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Service Design: Building a Sensory Gym

This case study showcases how I applied design principles, design thinking, and UX design skills to create a school sensory gym in my previous role as an occupational therapist for neurodiverse students.

An image of the finished sensory gym with a sensory exploration table, trampoline, ball pit, and swing.
A picture of the "quiet/calming corner" with lights and bubble tube.

My Role:

Co-Project Lead, Designer & Occupational therapist (OT)

The Team:

James (Co-lead, designer, OT)

Anne & Jayne (principal, CEO/stakeholder)

Maintenance team (installation)

Teachers, therapists, behavior team, students (users & research participants)

Timeline:

October 2021 - July 2022

Tools used:

Google Suite, Zoom, Pen and Paper, Manual Labor

Goals:

  • Improve student regulation and engagement 

  • Create a multi-purpose, accessible, and inclusive sensory gym space 

  • Stay within $10,000 budget and timeline of 9 months

  • Increase safety for all students and staff in classroom

The Problem:

Esperanza students need a sensory gym space with proper equipment to manage their regulation needs because it will improve comfort, safety, and learning within the classroom.

The Challenge

Imagine feeling like your leg is asleep but moving it doesn’t make the tingle go away. Or having that anxious feeling you might get with the ringing of a fire alarm but the sensitivity doesn’t turn off.

Considerations

Prior to the design project, I assisted with research to help secure funding for this project with a $10,000 grant from a local organization.

Hard financial times and the COVID-19 pandemic lead to consolidation of the adult and school programming. Because of this, students had limited space to regulate and exercise outside of their classrooms, especially in the winter. 

Without the proper space for students to regulate safely, aggressive behaviors often increase. The environment can become unsafe for other students and staff and the focus shifts to maintaining safety rather than teaching and learning.

Having worked with students from kindergarten to age 22, my personal goal for this project was to ensure inclusion for all Esperanza students. The equipment we purchased needed to accommodate up to 300lbs and the gym space had to be flexible to fit all possible needs. Some students might need to exert extra energy while others required a calming space.

Q & A

What is a sensory gym?

Autistic and neurodivergent people often have sensory differences, meaning they have difficulty knowing where their body is in space. A sensory gym is a space that provides specialized equipment to help individuals manage their unique sensory experiences. 

What is sensory regulation?

Sensory regulation is how a person manages, processes, and responds to sensory stimuli (eg. sights, sounds, textures, movements) they receive from their environment. When someone has good sensory regulation, they feel comfortable, secure, and ready to learn.

What is Esperanza School?

Esperanza is a non-profit organization that began as a therapeutic day school in 1969. It was created to support students whose learning needs were not being met in traditional classrooms, often due to aggressive or self-injurious behaviors.

What does an occupational therapist do?

Occupational therapists aim to improve daily life experiences of those they work with based on their unique circumstances (injuries, illnesses, or disabilities). A therapist must research client needs, analyze individual problems, and iterate on possible solutions to improve outcomes. It is critical to work closely with the client and a multidisciplinary team to ensure the best results.

Room for Improvement

The sensory gym before renovations with annotations showing changes to be made. These include covering the old chalkboards, repainting the room, and finding a new flooring solution.
The sensory gym before renovations with annotations of changes to be made including carpeting, window treatments, and donated materials.

Sensory gym space before renovations - damaged carpet, old chalkboards, and donated materials occupied the space

What do we need to consider to transform this space?

Esperanza was able to allocate an old classroom to use for our sensory gym but this posed a few unique considerations when planning out the design. Due to the construction of the 100+ year old building, the ceilings couldn't support a suspended swing system, a common feature in sensory gyms.​

The existing carpet was in poor condition and a budget-friendly flooring option was needed to ensure safety. Being a non-profit, it was critical to find a gym floor alternative that was affordable, durable, easy to clean, and replaceable if damaged.

Window treatments were also needed to control the room's lighting. The nine-foot tall windows provided excellent natural light, but were not suitable for projections or specialized lighting to foster a calming environment. Long window treatments were expensive, so using blackout adhesive to cover part of the window would allow us to purchase shorter curtains at a more affordable price.

The Power of Knowledge

How did I conduct user research?

The students and staff at Esperanza (our users) were the most important sources of information for the project. Working at Esperanza for over three years and supporting students during the pandemic, provided me with an immense understanding of student needs. Countless observations, therapy sessions, evaluations, and conversations were used to determine the most beneficial equipment and resources for us to purchase.

I collaborated with staff at Esperanza to gather feedback and identify any additional needs for the gym that I might have overlooked. I also conducted additional observations of students throughout the day to determine any patterns of dysregulation. This information would help me validate equipment choices and inform the future gym schedule.

Beyond the Textbook

James and I researched journal articles and talked to other occupational therapists to identify evidence-based equipment and materials that could meet diverse sensory needs and fit in our somewhat limited gym space.

