How the Term 'Sensory Room' Became the Kleenex of This Generation

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

“We are looking to put together a sensory room, what products do you suggest?” That is one of the most dangerous statements I hear these days from educators looking to better support their students. What so many educators do not understand is that the term “sensory room” means different things to different people. So much so, the “sensory room” today has taken on an all-encompassing meaning in much the same way as “Kleenex” did for facial tissues back in the 1920s when they were first introduced.

We have the research that demonstrates higher levels of anxiety within our students today. We have also seen evidence that sensory breaks, even as simple as chair push-ups or standing up, adds to a student’s ability to focus. Finally, we know that having a room where students can go when they are escalating can decrease the amount of time for the escalation and lessen the impact of that escalation on other students or adults. But how do we go about creating the right atmosphere at a reasonable cost?

When I work with groups, I begin by asking them what they hope to accomplish with this room or space. I get a lot of strange looks as these well-educated teachers just assume all sensory rooms are exactly the same. That is when we begin to speak about several purposes that these rooms or spaces may actually have. The first type of room we discuss is the actual sensory room where students have the opportunity to touch, walk on, see, hear, and smell different textures, colors and scents. These rooms or spaces are excellent for younger students. They begin to experience the world in a protected environment. These areas are good for all students too, not just those with differing abilities. What we tend to see is that the older the students get, the less they need of this type of space or room.

Which brings us to the second type of room we discuss, the movement room. The movement room is exactly as it sounds. It includes a multitude of ways for students move and experience the world in a different way. These rooms often have items on the floor for balance or movement. They usually have some type of swing for vestibular feedback. We also often see jump ropes, bungee jumpers, flags, bean bags for physical activity; although the kids look at it as play. These rooms tend to be good for all students at all ages. The difference lies within the ages of the students as to what items might be found in the setting.

A third type of room is actually a calming room. We see more of a need for this for students as they begin to get older, although individuals of any age are prone to escalation. This needs to be set up in a specific room with a focus on items that calm rather than stimulate. Bean bag chairs, fiber optic lighting, sands or putties are all items which work well in this type of a room.  Ironically, the more care put into this type of room the better for the staff too! Within any educational setting, the pressure of the day needs to be released and a room like this helps everyone.

The next question I ask focuses on the students or adults who will be using the room or space. Understanding who will be using the room will assist in deciding what items should go in the room. That is important as there is no “one-size-fits-all” in products that help everyone. You want to know if there are items which need to be avoided due to some individuals perseverating on them (usually ones that make noise or having some repetitive action) or items which are a must-have for certain groups. We must be cognizant of those using the room so that we do not bring in items which defeat the purpose of the room or cause anxiety.

Does this mean that ready made kits or packages are not good? No, not at all. Some of these packages have the large items that fit a purpose and a population. We can then contextualize smaller things for the specific population of that location. Some of these packages also make sense from a fiscal view as they cost less than the items sold separately. My caution to you is to be careful of the groups who simply ask you the size of the room or try to push a “deluxe package” on you. There are some excellent packages which cost $20,000 and more. Again, those might be the right choice, once we have decided on our purpose and have looked at who will be using the room.

Please be careful too of items from the local dollar store. There is a reason that these items are there. Their lack of durability might be a problem and you might end up spending more than you would have in replacements. Our students can break anything and will often find a way to break things that we thought were unbreakable. However, buying something because it is cheap is not a wise investment. The other caveat for some of these dollar store items is that they may contain latex or lead-based paints. We have to be cautious for the health of our students.

I do firmly believe in having these rooms or spaces in all of our schools. However, the proper preparation needs to occur before simply going out and getting things. Do your homework and don’t be afraid to call in the support of those you might trust. Every student and adult needs sensory feedback in some way throughout the day. Let’s provide that support for everyone!

I am there for your support too, so feel free to reach out to me at


Posted in SH Special Education Today Newsletter