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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)

Timeline:

October 2021 - July 2022

The Team:

James - Co-lead, designer, OT

Anne & Jayne - principal, CEO

Special Kids Foundation - stakeholder

Teachers, therapists, behavior team, students - users & research participants

Tools used:

Pen and Paper, Google Suite, Zoom, 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.

Background

Esperanza students have diverse and unique needs, but there wasn't a dedicated space to meet their sensory needs. Thanks to a funding opportunity, Esperanza had the ability to construct a tailored sensory gym space that will serve the needs of every student.

How Did We Get Here?

Hard financial times and the COVID-19 pandemic forced Esperanza to consolidate their adult and school programs. Because of this, students had limited space to participate in physical activities outside of their classrooms and regulate their bodies, especially when it was too cold to go outside. 

Without the proper space for students to expend their energy safely, it's not uncommon to see an uptick in aggressive behaviors. The classroom environment can then become unsafe for students and staff and the focus shifts to maintaining safety rather than teaching and learning.

We had an opportunity to apply for a grant, so I assisted with research for the application. We were able to obtain a $10,000 grant from the Special Kids Foundation to build the school a sensory gym space. This grant had a timeline of 9 months to design, renovate, and complete the space.

Q & A

What is sensory regulation?

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. 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 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 provides specialized equipment and space to help individuals manage their unique sensory experiences. 

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 with disabilities 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 their clients based on the individual's 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.

Challenge

Esperanza students vary significantly, both in terms of age and needs. Designing an inclusive and accessible space within Esperanza's limited physical space and grant budget was critical to ensure the best possible outcome for students, staff, and the school.

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 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 ensure flexible 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. Since I had worked at Esperanza for over three years, I had an immense understanding of my student's needs but knew I had to do additional research to better understand their needs within this context.

 I conducted observations of students and staff in their classrooms and during daily school routines to better understand any common patterns or challenging times/scenarios when the gym would be most useful. During my 1:1 therapy sessions, I evaluated each student's individual sensory needs, which showcased the diversity of our student population and confirmed the importance of building a flexible and adaptable space.

As a therapist, I only worked 15-60 minutes with each student per week. Because of this, it was important to interview and collaborate with teachers and other support staff to gather their valuable perspectives and identify anything I might have overlooked. Some insights I gained from these conversations were related to equipment, future sensory gym schedule, student support needs, and what time of day we should focus on calming or active activities within the gym space.

Beyond the Textbook

James (the other OT at Esperanza) and I supplemented our in-house qualitative research by reading journal articles and talking to other occupational therapists. This research focused on identifying evidence-based therapy equipment, materials, and toys that could meet diverse sensory needs and physically fit in our limited gym space.

A swing was the most important and versatile piece of equipment we identified because it serves as both active and calming input and offers benefits like improved motor skills, increased social interactions, and reduced anxiety. Because Esperanza is located in an old building, we had to look beyond typical ceiling-suspended sensory swings. After I conducted additional research, I discovered an indoor stationary metal swing stand that fit the room and supported over 300lbs, making it accessible to all students at Esperanza.

Research also supported the use of jumping/trampolines for deep pressure input, leading to a calm mood, increased attention, and improved body awareness. I knew the students would love this experience but it was important to ensure a safe jumping area within the room, which required careful consideration for placement, a safety net, and the creation of specific sensory gym rules and guidelines.

An image of a child on a swing

Examples of swing attachment and ball pit (below)

An image of a child in a ball pit

In addition to movement-based activities, we needed to provide opportunities for visual, tactile, and auditory experiences as they were also identified within our research. A ball pit and sensory toys help develop play skills, social interaction, fine motor skills, and decrease anxiety while also offering additional inclusion for students with limited mobility.

Innovate

While my primary objective was to ensure inclusion for our diverse student body, which ranged from kindergarten to young adults of 22 years old, I also had to navigate the practical constraints Esperanza faced, including limited space, budget, and a tight timeline.

Building a Blueprint

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

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

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

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.

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. To ensure user input, I individually polled all students and staff to say or touch the paint swatch with the color they liked best. This provided an opportunity for our non-speaking students to vote and ensured their opinion was included in the paint color decision.

