Angie Voss, OTR/L and author of Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Signals, defines a cozy space or “sensory retreat” as
“a crucial component of a sensory home program and as a sensory tool for ALL children. A sensory retreat is especially helpful for children who over-register sensory input and demonstrate sensory defensiveness. It is also helpful for those who struggle with sensory modulation.”
At OTC, we create cozy spaces from a giant cardboard box, a blanket wrapped around a swing or thrown over a table, or by using a pop-up-tent. We use the cozy space when we want to 1) help a child calm, 2) increase focus and attention, or 3) increase potential for interactions.
Try a cozy space at home:
- pro-actively, before a sensory meltdown occurs (link to…what is a sensory meltdown?)
- when we are in the midst of a meltdown and other sensory strategies have failed
- to recover from a meltdown and a “time-in” is needed; parent and child together spend some bonding quiet time.
A cozy space works because it limits external input to a child’s brain, it offers a physical boundary around the child, and it inherently decreases immediate demands for interaction by nature of having fewer objects and fewer people around them. Interaction with the world is a higher level of expectation than simply being in the world, and for children with sensory challenges sometimes just being in the world is challenging enough. A cozy space gives sensory kiddos a break so they may feel more in control. Most children with sensory challenges will benefit from a cozy space in all three of the above-mentioned ways at some point, so it is important for them to be involved in picking where the cozy space goes in the house, what it looks like, and what items go inside.
The more individualized the cozy space is to what the child likes and what their body needs, the more likely they are to use it. A child with sensitivity to sound may benefit from having noise cancelling headphones or some way of listening to calming music in their retreat. A child with sensitivity to touch may benefit from a weighted stuffed animal or lap pad, and soft comfy cushions or a bean bag chair inside their space. A child with multi sensory processing problems may benefit from darkness with some kind of ambient lighting like a flashlight or white christmas lights inside. Many children benefit from having items that target multiple senses at once but in a supportive and thought out way . many children may benefit from quiet sit-down play in their space, such as looking at books, playing with legos or blocks, or coloring pages.
Regardless of what goes inside a cozy space, a key factor to consider when implementing its use, is how accessible and easy to use it is for parents. There will be times when parents sit inside with their child and this should be expected, but more importantly parents will need to monitor use of the cozy space to make sure it’s having its desired effect. It is not intended to be a punishment, but a supportive way to encourage children learning to self-calm. If the cozy space is located too far away from the main areas of the house or if it is in a space that parents don’t want to be and/or parents don’t want it, the likelihood that it gets used consistently or when it’s most needed, is poor. A successful cozy space is one that both parents and children want to use and find easy to use in their immediate space. If it’s not desirable in a “good day” its appeal during a sensory meltdown is not likely.
Use of a cozy space is one concrete way to teach children who struggle with self-regulation the important skill of paying attention to what they need and giving themselves the chance to take the space and the time they need to get it.