Sensory Room Design
Get the catalogues and you will note that there are hundreds of products you can use. The catalogues are a veritable Aladdin’s cave of cash consuming gadgets, but it would be wise to think about the following points first.
The size of the room you choose is mainly dependent on what you intend to do with it. Of course, in reality you may have little choice about the room as space is at a premium in most schools, day centres and hospitals. Most people who attend courses say we have only got a small room! And give the impression that this may be inadequate.
In reality many people use the equipment very well without having a designated room but problems can occur. For example, unless the corner of a room where you intend to work has efficient black out, the attention may be lost when carrying out visual work. If there are too many distracting people, the session will not be as effective.
Many people will ask if the equipment is portable. Yes – some is and some is not. Small portable bubble tubes, projectors and fibre optics can be carried in the boot of a small hatchback car with a little imaginative packing, but it’s not the type of equipment you would carry on the train.
In our experience we have noted that small rooms, can work just as effectively as large rooms. A small room can offer a space, which may enable a child or adult to gain more interaction with the member of staff. As human interaction is the most important interaction in a sensory space, the small room can work well. A small room will mean that most of the work is one to one so may be more directed and effective when working with multiply disabled clients. The room will be cheaper to set up and run and has often been a good starting point for people considering a multi sensory room. However, should you want to work with groups of adults or children then your room may need to be larger.
A large room may appear to be stark if there is not enough equipment. This room will however give you the chance to work with groups of adults or children. A large area will give more floor area to work with individual pieces of equipment and offer adults and children space to explore favourite areas. Some people have used the hall as the room but most have been too big and even threatening to both the users and staff. The large room may need to be split into sections with curtains or dividing walls, to create a small one to one area, which can make the area work for both individuals and groups.
Maybe the best room is around the size of a small classroom, this way you may have the best of both worlds. You will be able work with small groups but, should you wish to, curtain an area off to make a small one to one working area within the room.
Should you be working with themes, you may be able to fill the room with the props required without having a room full of props and no room for people. You will also need to think about storing the projector rotators, wheels, cassettes, CDs, tapes, switches and all the other bits and pieces the rooms collect, so cupboards may need to be considered. The room will need to be appropriate for the activity you intend to carry out with the children or clients.
The room you choose may not be solely used as a multi sensory room. It may have a dual purpose, doubling up as a computer room, activity or drama room. It is always best to have a dedicated room, but this is not always possible. Do not think that the equipment is not going to work just because a room is not a dedicated area. As long as sufficient care is taken with the following points a small sensory area within a room can work well.
Some people have even used portacabins which work well, but can mean the extra cost of major electrical wiring, lighting, heating, decorating, security and if its raining, nobody wants to go outside to get there. These small problems aside, we have seen many that work very well.
Whatever the size or location of room you use we should consider that the aims of the room are life skills so it may be best to have as much portable equipment as possible. This will allow the transfer of skills gained in the room to be taken outside into the real world. Although this idea goes beyond the original ‘Snoezelen’ concept, many educational establishments will benefit from this immensely. After training a school in Northern Ireland and talking about the importance of this, we did a follow up to find out how they were getting on. The headteacher informed us that more equipment is used in the classroom than in the MSR, which leaves the MSR free for children who will benefit more from the room itself.
The Colour of the room is really up to you! Many rooms have been white, but this may have been due to at least two factors. It is evident that some marketing people tell us it should be, as it is coherent with the ‘Snoezelen’ concept and secondly it means you can project light all round the room so changing the mood of the environment. In reality, net curtains and sheets may make projected effects more accessible for many people.
A positive argument for single colour rooms which can be considered, is that a totally white or black room will make an area which is stark, so will not detract from the prominent stimulus we wish to use, for example, visual work with a bubble tube. However, the other school of thought I would subscribe to, is that consideration should be given to the contrast of colour in a room. Not only do most of us find a totally white room very clinical, it will also give little or no clues to visually impaired children or adults about the size of the room, where the door is, where the floor finishes and the walls start. These are all things we take for granted and work out in seconds when we enter a room, but to a visually impaired person contrast will be important to gain spatial awareness. Try going in to a white room wearing visual impairment simulation glasses and you may experience the same.