Designing for Success

What were the overarching priorities moving forward? 

Once our blueprint was finalized, we began to renovate the space. My top priorities remained the same, focusing on inclusion, safety, flexibility, durability, and affordability. To ensure we could complete the project in the 9 month timeline, I had to delegate some work tasks to our maintenance staff. This included demolition of paneling and flooring, painting the ceiling, installing the upper window treatments, and assisting with equipment assembly.

Before

After

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

We purchased new siding material to conceal the old chalkboards, improving safety and aesthetics within the space

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 to provide flexible lighting options

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.

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

The renovated sensory gym with new foam tile flooring, paint, and black curtains.

New flooring tiles and black-out curtains installed; Flooring would be easily replaceable if damaged and the curtains were an affordable option to provide flexible lighting within the space

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

The active space and sensory exploration table provided auditory, visual, and tactile toys for a versatile sensory experience

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

The ball pit, sensory exploration table, and water bins  provided inclusive options for all students at Esperanza

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.

The design team (James and I) in the calming corner - demonstrating the flexible lighting options within the space

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

Composition of the room elements ensured ample space and padding to ensure safety when using the equipment

Validate

While it may require additional planning and preparation, testing individuals with disabilities offers a valuable perspective that can reveal overlooked areas for improvement, resulting in a more inclusive and user-friendly product or service.

From Theory to Practice

Upon completion of the physical space, it was important to trial the gym with students before fully opening it. Since each student is unique, I initially focused on testing students with diverse sensory needs. Some examples of this are students who needed an outlet for excess energy (swinging, jumping), students seeking a calming environment (quiet music, dim lights, projections), or students who were looking for additional sensory experiences offered by items like a ball pit and tactile, visual, and auditory toys.

Testing allowed me to gain insight into how students responded to gym equipment, highlighted how to effectively structure time in the gym, and, most importantly, provided early insight into students' behavioral responses after using the gym.

User testing also provided me with the opportunity to model and educate staff on the appropriate use of the gym while highlighting the advantages of sensory regulation activities.

One example of trialing the gym trampoline with a student (parent okayed use of this clip for my case study).

How did I handoff this work to the new Occupational Therapist?

Before leaving Esperanza to pursue UX design, I collaborated with and trained a new occupational therapist highlighting the established protocols and areas to continue exploring for the sensory gym.

What impacts have been observed since fully opening the sensory gym?

The new occupational therapist has started taking data to measure the effects of consistent 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

Reflect

My experiences working in the healthcare industry have provided me with a deeper understanding of the importance of accessibility and how it impacts marginalized groups. As a UX designer, I strive to use my experience and knowledge to improve accessibility in digital and physical products and experiences, while advocating for inclusion.

Looking Back to Move Forward

While at Esperanza, I had the privilege of caring for people with complex needs. It was during this time that I became acutely aware of the lack of research, products, and tools available to support these incredible individuals. Attending a national conference further highlighted this gap, as none of the lectures I attended even touched upon the demographic I worked with. When I asked questions, I was disheartened to learn that this group of individuals is often overlooked in research. This realization motivated me to conduct my own research, create customized materials, and refine my methods to meet my student's unique abilities and needs. This approach not only fostered joy, greater independence, and growth amongst my students but also broadened my perspective and emphasized the need for increased research and development within the realm of accessibility and inclusion.

Working on this service design project allowed me an opportunity to advocate for the disability community on a larger scale, especially for those requiring higher levels of support. I enjoyed getting to consider the entire student body in the context of this project and identify strategies to create an inclusive environment to the best of my ability within our constraints.

With additional funding and physical space, I would have hired an engineer to restructure the ceiling support and installed a suspended swing system to allow for more movement, different attachments, and additional adjustments that our stand swing could not accommodate.

In the tech space, accessibility efforts tend to concentrate on specific user groups. My renewed goal is to encourage companies to broaden their understanding of inclusive and accessible design, and further consider individuals within the complex and neurodiverse communities. I want everyone to recognize the mutual benefits of inclusive user experiences and the importance of helping individuals with disabilities have greater freedom and engagement in their daily activities and experiences.

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