, green, or purple can help set the tone for calmness. Be careful how many different colors are used on the walls with pictures and projects.
    3. Seating:
      Some children need good sensory input from their environment to maintain a seated position. When sitting in a chair, the feet should always be touching the floor. Because mealtime tends to be a difficult functional task for many kids, be mindful of the positioning of a highchair and try to find this same stability at a table. If your child’s feet do not touch the ground, try a footstool or other item to give the child input through his feet and improved posture. Some children are not ready for this flexed position and may benefit from standing instead of sitting. A beanbag chair or cube chair for assistance may help maintain a quiet body for an extended period of time. The child who is lying on the floor, bumping into others, or constantly moving may not have the postural control or spatial awareness necessary for the given task.

boy using headphones

  1. Noise:
    Calm, soothing environments are always better for attention then loud ones. For a child sensitive to noise, a busy loud room can be a nightmare. Be aware of the child who retreats during transitions, screams at an unexpected sound, or is constantly covering his ears instead of participating. The intensity is real to him. Sound-/noise-canceling headphones and/or a quiet corner to retreat to can help with calming and regulating.
  2. Environment Organization:
    Visual clutter can be a challenge for a child who has difficulty processing his environment. It also presents a challenge when attempting to maneuver his body in a given space with too many objects. Balance and visual system are closely related. You may see a child not even attempt to participate when there are too many stimulating obstacles. For some children, the more visual stimulation there is, the more difficult it is to fix their eyes on the functional task before them.
  3. Sensory Retreat:
    It is very useful in any setting to have an environment that a child can retreat to when feeling over-stimulated and ready to withdraw or have a meltdown. This would be an area with decreased sensations and comfortable seating—such as a bean bag chair or large floor pillows—and specific boundaries. Noise-canceling headphones and weighted objects help with calming and fidgety hands. Picture books are also good regulators for over-stimulated kids.

As adults, we use items to help us regulate throughout our day, including sipping on a cup of coffee, fidgeting with a pen while listening to a lecture, or bouncing our leg to help us maintain our position and attention. Look at your child in his functional setting. Instead of seeing his behavior as negative and willful, look at what may be difficult for him. Then determine what he may need to process and regulate for functional success.

Deanne Kelly, BS, OTRL, is a board-certified registered occupational therapist at Parents Place in Palo Alto and San Mateo.

*This blog is in honor of my late colleague, Sarah DeHaaff, a speech and language therapist at Parents Place who would beautifully help put words to the things I process and feel. When I would write a blog or an article, Sarah would tell me how she could “hear” me talking while she was editing my text for appropriate language and content. You will be missed, my friend.


Posted by Deanne Kelly, BS, OTR/L on March 2, 2015

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