Looking at a sideglow fibre optic against a white surface you will get less visual impact than if you had the sideglow on a black surface. The same applies to many pieces of equipment not just fibre optics. People are now finding that two colour rooms dark blue and off white can work well, as they give you the flexibility of colour contrasts. There should be no reason why the room could not be pastel colours and offer contrast. If a person is happy in an environment they will work much more effectively; be it for relaxation or themes it will feel a lot less clinical.
You can have light coloured walls and dark curtains to draw around the walls. Twin coloured soft play mats (black one side and white on the other) and wall padding would enable you to change the colour of the room. So, as we pointed out at the start of this section the colour is up to you but consider the needs of the adults or children, not just the colours, which you think, are pleasant.
Blackout is important to gain the best visual effect. We all enjoy sunlight but it can ruin a session in the room. If the room is effectively blacked out, then the most prominent visual effect is the one you are using, not the sunlight shining through the roller blind. Some of the best ways to black out the room include ideas like using velcro to stick blackout material to the window frame or buy real blackout curtains. Both of these methods offer you the ability to gain excellent blackout and the ability to get sunlight in when you want it. Professional blackout curtains will be the most effective and safest but may be costly. Painting the window is not the best option because you will not be able to have sunlight when you want it for cleaning and other activities, which work best with natural light. If you decide to paint the windows out at least make sure that you can still open the windows for ventilation.
Also remember that when first introducing somebody to the multi sensory room it may not be the best idea to try to take a child or adult into a black hole. It often preferable to have the lights on in the room when you first go in. Remember to purchase door seals as well, to prevent light bleed from under the doors. Whatever you use to black the room out it will be advisable to check the fire retardancy of the material you are using make sure you can still open any existing windows to get some air in, on those hot days. There is nothing worse than trying to enjoy a session in a room, which is too hot.
Good Ventilation will make a room a more comfortable place to work in. Not just on hot summer days but also on days when the equipment is in use for long periods of time. Some rooms can get very hot, depending on the activity and equipment used. In many rooms, you may have the addition of soft floor and wall padding which will insulate the area. Air conditioning is by far the best option, as it will give you total control over the temperature of the environment. But the restriction on most budgets will make fans a cost effective option. Extractor fans will work well but look out for the type that let in too much light and make a loud distracting noise when you pull the cord to start it off. Noise is often one of the biggest problems with an extractor fan.
Large roof mounted fans, the type we see in clubs and pubs are now available at a reasonable cost, these can work well if the budget will not stretch to extractor fans. The last resort is the desk fan and will at least move some air. These can work in a small room and small areas in large rooms but it is obviously not advisable to touch them whilst in operation.
If windows and doors can be opened after a session then you will be able to let fresh air in to the room. Any movement of air is better than none. Remember the room temperature can make or break a session. None of us will relax or perform well if we are either too hot or too cold.
Room Lighting (white) is still needed in the MSR for moving children or adults in and out of the room, cleaning and preparation of the next session. Most children, adults (or staff) do not like to be led into a dark or a strange room with very few visual clues.
Fluorescent lighting is still commonly used in many rooms. It’s sharp, insistent and instant. It could be very unnerving at the beginning of a session as the room goes from light to dark in a split second or at the end of a session when we are all relaxed. Suddenly the neon starts flashing white and then ends up bright white. If you have just had a relaxing session then flashing fluorescent lights may be a way to reverse the good that it just took 30 minutes to create. Dimmer switches connected to low voltage halogen lamps will be much more subtle and less stressful as you slowly increase or decrease the intensity of the rooms lighting to an acceptable level. Some people may not enjoy a room, which is totally blacked out, and dimmers on the lighting will allow you to vary the light level. Although you will find this type of lighting more expensive, it can be a lot more flexible in its use and help to create an acceptable ambience in the room.
The 13 Amp Plug Sockets will be the next thing to consider. The number of sockets will be determined by the equipment you require. The first thing you must address in your designated room is the lack of plug sockets! You will need at least 4 double sockets and preferably more when starting a room with say 3 pieces of equipment. Their position will depend on the equipment you buy. The rule is: wherever you have an appliance that is where the socket should be. You should consider low level sockets for the ground based equipment and high level sockets the projectors, which may at times need to be above ground level. You can never have too many sockets in a room so have plenty fitted.
