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The Play Therapy Room and The Sensory Different Child

Children with sensory differences may start to become dysregulated when they enter the lobby or waiting room of a clinic. The lighting, the noise level, specific sounds, the odors, etc. could be extremely uncomfortable or painful for the child. Thus, before the child ever finds themselves in the play therapy room, they have already started to become dysregulated. This can lead to anxiety and resistance of the child to enter the playroom.

Once a child finds their way into a playroom, it is likely the child will find their sensory differences supported – leading to regulation, or find their sensory differences further amplified – leading to more dysregulation. It is important that play therapists understand the neurodivergent sensory different child’s sensory system and take steps to create a sensory informed clinic and playroom.

Many play therapy rooms are created based on Child Centered Play Therapy philosophy and guidelines. Typical toys and materials found in a child centered playroom such as nurturing toys and real-life toys, creative expression and emotional release toys, are just as appropriate for children with sensory differences as they are for any child. It is the addition of sensory specific toys and materials that becomes beneficial for the child with sensory differences. These types of toys might include sensory balls, fidgets, tactile manipulatives, various tactile trays (beans, rice, KayKob, water beads), putty, sensory socks, wiggle seats, sensory bricks and stepping stones, a mini trampoline, balance board, spinning boards, exercise ball, weighted balls, weighted blanket, liquid motion bubbles, musical instruments, sensory pea pod or bean bag, a ceiling swing, etc. Adding toys and materials with a specific sensory play focus is an easy step for play therapists to make the playroom more sensory informed.

The playroom provides an opportunity for the play therapist to better control the environment in a way that supports the child with sensory differences and helps them regulate verses continuing to become more dysregulated. Play therapy approaches such as AutPlay Therapy, Gestalt Play Therapy, and Child Centered Play Therapy can address sensory needs by the play therapist’s increased awareness of the child’s sensory differences so the child can find their sensory play preferences in the playroom. Here are several pragmatic steps a play therapist can take to make their playroom more sensory informed.

  • Be aware of the lighting – fluorescent lighting is often a troubling sensory area. Have the option to change the lighting – being able to turn off overhead lights, various lamps and types of lighting, if there are windows, have window shades that can be closed. 
  • Be aware of smells – plug in air fresheners, scented candles, and strong perfumes can be problematic sensory issues. Try to limit the amount of strong odors in the playroom. 
  • Be aware of sounds – have noise reducing headphones available in your playroom that the child can wear during sessions if needed. Buffer or remove any machines or objects such as a computer or clock that might make tones that are painful for the child. Be aware of sounds outside of the playroom such as cars or sirens and try to prepare the child for such sounds (offer to play music or soothing sounds – waves, drumming, rain sounds).
  • Provide a variety a seating options – hard chairs, soft chairs, carpet, tile floor, bean bag, wiggle seat, exercise ball. The more variety the better so the child can access the tactile, physical, and proprioceptive/vestibular input they need.
  • Ask the child about their sensory comforts and discomforts regarding your office space. Discuss with them what items or objects lead them to feel soothed or agitated while in the playroom.

Being aware of a child’s sensory differences in the playroom allows for a play therapist to demonstrate understanding, educate on body regulation, encourage emotional regulation, provide space for the child’s sensory play preferences, and affirm advocacy and support. Understanding sensory differences and there presence in the playroom will allow the play therapist to make lasting and sustaining impact for the children and parents they work to help.

Robert Jason Grant Ed.D, LPC, NCC, RPT-S

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