Here are 3 considerations to factor in when setting up a sensory space:
- Watch what a child does when they are upset – Do they run and hide, throw things, flop onto the ground kicking and screaming or seek out others? Running and hiding means they may want some initial distance away from what’s upsetting them. Creating a space in another room but on the same floor of the house (so it’s easier to reconnect when they calm down) may be a good option. If a child hides in a tiny space like behind or under a sofa for example, allow that and perhaps label where they already go (consider hanging a decorated arrow or sign with their name on it, so there is a sense of ownership over and automatic support to use the space). Ask the child if they’d like anything else placed in that spot that would feel good. Try hand-held fidgets, small building blocks or magnets or actions figures, i.e. something for their hands to do and/or a pillow so they can get comfy. Using a child’s automatic patterns of behavior (what they already do) meets them where they are, let’s them know they can take care of themselves, and supports them in a way they are already craving.
- Offer something easy for them to do – Upset is activation in the nervous system. Providing an easy activity gives an outlet for that arousal but in a safe contained way. It also allows opportunity for a re-set/return to a calmer state. Doing is interaction (with the world through objects) and interacting with familiar and enjoyable objects can be a first step and an easier step toward return to interaction with people. Enjoyment also inherently connects us to a calmer state in our nervous system (the ventral vagal state of arousal, per polyvagal theory) and this re-set is practice with what’s known as engaging the vagal brake — the body’s way of regulating heart rate and breathing which are the foundations of physical (and thus emotional) self-regulation. It’s all connected!
- Consider lighting – Ambient or dim lighting is calming for the nervous system. The sense of vision is one of the strongest senses of the body and we use our sense of vision to protect/make decisions about what’s safe. By reducing visual input, we reduce potential for “neuroception” of threat. By not removing all visual input but instead offering something targeted and positive to look at, it can serve as a cue to safety. Looking at something we like and not being distracted by extra things we don’t like (such as perhaps the person who is part of our anger, a mess of toys, the tower we were building, someone who has hurt us), it can help the nervous system calm more quickly. Some examples of targeted visual inputs: string lights, a night light of a favorite character, a projector with soothing images like galaxy stars or the ocean, or even a flashlight (so the child can control the input).
Using a sensory space doesn’t have to be complicated. Using everyday items to provide sensory input in simple quick easy ways within a child’s everyday environment can help a child practice staying in or returning to a state of calm. Calm leads to connection, and isn’t that how we all want to feel?