Riverwalk School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, is a special school catering for around 120 pupils, aged from three to nineteen, with severe, profound and complex learning needs. Staff at the school work hard to enable pupils to communicate clearly and effectively by developing personal and social skills and, at the same time, encouraging them to have fun and develop their imagination. To do this the school provides a series of stimulating environments, including an existing dark room and their new sensory room, designed and installed by SensoryPlus, in which pupils can participate in small groups as well as individually, accessing a wide range of opportunities and sensory experiences in order to aid their development.
ICT Manager at Riverwalk is Jonathan Houseago. He was responsible for overseeing the technical development of the new sensory room. ‘We did have a basic sensory space,’ he explained, ‘but it was not really meeting our needs. It hadn’t been used for the previous five years due to the fact that it doubled as a science room and, as it was on two levels, it was not good for pupils in wheelchairs. The new sensory room was designed from scratch to be more accessible. It’s on one level, with a hoist, so everyone can enjoy it. Our wheelchair users can now participate from a prone position or from a cushion or a wedge.’
Sensory environments are designed to support interaction, discovery and communication. They enable faster learning and development through increased awareness of surroundings and encourage stimulation of all the senses. The new sensory area at Riverwalk, which was jointly funded by local businesses, community groups and individuals, as well as by the school and the Friends of Riverwalk, also includes folding screens to create a ‘messy room’ - an area for getting creative with paint and water - and a separate dark room which allows for individual visual work and focused sessions. The whole space demonstrates SensoryPlus’ approach to sensory and soft play, which is designed to meet a wide range of needs, from encouraging positive actions for those with sensory impairment to promoting rest and relaxation.
The sensory room is painted white and contains a custom sound and music system, a bubble tube, a Magic Mirror and a Magic Carpet, an extraordinary multi-sensory medium which uses light to provide immersive interaction by reacting to minimal movement through a series of activities and games.
Sensory Co-ordinator Jenny Goode, who has worked at Riverwalk for 14 years, is responsible for the Sensory Curriculum. ‘The new space is much more flexible and the sensory equipment is really good’, she said. ‘The rooms are now used constantly and need a careful timetable.’ Jenny was particularly impressed by the interactive Magic Carpet system, a digital projector linked to a movement tracking camera and an audio system, all controlled by a PC. ‘It’s excellent’, she said, ‘all our pupils have benefited from it. It’s ideal for focused visual work. Pupils with physical disabilities or limited movement can make simple movements and achieve a big effect; they can learn to use their body to make something exciting happen. It means more pupils can get involved and they really look forward to using it.’
Jenny also appreciates the flexibility of the Magic Carpet system. ‘Each child has differing sensory and learning needs,’ she explained. ‘We can create individual files and customise programmes and images to suit different pupils’, she explained. ‘We had one particular boy who loved Shrek, so we used images of him. We can also tailor programmes to have less impact, for pupils with specific visual disabilities.’
Jenny Goode is also responsible for training other teachers and support staff at Riverwalk how to best use the sensory room. ‘They need to gain confidence with the equipment to make sure the pupils’ full potential is realised,’ she said. ‘It’s important that there is controlled use of equipment when working with pupils, not using everything all at once; that can result in sensory overload. Focused use of equipment and clear learning objectives are important.’
Jonathan Houseago summed up the process of planning and installing the new sensory room.
'SensoryPlus have been very helpful throughout,’ he said, ‘they helped us evolve our ideas and amend our original plans. There were some inevitable teething problems but the SensoryPlus team resolved them without question. Everybody’s very happy and the children love it, which is what matters most.'