Early Start Discovery Space launches sensory room

A new sensory room experience at the University of Wollongong’s Early Start Discovery Space, designed to stimulate children’s touch, sight, smell and other senses, will be launched today (Tuesday 30 March).

The Sanctuary will be a safe space for all visitors, including children with autism spectrum disorder, to engage in sensory play. Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates the senses (touch, taste, movement, balance, sight, smell and hearing).

Early Start education and experiences manager Martha Johnson said research shows providing children with the opportunity to actively use their senses is crucial for brain development.

“Children use their senses to explore and make sense of the world around them,” Ms Johnson said

“Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change neural pathways or synapses to rewire the brain. Providing children with opportunity to actively use their senses is crucial to brain development as it helps build nerve connections in the brain pathways, which helps with the greater development of the child.

“Sensory play leads to a child’s ability to complete more complex tasks, supporting cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interactions and problem solving skills.

“Sensory play encourages one to use scientific processes while they play, create, investigate and explore. The sensory activities allow children to refine their thresholds for different sensory information, strengthening sensory-related synapses and functions.”

Items in The Sanctuary include lights, mirrors, tactile objects, cushions, a sling swing, bubble tubes, light tables, weaving wall, optic curtain, sensory den, weighted blankets and a memory foam mat.

The Sanctuary opens ahead of World Autism Day on Friday April 2.

Anecdotally, many children on the autism spectrum find benefit from sensory play. However, while sensory play helps brain development in all children, there is no evidence that says sensory rooms provide additional help to children on the spectrum.

The Discovery Space is launching an inclusive approach to all children on World Autism Day because of its capacity to provide multiple opportunities for all children to learn from their peers.

For the child with autism, this can be achieved by facilitating valuable play experiences that redirect the child’s focus of attention from objects and unusual details in their environment, back to people – their faces, voices and actions.

This in turn helps them to learn at a more rapid rate, from their peers and all of the people around them in everyday moments and routines.

UOW Early Start is also running workshops for parents, educators and therapists on a play-based intervention, specifically designed for young children with autism called the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM).

Early Start Community Engagement Coordinator and ESDM Trainer Elizabeth Aylward said ESDM focuses on play and routines, and integrates both behavioural and developmental principles to empower children with autism to become active participants in the world around them. 

“ESDM aims to increase the development of play skills, cognition, imitation, joint attention, social skills and communication, while also decreasing the symptoms of autism,” Ms Aylward said.

“Research has found that ESDM can significantly improve cognitive skills and behaviours of children with autism.

“It is a naturalistic intervention underpinned by play-based learning, the development of secure and reciprocal relationships, and the promotion of communication. By following a child interests and choices, it also optimises motivation.”

Following training, the ESDM can be implemented at home by parents and trained therapists, in clinics by healthcare professionals, and in early childhood education settings by qualified staff.

The Early Start Discovery Space is an interactive play space for all young children that enables social learning, engagement in naturalistic play experiences and creative activities. The physical environment has been set up with great care to encourage children to use all of their senses to explore the beautiful and stimulating play spaces.

This type of exploration increases their communication skills, social skills, problem solving skills as well as cooperative and pretend play. The Discovery Space is an environment where children can interact with parents and peers to learn critical skills that are not only important for their development but can be generalised to everyday life.

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