As ministry leaders, we often put so much of ourselves into building relationships, volunteer training, curriculum development, and a dozen other things that demand our time and attention on a regular basis.
Yet, when Sunday mornings come—despite our best and planning—we find some of our children are anxious, restless, impulsive, or inattentive.
We may spend weeks retooling our curriculum, retraining volunteers, or implementing new classroom policies in hopes of discouraging distracting behavior only to be frustrated when those measures do not seem to change behavior as hoped.
Instead of diving headfirst into the deep end of discouragement, consider adding a creative and effective tool to your ministry toolkit: sensory spaces.
Sensory spaces are flexible, inviting, and supportive environments where children can safely seek sensory input or take a break from overstimulating environments. These spaces encourage self-regulation and connection—never punishment. Each space within a particular church can be tailored to specific needs and available sensory resources.
The fantastic news is that any church of any size with any budget meeting in any location (even outdoor and online spaces during Covid-19) can create fun, thoughtful, and engaging sensory spaces.
Creating Sensory Spaces
Wherever you create sensory spaces, plan for two general types of sensory experiences, the sensory avoider and the sensory seeker. I recommend reading this article from Understood.org for better understanding of these.
The Sensory Avoider
The sensory avoider may cover their ears at loud noises, squint in the presence of bright lights, or withdraw during large group games. Children who are sensory avoiders benefit from soothing, calming environments with few demands.
Have a variety of books available for children to read or be read to by volunteers. Equip your space with comfortable seating (bean bags, chairs, small ottomans) in a low traffic, but visible, area. This creates quiet sensory spaces for children seeking regulation through calm and non-demanding environments.
Over-the-ear-noise-canceling headphones are also excellent items to have available to assist children in staying regulated in environments with excessive auditory stimuli.
The Sensory Seeker
Conversely, the sensory seeker may struggle to maintain appropriate levels of volume when speaking or playing. Sensory seekers and may seek out physical contact with peers, teachers, or objects. Sensory seekers may run or jump when walking or sitting is expected.
Children who are sensory seekers benefit from engaging, safe spaces where they can run, jump, crash and feel. Sensory putty for older children and playdough for younger children are excellent items to introduce to sensory seekers.
Sensory bins are a great way to encourage sensory exploration (and bonus, these are exceptionally portable). You can fill the bins with common items such as dried beans, cotton balls, rice, and sand.
Your church may have many of these sensory items on hand already. Begin with what you have, both in terms of needs and resources. And then work to build the most accessible and fun spaces for children.
Sensory Spaces for All Children
Design these spaces to be accessed by any child, not solely children with a defined disability or diagnosis. Research asserts that children living in chronically stressful environments, such as those experiencing significant household turmoil (i.e. a messy parental separation/divorce or parental mental health challenges) can exhibit increased levels of anxiety and depression.
Removing the prerequisite of a child needing to have a diagnosed disability or to be classified as a student with special needs in your program increases the accessibility and benefit to your entire ministry. There may be a temptation to establish such a space in a “room for children with special needs” or to shy away entirely from creating a space because “we don’t have a lot of kids with disabilities at our church”.
Creating thoughtful sensory spaces, whether indoor or outdoor, permanent or portable serves as an invitation for children, youth, and families to engage in deeper, richer, more inclusive, and more connected faith community life.
COVID-19 Realities: Outdoor Services
Churches around the country are beginning to re-open, re-gather, and reconnect after building closures due to COVID-19. Sensory-friendly spaces can be an excellent way to help children and families transition back into in-person corporate worship settings.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, many churches may be meeting in outdoor spaces (where allowed by state/local guidelines) with attendees wearing masks and practicing physical distancing.
Traditional supports such as one-to-one buddies or dedicated sensory rooms may not be feasible during these times in some locations. However, you can still make safe accommodations for those who benefit from sensory-friendly environments.
Create defined, socially distant, sensory spaces with hula hoops, chalk, temporary fencing, cones, or any number of items. This will delineate sensory-friendly areas and promote social distancing and safe access to sensory materials.
Outdoor services will also introduce different visual, auditory, and tactile experiences to children. Children who needed fewer supports in a traditional indoor classroom space may need additional supports in a wide-open, outdoor environment. Conversely, children who benefit from having access to more physical space may thrive in an outdoor environment.
Before holding an outdoor service, survey the area and identify any potential safety concerns. Watch out for uninhibited access to a main road or parking lot, locations where visual supervision cannot be maintained, water features, drains, electrical boxes, etc. Plan to modify these areas or change locations for the creation of safe and effective sensory spaces for all.
No matter where your church meets, follow all local county and state guidelines for the cleaning and disinfecting of items. This will keep your sensory spaces safe and accessible to as many as possible. And update your handbook as needed!
COVID-19 Realities: Online Services
Your church may not be able to meet outdoors or in person in any capacity for the foreseeable future. But even a church meeting online can set up sensory spaces!
Your church can create an online tutorial so families can set up sensory spaces in their homes. Here’s an example for you. Expensive, specialized materials are not at all necessary for effective sensory environments. Families can create spaces in their homes that meet the specific needs of their children. They can utilize easy-to-obtain items and some logistical creativity.
Some churches may have the resources they can loan families to help them create sensory spaces in their homes. This is particularly relevant if in-person church is prohibited or unfeasible for a time.
With some outside-the-box thinking, these spaces can be established nearly anywhere.
There are endless possible configurations for sensory spaces! Any church can use these environments to make ministry and connection more accessible to children and families.