Creating a Home Sensory and Motor Room

Children love to move.  Children learn through movement.  Children need to move.

SwingingAs an occupational therapist, I frequently tell parents that it is key to create a safe place for your child to move and play.  If your child seeks movement-based play, rather than constantly fighting with them to stop moving/ crashing/ climbing/ running/ etc., it is better to create a safe place where they can meet their movement needs.  (I have yet to hear from a parent that telling a child to stop moving and be calmer has ever worked.)  This is true for most typically developing toddlers and preschoolers, but especially true for children with sensory processing disorders, behaviors disorders, and attention difficulties.

Benefits for all children:

  • Gross motor development- increased strength, coordination, and motor skills such as jumping and balancing.
  • Increases safety- as children gain control of their motor movements, they become safer.
  • Increased body awareness and control, resulting in increased attention and self-regulation skills.
  • Improved behavior- allowing children a safe place to move can decreased the constant parenting battles of trying to get your child to calm down and be safe.

Benefits for children with special needs:

  • Motor delays:
    • Allows additional practice with motor skills, such as children with gross or fine motor delays or children with low tone.
    • Equipment can be customized to each child’s needs.
  • Sensory processing disorders:
    • Increase sensory input for children who are sensory seekers.
    • Can create calming sensory spaces for children with sensory processing disorders.
    • Allow a safe and low stress environment for sensory avoiding children to practice sensory experiences.
  • Attention and behavior issues:
    • Gross motor movement can help decrease over-active behavior and increase attention and impulse control skills.
    • Environment to practice body control and attention to promote self-regulation skills.

If you happen  live in a place with year round mild climate, you can get a great swing set and call it done.  We are not so lucky, and half the year we need an indoor play space.  This winter I took on the task of planning and building a home sensory and motor play room for my very active toddler and preschooler.  While this took time to plan and execute, it was relatively inexpensive, as I focused on using what I already had at home and making the others equipment as I was able.

Step 1: Know your goal

  • Does your child need motor skill development or sensory input?
  • It is important to know your children’s specific needs when creating a play room. (If you are unsure, consult an occupational therapist for ideas.)
    • Does you child need proprioceptive input (like climbing and crashing) or vestibular (swinging or spinning)?
    • How about body awareness (balance beam and hopscotch), or strengthening (stairs)?
  • My goal was a safe play space for my sensory seeking child, with an additional goal to promote the motor skill development focused on control and body awareness.

Step 2: Find the space

  • before of room2

    Painted yellow walls

    Not everyone has a whole room to devote to a sensory room.  We used an unfinished awkward space in our basement.  Old furniture was removed, cobwebs removed, flooring cleaned, and I was ready to start.

Step 3: Walls and flooring

  • We already had basic carpet in the room, but that was it.  We primed and painted the walls a brighter color.

Step 4:  Think safety

  • A sensory and motor room will probably never be completely safe, but the goal is to evaluate what equipment you are using and how your kids will use it.
  • Cheap Ikea mats were installed on the walls were the swing would be installed.
  • The flooring was covered with padded puzzle tiles from Amazon (also added fun colors to the room).
  • Babyproofing kits were used to cover corners and a brick fireplace.
Sensory play room, hooks

Mounting hooks into exposed beam

Step 5:  Find the right equipment

  • Swing!
    • A rotating tire swing hook was installed in an exposed beam (make sure you know what you are doing to attempt this!).  The hook is used with a climbing-quality carabiners and the chain can be used to adjust height.
    • An old mattress covered in a sheet was placed under the swing for safety.
    • 3 different swings that could be used in a medium sized space were purchased.
  • Balance beam.  I made a beam from a 4×4 piece of wood, covered in foam padding and extra indoor/outdoor carpet attached with a stable gun.
  • Ball pit.  The summer kiddie pool was perfect to hold the balls.  I made a curtain canopy to hang from the ceiling to enclose the space.  I modeled it after a hula hoop canopy I saw in this blog, but altered it to have a hoop along the bottom that we later attached to the rim of the pool to secure the balls inside.  We purchased about 800 of these balls on Amazon.
  • Slide.  Just a standard kid slide from the store, but made much more fun when you get to land in the ball pit. Example slide.
  • Stairs.  My husband’s contribution for my toddler who is slightly obsessed with going up and down stairs right now.  4 steps up, then a small platform.  Perfect to practice gross motor skills, but also a good height to jump and crash from.
  • Huge cushion.  A favorite of our children for years, a Fuf cushion from Amazon.  I decided to move it downstairs to be used as a crash pad for the stairs, swing, and trampoline.
  • Trampoline.  Nothing special, just a small exercise trampoline, but placed next to the huge cushion to jump and crash.  Example trampoline.
  • Gross motor games.  Hopscotch mat, sit ‘n spin, ring toss, bean bag toss, tunnel, bowling set, bubble wrap. All collected over years, but now safe to use in the new room.  The goals is to rotate these toys in and out since there is not enough space to use them all at one time.
  • Storage.  We put in a variety of hooks to store swings and larger equipment, and sturdy shelves to store all the other smaller motor toys.
  • Chair- for a parent to sit while supervising because safety really needs an adult set of eyes.

Step 6: Try it all out (and double check for safety)

  • I tried each activity and imaged how my children would play (both the right and the unsafe way, because I know they are going to try it!).  A few more safety features were needed (corners to be padded, flooring re-arranged, and re-positioning of equipment.

Last: Surprise the kids on Christmas morning!
 The investment of time and money was definitely worth it.Christmas surprise

They love it, but I know that the novelty will wear off over time.  A sensory-motor room is a play location, but an adult still needs to guide the activity at times.  Using a variety of equipment (rotating equipment on a regular basis, so old things seem new again) and teaching new activities will make a huge difference in fully utilizing our room to its potential.

See my follow-up post on 10 Ways to Play in a Home Motor Room.

Paige Hays is an occupational therapist who provides in-home, pediatric occupational therapy services in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, MN. She is a mother of 2 girls, avid DIYer, and a highly skilled and experienced OT. She specializes in working in pediatrics, with diverse expertise ranging from cognition and sensory issues to working with children with neuromuscular disabilities or complex medical needs.