Using trunking or conduit will allow you to have more sockets fitted relatively easily but when wiring is laid in to the wall it can be very expensive to add sockets. So you will find it is more cost effective in the long term to get the wiring and plenty of sockets fitted at one time.
So remember if you have a solar 250 on a shelf at 6ft up, that’s where the socket should be. Avoid trailing leads at all costs, do not wherever possible use extension leads and adaptor plugs, these will encourage trailing leads. If you are using four way adapters or portable switching systems use a breaker plug. We will always stress that when planning the room it’s always better to have too many sockets than too few.
The Furnishings in your room will depend on the children or adults’ needs. Comfortable and correct positioning is very important. Some rooms will have some and possibly all the walls and floor covered in soft play. If you are having soft walls and floor then always make sure it meets the current fire regulations for your authority and national safety standards. Always allow for wheelchairs as some adults and children will find it much more comfortable to access effects from their chair. Allow room for lifting a child or adult in and out of mobility aids. The soft play should be used to help people access the equipment, but it is often the case that soft play mats and wall padding are just there to look good or make it supposedly more comfortable. Before you cover the floor and walls in soft play think how comfortable you will be sat on plastic for a long period of time. The covers of the mats will be manufactured to be waterproof so you should always use blankets and other loose covers to make the floor both comfortable and interesting.
A contrasting plain carpet is often the best solution. This allows for a distinction to be made by partially sighted users of the room as to where the soft play starts as opposed to the carpet area. The area under the soft play should also be carpeted if possible, particularly if the soft play is reversible or if the use of the room will involve soft play being moved around. Vinyl floors tend to stick to the soft play and may discolour it after a while. Although soft play padding has disadvantages it can be an option for a room. It will be comfortable for some adults and children and will make an area safer if you are worried about hard floors and walls. Soft play can also help to vary the colour of the room. If you are buying soft mats then, as we pointed out before, get them manufactured with different colours, for example white on one side and black or another colour on the other side. A room’s ambience can be changed by having a multi coloured floor, using floor mats.
We also favour having just one or two mats, which can be moved, around the room. This can mean that the floor of the room can be kept clear but mats can be used when you need them. Wedges, Rolls and other items of soft play equipment can function as good furnishings for support and access to the visual and sound effects in the room. We often hear that non supportive items like Bean Bags should not be used as they can encourage unusual body postures and over a long period of time cause problems. But if only used for short periods of time they should be ok. Like soft play, beanbags and other furnishings should meet the current fire safety standards.
The furnishings in the room can be fun but should be functional and offer support for adults and children to access the equipment. Again it may be an idea when using items like wedges, beanbags and rolls, to get them made in a contrasting colour, so that they may be easily identified by a person with a visual impairment.
To get the room right it will take a reasonable budget and time, spend any further budget on getting the room humanised. Make the room a nice place to go into. We used to think that seagull mobiles and the like were not really functional in the multi sensory room, but other rooms in our home, schools, hospitals and centres are full of objects, colours and textures which help us to create a pleasant atmosphere rather than the clinical, plain, cold setting which many rooms offer. The multi sensory room does not have to be any different, it can also make a room a more pleasing and less threatening when you enter, use and leave the room. Remember when the lights go out its dark anyway.
When considering the design of the room think about the clients or children using the room. Will you need wheelchair access, will you require a hoist if the room is covered in softplay floor padding? You may wish to design key points in the room to help people gain special awareness. Remember that many objects in the MSR are not permanent. For example the blue bubble tube and the green fibre optics will stay those colours for long, so permanent objects may help people with profound and severe learning difficulties.
Always buy quality equipment not just the best price. Remember that tendering for rooms makes companies cut costs and that often means quality. For instance the quality of softplay equipment varies from company to company. One floor mat from one company can be very different to a floor mat from another company.
You get what you pay for! But make sure you are paying a high cost for the right reasons.
All these problems and more need to be well thought through to save extra expenditure at the end of the project.
You should always have discussion meeting with the key staff involved in the room planning. This way you will be able to discuss peoples aims and ideas, then the design can be formulated around those ideas.
Always go and see what other people are doing in their multi sensory rooms. We stress find out what people are doing! Find out what people’s aims are and what results they are achieving. What equipment they have is important but what happens in the room is more important. This will help you to choose your equipment more effectively.