Sensory umbrellas and parasols. 

As successful practioners in education we have bright, colourful, stimulating and busy classrooms – fantastic for general stimulation, but very distracting when we want to work with individual pupils. For sensory work, we need to focus the child’s senses upon the stimuli we are presenting.  In the general classroom sometimes there is just too much going on, with other adults and pupils moving around and other distractions. 

Do you remember the older style prams, with hoods and some sort of mobile strung across the front? Without understanding or appreciating the psychology, people had automatically provided a safe environment where all the babies stimuli came from a predictable direction. This reduced anxiety and stress, as the baby couldn’t worry about noises and movement that he or she couldn’t see. 

We need something similar in the class room and the humble umbrella, cheaply bought, provides a simple way of screening and achieving a similar effect. A parasol provides the same, but on a larger scale.

A word of caution, however, in a typical classroom the use of an umbrella does require close supervision. Most umbrellas come with a pointed metal ferrule and the spokes are of a metal construction with plastic caps. There are potential dangers if they are used unsupervised by a child. Used with care, however, they offer many advantages and are easily stored and quick to put up. 

Literacy, numeracy or other curriculum topics can be introduced by hanging relevant artefacts to count, handle, explore and share.  Create a themed umbrella for a specific story or curriculum topic – I have a ‘Rainbow Fish’ umbrella, as well as a ‘Space’ umbrella.

White umbrellas can be used for projection – placing the projector behind the umbrella and back projecting through the material allows the child to access visual images, even in a brightly lit classroom. A child with poor visual skills can be given the opportunity to focus on bright moving and meaningful images without the distractions of the wider classroom.

A black umbrella provides a dark background to present brightly coloured or battery operated lighting effects against. The contrast between dark and light exaggerates the stimuli and can improve the child’s locating, tracking and reaching skills. Hanging fluorescent materials from the spokes and lighting them up with UV blacklight from a handheld torch increases the power of the visual effect. The range of fluorescent objects is endless – for example, body scrubs and scoobie strings have good tactile properties and can be hung from the spokes. 

Try a sensory umbrella or parasol to deliver an engaging and very sensory story or topic – a simple, but very effective teaching technique!

Richard Hirstwood