UW-Eau Claire students help create a sensory room

Published: Oct. 25, 2023 at 7:48 AM CDT
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire now has a safe space for kids who experience sensory dysregulation thanks to a UW-Eau Claire professor and nine Blugolds.

Everyone experiences sensory regulation when they do things like chew gum or twirl their hair to help them stay focused. However, UW-Eau Claire student researcher, Lainey Walworth, said some kids struggle with sensory regulation and need tools to help them out.

“The way that something sounds or looks might be different to all of us, it’s kind of like some of us are bothered by nails on a chalkboard or styrofoam,” Walworth said. “That can happen in everyday situations, especially for children in a museum like this that’s super fun, colorful, and loud.”

The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire can provide fun hands-on experiences but for some children, the environment can be too much. So when UW-Eau Claire Associate Professor of Special Education and Inclusive Practices, Dr. Kirstin Rossi, was invited to collaborate with the museum to create a sensory room she was all ears. However, she had one request.

“As long as I get to ask students to be a part of it,” Rossi said.

Dr. Rossi shared the opportunity with students who had taken one of her courses on sensory. Nine students volunteered to participate and began helping in the fall of 2022 and transitioned into conducting research for the project which was funded through three different grants. For some of the students, like Grace Groh, this was their first research project.

“This was the first research opportunity that I have been a part of,” Groh said. “It’s a pretty unconventional research opportunity. When people think of research a lot of people think of labs.”

Instead of doing experiments in a lab, they were designing the room.

“We really focused on the organization layout,” Groh said, “Where the different tools are going to be stored, how the different tools are going to be stored, where the different objects that we purchased are going to be in the room.”

Other students were creating resources like maps that are available at the front desk of the museum to help people proactively identify sensory triggers. They were created in collaboration with Volume One.

“It entails different icons that have different sensory processing inputs,” Walworth said. “So, things like loud noise, big movements, some more tactile experiences that deal with your fine motor skills.”

Schedule binders that are available in both Spanish and English were also added as a resource. UW-Eau Claire student researcher, Rhea Schaberg, worked on the binders.

“On the front, we have a my day kind of thing,” Schaberg said. “Then on the inside, we have little icons for all the different exhibits that are on each of the floors.”

As well as backpacks filled with sensory tools that can be used throughout the museum. UW-Eau Claire student researcher, Hannah King, explained what was in the backpacks.

“There is a weighted stuffed animal that can be taken out that weighs the backpack,” King said. “There’s noise-canceling headphones. The museum can be really loud. Sunglasses to block out the bright light. Also a couple fidget toys.”

The design of the room and the resources all contribute toward making the museum a more inclusive environment for children. Although the project is in the rearview mirror for the nine students that helped launch it. Dr. Rossi said it won’t end and it could look different in the coming months.

“The idea with a room like this is that it’s constantly changing,” Dr. Rossi said. “It’s constantly morphing based on what people need.”

The Chief Learning Officer at the museum, Mike Lee said they are really excited to have the sensory room and the ability to help everyone in the community engage with the museum.

Dr. Rossi said the sensory room opened around the time the museum opened last spring. People who attend can access the sensory room and other resources like the schedule binder, the backpack, and the sensory map. Dr. Rossi said they are also planning to launch sensory workshops at the museum as well.

The students who participated in the project were Taylor Bangert, Clara Dobratz, Grace Groh, Abby Kroeger, Lexi King, Hannah King, Rhea Schaberg, Lainey Walworth, and Lydia Johnson.