Saturday, 15 July 2017

Preschool visit... Överby Förskola (Part 2 of 3)

Last month I visited Överby Preschool in the municipality of Vaxholm, just outside Stockholm.
This is a preschool that has worked hard on developing a sensory room, that they applied for funding for and received.

The room is a large room, and is a communal space for all the children in the preschool, the educators working there ned to get a kind of "driving license" to be able to take children into the room... this is so that the room can be used at its best... the educators are supported to become guides to the room as well as observers of the children's interactions with the materials there. The number of children entering the room at any one time is also restricted to 4-6 children maximum - so that the children themselves are not adding to too much of the sensory input.
There are a LOT of sensory materials in one space, so I imagine that this is an essential part to ensuring that the sensory room is a positive experience for the children and not a sensory overload.

Personally I found it a little overwhelming... there was just SO much. I did like how the room was NOT divided into areas of the senses, but that all senses could be explored in all areas... partly because this also allows both children and educators to be aware of sensory materials in a much broader sense and not restricted to just one sense only. I am somewhat on the autistic spectrum (as are two of my children) and sensory processing is something that we have to actively work with - there are sounds, smells, textures etc that are extremely difficult to process

If you watch the below film of Alison Gopnik (especially the last 3 minutes, which I will refer to here) then you might get an understanding of this sensory issue I am talking about...

Gopnik talks about how children have a lantern rather than a spotlight of focus as adult have, being on the spectrum means that I am still lantern like most of the time, but have learned how to spotlight (but that takes a whole load of conscious energy to do as well). That thinking like a young child is like "being in love in Paris for the first time having drunk 3 double espressos"... which can be fun, but all the time is is exhausting.

So when we are thinking of sensory rooms we really have to think about how we are using them, what is their purpose, how many children, and why, how do the teachers react and interact with the children and materials, how are the materials interacting with each other etc etc... so that the sensory input is positive, challenging, exciting - but not overwhelming... and if it does overwhelm (as that could be a part of the challenge) - an awareness of how the overwhelming can be positive rather than negative, and then how the child can assimilate the input afterwards - are the children afforded time in a quiet space afterwards to reflect on the sensory experience, or do they go straight back to the sensory stimulation of a full group of children - this might not be a problem for all children... it is about learning to listen to the child/ren and making sure that their personal sensory experience and post experience is positive.

I would love to have curtains hanging from the ceiling... so that the room could be divided into smaller areas if that was needed... to help with focus, and to allow children that are easily overstimulated/easily distracted to opportunity to focus. The curtains could also add an extra dimension to all the projectors in the room too... there were several, projectors and overheads and light tables/boxes.

I have to point out that I have not seen the room in action with children... and I really like that the educators can only use the room after training and only with a very small group of children. This means that the room will need to be booked so that there are times for all the children and groups...

I do not remember how many children there were in the preschool, or how often the children had access to the room during a week or term... it would be interesting to see if there was a group that frequented the room weekly or more than once a week, as the same group... and to then compare this with groups that visited less often, or in different group constellations - as I have often found that children who feel safe with each other will play and explore on a deeper level... while other times by shaking up the group dynamics with a change of members can also enhance learning... it can also have the opposite affect.

The room was off to the side of the building, BUT the drawback with the design of the building was that many of the rooms had to be walked through to access other parts of the preschool. This could mean that in a middle of a sensory session educators and children could walk through the room. Not entirely ideal for a sensory room... but at the same time hardly the fault of the educators working there... maybe designers of preschools should talk more with educators and children... after all I think it is GREAT that there are rooms that are accessible from several points (and I will go further into this in my third post from this preschool) but it should not be the only way to get to other parts of the school/preschool... so if the room is busy the alternative route can be used and the session not disturbed.
My previous workplace also had this problem... but it was not a preschool originally, the building was designed as a post-office, so I feel you can understand why architects/designers had not considered this need for children's focus

As you see above there is plenty to choose from - fibre optics, light tables, tunnels, music, making music digitally through the fruit and vegetables, projections, ice, there was also smell etc...
I was in the room twice during my visit (with a visit to the rest of the preschool between). I found it easier to settle and play with one thing on my second visit... I wanted to just explore the room and touch everything the first time... and my observations of children playing has showed me them same... when we have visited new play-spaces the children will just go round and round more like butterflies testing everything, and then, if there long enough, settle down to play... repeat visits to the play space the children will settle into play so much faster, as they already "know" the space and the senses and experiences it has to offer.

During the last week I have been in the south of Spain, a new place for me, which left me totally exhausted the first 4 days - my husband found this fascinating (he works with sleep research and neurology) - and started talking about the thalamus - which I have now gone and read more about...
The thalamus is a kind of gatekeeper (but it is far more complex than that) sorting out the sensory input as to what is important and what is not... this is something I can do at home, as I am familiar with all the sounds sights and smells - but in a new place I could not filter. I am a person that daydreams to relax... I have a half hour dedicated daydream time everyday... where I make sure I can just be and just let my imagination wander... in Spain I was unable to do this for the first 4-5 days as my body was so busy sorting out all the input, filtering out what was important and what was not before I could get to the stage of daydreaming.

This brings me back to what Alison Gopnik was talking about in the TEDTalk I shared above... that when we are designing learning spaces for children we need to also be thinking about the sensory input of the room... if it is overstimulating then it will be so much harder for the children to focus, to filter out from their lantern approach of seeing,hearing, tasting, touching, smelling the world. There will be a need for them to process the room, process the experience... and to repeat the experience to maybe make more sense of it...
Maybe this makes sensory rooms, and sensory experiences so important... they are spaces for the children (and adults) to train their thalamus, to enable it to process and integrate better - as long as we are gibing the children the time to do this.

The whole preschool has become more aware of using the senses... so in the next post I will share images and thoughts about this...
as I just wrote, this is an important part of children's learning... sensory processing and self regulation.

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