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Creating Sensory Spaces to Support Emotional Learning

Sensory Spaces

When you’re stressed or upset, you likely have your own method of dealing with your emotions, like going for a run or finding some time and space to be alone. Sometimes a little peace and quiet is what we all need to feel good again. 

Kids are the same way! Except they often don’t have the skills (or freedom) to identify the tools that can help them regulate their emotions. Instead of them strapping on some running shoes for a destress jog, you’re more likely to get an epic meltdown that might include throwing every book they own across the room. We have some ideas, based on methods from our classrooms, for how you can help your child learn to regulate their emotions. 

The environment you establish for your child—like defined calm and active spaces—can teach them how to interact with their surroundings in an appropriate way to help them deal with big emotions.  

How do sensory spaces help? 

Maybe your child is bouncing off the walls after a few weeks at home. Or perhaps you notice that when your child gets upset, they need a place to retreat to. Sensory areas can be a great boost to your home environment in helping them deal with these feelings.  

We recommend having an active space for your child to engage in gross motor skills and heavy work to blow off steam. On the flip side, having a space for self-calming can help them recharge and destress, or just give them a safe, quiet space. Even we adults need that sometimes! 

How to create a calming space at home 

Calming spaces give your child a quiet area to retreat to for a break when they’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or just need to chill. And they provide an easy way to give everyone in the family what they need: space!  

When you give your child a place they can choose to use for sorting through their feelings, you empower them to become independent thinkers and tune in to their emotions. 

Here are a few things your child’s calming space might include: 
  • Pillows and blankets 
  • Pictures of the family, friends, or pets 
  • An emotions chart 
  • Calming strategies 
  • Noise canceling headphones or earmuffs 
  • Paper and coloring materials 
  • Favorite stuffed animals or toys 
  • Sunglasses and a hat to wear if they choose (for blocking out bright lights or to “disappear” for a moment) 
  • Homemade manipulatives, like fidgets made of yarn and pipe cleaners, baggies filled with hair gel and food coloring, or sensory bottles (oil, water, food coloring, glitter, small toys) 
  • Paper with a stop sign on one side (“Not ready to talk.”) and a green light on the other (“Ready to talk.”) 

How to use a calming space 

Here are a few ideas for how to implement your own calming space: 
  • Have your child help pick where they’d like their calming space to be.  
  • Offer options for different calming toys and materials, so they can choose what works best for them.  
  • Talk to your child about what the space can be used for and rules for the area. For example: "Sometimes when we feel frustrated or upset, we need a moment to ourselves. This is a special place for you! You can come here to get away when you need it." 
  • Consistently model specific words and phrases for tricky feelings so your child builds their emotional vocabulary to identify their needs. For younger children that might be: "I'm mad," "No, stop," or "I don't like that." For older children it may be: "I need a break," or "I'm not ready to talk.”  
  • Continue to evolve your calm space, observing which tools and strategies work well and which need swapped out. 
Just a reminder: This is not a space for time-outs or punishment. Calm spaces offer a place to reset and practice self-regulation. 

How to create an active space at home 

Active spaces designate an area where your child can engage in big body play and heavy work when they feel antsy, overwhelmed, or just need to get the wiggles out. They provide an easy way to give their bodies and brains what they need: movement!  

Active spaces help your child choose the right time to work through it all with active items and strategies. 

Here are a few things your child’s active space might include: 
  • Shapes on the floor (painter tape inside or chalk on cement) to jump across or run in place  
  • Bean bags and buckets or cardboard boxes for throwing targets 
  • A weighted wagon or box for pushing along a maze or course 
  • Coloring and arts and crafts supplies 
  • Bubble wrap or water bottles for stomping 
  • Taped lines for balancing steps 
  • Newspaper or scrap papers to shred 
  • Masking tape or sidewalk chalk hopscotch 
  • High-jump markers (Cut out handprints and tape them up the wall. See how high your child can jump for a “high five.”) 
  • Cutout handprints on the wall for practicing wall push-ups 
  • Pillows for yelling into (This one's great for adults, too!) 

How to use an active space 

Here are a few ideas for how to implement your own active space:  
  • Have your child help pick where the active space should go. You’ll want it to be away from their calming space or any designated quiet areas in your home. 
  • Offer options for different active toys and materials, so they can choose what works best for them.  
  • Talk to your child about what the space can be used for and rules for the area. For example: "Sometimes when I feel antsy or upset, I need a way to move and feel better. This is a special place for you! You can come here when you need it." 
  • Continue to evolve your active space, observing which tools and strategies work well and which need swapped out.