I’m Jo Grace: a Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist and Founder of The Sensory Projects in this series of 10 articles I am going to share some of my passion for understanding the sensory world with you.
In my last article I talked about how classroom and nursery environments have gone through something of a sensory 180, beginning as barren boring environments and now potentially sometimes being so stimulating as to be overwhelming. In recognising that children (and adults) experience the sensory world in different ways we recognise that there is no one right environment. But you may very well just have one room, so what can you do? You want it to be right for everyone, how can you achieve this?
First up in the title of this article I referred to our neurodiverse community, sometimes this is taken as meaning children and adults with neurodivergent conditions such as autism and ADHD and whilst autistics and people with ADHD certainly are a part of the neurodiverse community are people with what would be considered ‘typical’ brains. Neurodiverse refers to the diversity of ways the brain can be wired, in the same way, that biodiversity refers to the great array of plants and animals there are. Sometimes reflections of this kind are prompted by the presence of a particular child in a setting who just cannot cope with the sensory landscape as it is, and so it can feel like the changes are done for that child. Recognising that these adaptations benefit everyone can increase the motivation of staff implementing them. You can think of that child as the tip of the iceberg, they signal the needs of a great many more children who go unnoticed beneath the surface. And it is not just the children, you want your space to be somewhere the adults can feel at home at a sensory level within.
In this article, I am going to consider two approaches to doing this, the ‘broad-brush best bet’ approach and ‘sensory scaping’.
Broad-Brush Best Bet
If you want to go for a broad-brush best bet approach to the sensory landscape in your space my advice would be to design along natural themes, use natural tone colours like browns, beiges and greens – create natural textures: the roughness of bark and hessian, the softness of earth and grass, and deploy natural background tracks such as the lapping of waves against the sea shore or the movement of grasses in the wind. Avoid the loud primary colours. Choose toys made of natural materials that will fit with the design. Keep displays to particular locations and avoid the urge to cover every inch of space.
Instagram and social media, in general, will give you oodles of inspiration for such an approach, The best thing to Google if looking for inspiration along these lines is the Danish concept of Hygge. If I had charge of an early years setting and a designer at my disposal this is what I would charge them with creating. This would not be me imposing a preferred personal aesthetic, it would be me responding to what I know about the sensory world and deploying a broad-brush best bet approach.
Often when I am talking to people about the sensory responses of others, I am talking about being a detective, about recognising that not everyone’s sensory perceptions are the same as our own, and encouraging people to try and figure out what sensation is like through that other person’s eyes, ears, mouth, body etc. We are wired differently, we are unique…but…we also have things in common, we are the same type of animal, we come from a shared history, and whilst some aspects of our experience are exceptionally unique, there are things deep wired in us that come from that shared history.
As a species, we are used to living in nature. Through our shared history, we have dwelt outside, beneath the sky, in the elements, sheltering in trees and caves. Nature has been our home and in nature, our senses will tell us we are at home. We have, in terms of our history as an animal, been living in these concrete boxes for the blink of an eye. I noticed it especially during the first lockdown of the pandemic in 2020 – when people were given an hour to leave their homes they went to nature, they were feeling anxious, rightly so, and they felt safer in nature.
Creating an environment that resonates with natural experiences can support children in feeling safe at a sensory level, and children who feel safe can connect, engage, and focus. (Children on alert cannot do those things and will be flighty, reactive, and volatile).