A swing was the most versatile because it functioned for both active and calming input and showed benefits such as improved motor skills, increased social interactions, and decreased anxiety. Looking for alternatives to suspended swing systems, I discovered an indoor stationary metal swing stand that accommodated over 300lbs, allowing access for all Esperanza students.

An image of a child on a swing

Examples of swing attachment and ball pit

Research supported the use of jumping/trampolines for deep pressure input to muscles and joints, leading to a calm mood, increased attention, and improved body awareness. I knew the students would love this experience but needed to ensure a safe jumping area within the room (and a net).

In addition to movement activities, opportunities for visual, tactile, and auditory experiences were important. A ball pit and sensory toys offered inclusion for students with limited mobility and could help develop play skills, social interaction, fine motor skills, and decrease anxiety. 

An image of a child in a ball pit

Innovation Station

A sketch Holly did of the layout of equipment for the sensory gym

My final sketch for the sensory gym layout to offer separate active and calming spaces & enough room for equipment

James and I planned the layout of a space by sketching possible design solutions. This helped us consider the placement of equipment within existing room fixtures and ensure safe spacing for different activities. We also aimed to separate active and calming areas within the gym to allow multiple students to use the space for different purposes.

The primary paint color chosen by staff and students - a light teal
The secondary paint color chosen by staff and students - a darker teal

Winning primary and accent color based on user polling

We narrowed down paint colors to a sage green or aqua/teal option to evoke feelings of growth, balance, relaxation, and tranquility within the space. I individually polled students and staff to say or touch the paint color they liked best, providing an opportunity for our non-speaking students to vote and ensuring their opinion was included in the decision.

Building Success

How did the design translate to the physical space?

Our final sketch acted as a blueprint for assembling the physical gym space. 

Before

After

The sensory gym before the renovations with the old chalkboards on the wall.
A photo of the sensory gym after the renovations with the new siding material and paint on the wall.

New siding material was purchased to cover the old chalkboards

A photo of the sensory gym before the renovations with the old tile flooring under the carpet and no window treatments.

Blackout adhesive was installed for adapted lighting

Carpet was removed and tile underneath was cleaned to prepare for new flooring

A photo of the sensory gym before the renovations with the old tile flooring under the carpet and new blackout adhesive installed on the top portion of the windows.
The renovated sensory gym with new foam tile flooring, paint, and black curtains.

New flooring and curtains installed

A picture of finished sensory gym with all of the active equipment (trampoline, ball pit, and swing).

Active space and sensory exploration table for auditory, visual, and tactile toys

A picture of the ball pit.
The sensory exploration table with different toys.

Ball pit, sensory exploration table, and water bins 

A picture of Holly and James (the other occupational therapist working on the project) in the calming corner.
A picture of the finished calming corner in the dark with twinkle lights on, bubble tube, bean bag chairs, and books.

Calming corner in the light and dark + the design team (James and I)

The calming corner in the daytime with comfortable seating, books, toys, and lighting.

From Theory to Practice

Upon completion of the physical space, it was important to trial the gym with students before fully opening it. Testing helped me understand how students responded to the gym activities/equipment, how to structure time in the gym, and most importantly validate if the student appeared calmer and more focused after using the space. User testing also allowed me to model for and educate staff about how to use the gym and the advantages of sensory regulation activities.

Before leaving Esperanza to pursue UX design, I collaborated with and trained a new occupational therapist about the needs and established protocols for the sensory gym. Over time the gym will allow students to better regulate their bodies, build social, motor, and play skills, and improve focus. 

 

 

The new occupational therapist has started taking data to measure the effects of sensory gym sessions on behavior and learning outcomes.

So far she has seen the following:

  • Increase in students advocating for their needs 

  • Decrease in self-injurious behaviors per staff and parent report

  • Improved regulation and attention during classroom activities

Trialing the gym with a student (parent okayed use of this clip for my case study).

Looking Back to Move Forward

My experiences in the healthcare industry have provided me with a deeper understanding of major issues affecting marginalized groups.

The neurodiverse community encompasses a spectrum of individuals, which means that the support required for each person can vary greatly. Esperanza caters to a niche group of people who require a higher level of support. Within my first year of working there, it became obvious that there is a significant lack of research and tools available to help these individuals. Consequently, I spent time conducting extensive research, creating customized materials, and refining my approaches to meet the unique abilities and needs of each student.

As a UX designer, I strive to improve accessibility in both digital and physical products and experiences, with the goal of advocating for inclusion.

This design project inspired me to make a career pivot that allowed me to advocate for the disability community on a larger scale, especially for those requiring higher levels of support. My goal is to help companies recognize the importance of inclusive and accessible design. Everyone will benefit from inclusive user experiences and individuals with disabilities will have greater freedom and engagement in their daily activities and experiences.

DecideIt Iphone mockup that links to the DecideIt case study.

Other Work

pivvot web app mockup that links to the pivvot case study.
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