Snoezelen Rooms Give Kids a Space to Learn and Explore
To the uninformed eye, the Community Snoezelen Room at Bloorview Kids Rehab in Toronto looks like a child’s play space. Bright coloured mats cover the floor, a mirror hangs on the wall at floor level with strands of brightly coloured plastic dangling in front of it. In one corner, there is a large beanbag draped with long, plastic fibre optic strings. In another corner, there is a tall Plexiglas tube filled with water.
Lorraine Thomas, the centre’s Snoezelen & Resource Coordinator, guides me around the room, explaining and demonstrating each piece of equipment. The section of floor mats I am sitting on turns out to be a Musical Hopscotch. When pressure is applied, each square produces a different musical tone. Each square also activates lights in a corresponding coloured panel on the wall. As children crawl, step, jump, roll, or press the mats, they are provided with visual, auditory and tactile feedback.
The wonderful thing about the equipment is that kids can operate it and control how it functions. For example, with the touch of a button, a child can control the colour of lights illuminating the bubble tube, as well as turn the bubbles on and off. When the tube is on, it vibrates. This immediate feedback delights a childÕs senses, and provides positive reinforcement to their actions. Thomas says that by drawing attention to what a child can do, both parents and their child can focus on his or her strengths rather than disabilities.
Snoezelen Rooms are multi-sensory environments (MSE) that appeal to the senses. The Hidden Angel Foundation, a charitable organization that promotes the use of MSEs, describes a multi-sensory environment as a “dedicated space or room where sensory stimulation can be controlled (intensified or reduced), presented in isolation or combination, packaged for active or passive interaction, and matched to fit the perceived motivation, interests, leisure, relaxation, therapeutic and/or educational needs of the user.”
According to Thomas, parents often use the Snoezelen room as a reward after their child’s therapy appointments at the hospital. The room provides youngsters with a safe space to explore freely, offering a diversion from goal-oriented therapy. Snoezelen is a funny-sounding word, but one that means much joy and comfort to those who experience it. The word is a combination of two Dutch words: snuffelen, meaning “to sniff” (seek out and explore) and doezelen, meaning “to doze or snooze” (relax or be in a wonderful place). The concept was created in the 1970s by two Dutch therapists, Jan Hulsegge and Ad Verheul, who set out to provide their patients with significant developmental disabilities a break from traditional therapies. Today, the Snoezelen concept is used around the world.
Flaghouse, the sole distributor of Snoezelen products in North America, estimates there are 2,500 Snoezelen rooms being used across North America to relax and calm people with a wide variety of needs, including autism spectrum disorder. Flaghouse has installed Snoezelen rooms in schools, hospitals, community centres, psychiatric hospitals, early childhood education centres, residences, hospices and nursing homes. (Snoezelen has also been found to benefit older adults with dementia.)
According to Thomas, one of the most valuable aspects of Snoezelen is being able to follow a child’s lead and encourage child-directed play and interaction. Within Bloorview Kids Rehab, there are two Snoezelen rooms, one for inpatients and one for the community to use at a cost of $5 per client per visit. Parents who are curious about the community room must first meet with the coordinator to find out if Snoezelen is suitable for their child. Once they’ve been screened, they must participate in a two-hour training session. After that, they can book the room for their family.
As my tour at Bloorview Kids Rehab continues, we move toward the mirror hanging at floor level. There is a black light at the top that makes the strands of plastic glow. Children enjoy seeing their reflections, as well as hearing the sounds the plastic makes when they play with the strings and tap the mirror. According to Thomas, this piece can easily be recreated at home with a black light, an enclosure for the light so that your child is not staring directly at it, a mirror, neon plastic strands and a couple of floor mats.
To go further, Flaghouse and other multi-sensory companies in Canada and the U.S. offer a wide variety of products that can be used to create a multi-sensory environment. Frisca Ozorio, a Snoezelen consultant at Flaghouse, says there is a wide range of items that fit different budgets and users’ needs. Their products include bubble tubes, optic tactile panels, gel tiles, pillows, tents and mats.
Andrea Ferguson, a Resource Teacher in Toronto, has worked with students with a variety of disabilities. To help the children learn, Ferguson used multi-sensory programming, including a small white tent with a padded floor. Inside, a small rotating disco ball flashed and projected colourful circles onto the walls for visual stimulation. A large water tube sat on the floor. Also inside the tent was a basket filled with sensory toys, such as a vibrating wand, wriggling balls and noise makers.
The tent is another excellent way for parents to bring a sensory calming area into their homes. “Having a sensory centre in the home is just a matter of time, a little effort and an affordable amount of sensory objects,” says Ferguson.
You can use a tent, such as Flaghouse’s Fun Zone tent ($57.72, www.Snoezeleninfo.com), to create a safe, relaxing space. Cover the tent floor with cushions, dim the lights, and add calming music. How you design the space depends on the individual needs, likes and dislikes of your child.
The parents I spoke to were thrilled with Snoezelen rooms and how they have helped their kids. Shortly after Barbara Lebo’s son, Braeden, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age two, she wanted to find out from other families how they found success for their children with autism. One family said that Snoezelen rooms were a key factor in their son’s language skills; before using the multisensory environment, he was non-verbal.
Since September 2008, Lebo and Braeden, now four years old, have been travelling from their home in Richmond Hill, Ont., to use the Community Snoezelen Room at Bloorview Kids Rehab. “We both loved Snoezelen right from the beginning,” Lebo says.
During their hour in the Snoezelen room and for about an hour afterwards, Lebo notices a significant increase in Braeden’s babbling and vocalization, which are both significant stages in the early formation of language. “The increase, at times, has been profound.”
Before they could use the Community Snoezelen Room, Lebo participated in the centre’s mandatory two-hour training session. Without this training, she admits she would have tried to solicit language from Braeden while in the Snoezelen room, which is discouraged. “I would have used opportunities for ‘manding,’ which is a term used to describe opportunities for Braeden to speak, request, use language, etc., either prompted or unprompted,” explains Lebo. “For example, I might have waited until he said ‘on’ to turn on the water bubble machine.”
The training provided her with the basics of how to operate the various gadgets and what they are intended to do. The training also introduced her to the history and philosophy of Snoezelen, which helped her understand why it is important to follow her son’s lead during this time. It also encouraged her to give herself permission to relax with her son. Lebo and her son often lie on the massage mat together while he drinks from his bottle.
Marcy White’s seven-year-old son, Jacob, has Pelizaeus-Merzbacher Disease, which causes physical and neurological disabilities. He cannot walk or sit by himself, does not talk, and is fed through a tube. He also uses a wheelchair. While other families often use Snoezelen rooms for their calming affect, it’s the sensory-based stimulation that is most beneficial for Jacob. “The atmosphere creates a nice experience for Jacob where he can do more than just watch,” says White.
The Snoezelen room also improved his relationship with his siblings. At home, his younger twin sisters are more interested in their own toys, but when they individually joined Jacob in the Snoezelen room, White discovered the girls would interact with Jacob. The beanbag chair provided the perfect place where Jacob could be propped up comfortably, rather than in someone’s lap. One of his sisters would drape the fibre optic “spaghetti strands” on his hands or give two strands to Jacob and two to herself. White describes the Snoezelen room as “the best thing that worked at bringing Jacob together with his sisters.”
Meike vanGerwen has a Master’s in Early Childhood Studies. She lives in Toronto.