You may have seen the video that went viral of a young boy walking, stretching, and hopping along a path that a special education teacher designed, painted, and implemented in the elementary school where she works. She labored over the path for more than 80 hours, creating something special for the students in her school.
A sensory path is meant to help a child use their own bodies and environment to calm themselves down. They use their muscles, breathing, and spatial awareness to make their way through the path and walk away from it reset and refreshed. When teachers know certain students in their class would benefit from movement breaks, they can allow students to leave class (in our space the students would leave with a madrich ormadrichah – Hebrew for classroom assistant) and complete the sensory break path. It’s a preventative measure, geared toward improving focus and preventing disruptive behavior before it occurs. In our space we already have students who need breaks throughout the session walking laps around our building. I designed this as a productive alternative.
If you’ve seen the sensory path that went viral, it is quite obviously a labor of love, but it is also rather busy. In my opinion there’s almost too much going on. It’s always important to strike the right balance between a positive sensory experience and sensory overload. I also think that while wonderful for younger children, this path would seem too juvenile for older elementary and middle school students, who might dismiss it out-of-hand.
So, like many others out there, I designed my own. Also a labor of love, I might add; it just took me much less than 80 hours to complete.
Rather than paint I used colorful floor tape that can be easily removed.
I was aware of the limits of our space.
Most importantly, our supplemental religious school serves children in PreK through grade 12, so I was wanted to create something that could be appropriate for the variety of ages.
All students can use the path from time to time, to ground them on days when they’re feeling hyped up, anxious, or overstimulated in class.
As expected, the space was an immediate hit. The most rousing endorsement came from two parents; one who is a physical therapist and the other who is both an early childhood educator and the mother of one of our students who typically walks laps around our building.
My favorite moment was when a few third grade boys came to try it out. One, after whipping through it, declared that it was “too easy”. I tried to explain that it wasn’t a race, but he wasn’t listening.
Nevertheless, word spread fast and few minutes later the rest of the third grade class wanted to try it out, so back he came along with his peers. Before his turn he again declared, “But it’s so easy.” This time I shared, “It’s not an obstacle course, it’s a sensory path. Do you know what sensory means?”
“You mean like our senses?” he asked.
“Yes. Some people need a short break from their work to clear their head. Others need to get their blood flowing again so they can get back to work.”
“OK,” and off he went, back through the path. As he neared the end I asked, “So, is your blood flowing?”
“Yeah, now it is.”
The value of using spaces like this, fidgets, or any other tool meant to help a student find success is the context in which the tool is presented. Using the language of “this is a tool to help you” or “let’s take a sensory break,” enables students to more effectively speak about their needs and advocate for themselves in productive and meaningful ways.
I think one of our third grade girls had the most important insight of the day:
As she completed the path she declared, “Oh, these need to be EVERYWHERE. I’m telling my mom we need one in our house.”
For more research on the benefits of sensory breaks read:The Impact of Sensory-Based Movement Activities on Students in General Education.
For more about the value of “brain breaks” read: Using Brain Breaks to Restore Students’ Focus.
To design a sensory break space for your setting or for additional professional development in using such tools effectively, contact me.
Lisa Friedman is a widely recognized expert in Jewish disability inclusion. She is an Education Director at Temple Beth-El in Central New Jersey, where she has developed and oversees an inclusive synagogue school. She is also the Project Manager of UJA-Federation of New York’s Synagogue Inclusion Project. Lisa consults with congregations, schools, camps and other organizations to guide them in the development of inclusive practices for staff, clergy and families through dialogue, interactive workshops, and awareness training. Lisa is a sought after speaker on a wide variety of topics and blogs about disabilities and inclusion at “Removing the Stumbling Block.”