Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A sensory-friendly bedroom makeover

Last spring we chose to overhaul our boys’ bedrooms. We were having issues with them seeking sensory input in unsafe ways, and we needed them to be able to jump and crash safely. Also, due to the mood swings of my youngest, it was critical to provide built-in calming strategies. We decided to do a complete sensory-friendly bedroom makeover!
First we started with the color of the walls. We explored the psychology of color so that we could attempt to mirror the color with the outcome we were seeking. For Monkey we chose a medium blue, resembling the color of Thomas the Tank Engine. Blue is thought to be a color of serenity and calm. When Monkey isn’t in some sort of electronic toy-based coma, he tends to be on the hyper side of life, making it difficult for him to fall asleep. For Prince Charming we chose a medium green. It’s somewhere between Kermit the Frog and turquoise. Green is thought to relieve stress and promote harmony. Since our little Prince Charming can turn into a Grumpy Badger in a mere 2 seconds flat, this was a good thing to introduce into his room. Green is also thought to aid with reading ability. Prince Charming has had a rough road with learning to read and write, and we figured every little bit helps.
The most important feature of the room was centered on the idea of calming the sensory system. My boys always seem to immediately calm down when their Occupational Therapist would have them get into a Lycra swing to organize their bodies before an activity. How in the world could we get this magical swing into their rooms? We began looking for inspiration, trekking to places like Ikea. They had some really neat ideas, but nothing really clicked in the same way as hanging a homemade fabric swing. Then, we discovered how the whole room would take shape with one focal point – a loft bed.

A loft bed would address several things. First, it would give a sense of enclosure. In the past, I’ve seen Prince Charming playing quietly as he’s flat on his belly under his bed. Or, I’d see Monkey asleep on the floor, huddled in his blanket in the narrow space between his wall and the bed. They both craved the peaceful feeling of enclosure. With the raised side rails on the bed and its closeness to the ceiling, this would create a virtual tent for the boys. Also, the area underneath the bed is like a big fort, enclosed by support rails on 3 sides. We knew it would be a big hit for playtime. Second, the bed’s location close to the ceiling would help get the boys to sleep faster. It would no longer be an ideal place for play and would better serve its role as a place of relaxation and sleep. No jumping on the bed means sleep comes faster! Third, it served as the perfect solution for housing the Lycra swing, which could easily be suspended off the main support beams underneath the mattress.  

We got out our handy-dandy tape measure and cranked the numbers. It was a great idea made perfect after some minor modifications. Prior to assembling the beds, we cut the bottom step off the ladder and cut equivalent amounts off the bed posts to make it roomier when they climbed up the ladder for bed. We wanted them to have enough room to crawl around on their knees and sit up in bed without danger of hitting their head on the ceiling. Even after lowering the height of the bed, they still had plenty of room to hang out in the play space underneath.
We attached some metal hook brackets to the beams on the underside of the mattress frame. Weight-bearing carabiners (rated for rock climbing) were then clipped to the brackets. The Lycra material was knotted around the carabiners, and the swing was done. For the Lycra material to make the swing, we visited the local fabric store. We bought yardage of Lycra in different colors and did our best to estimate how much we needed for the space the swing would occupy. We decided to have 2 layers of fabric so that it would have more resistance, giving firm sensory input, and it would also keep the kids from dragging on the floor when they climbed into the swing. If memory serves correctly, each piece was approximately 3 yards in length. Let me warn you, Lycra is not cheap, especially when you’re buying so many yards. Be smarter than we were, and try to find a coupon or a sale before you go out and spend a fortune on fabric!        

After the focal point of the room was complete, we focused on organization and accessories. We wanted the room to be clutter-free so that it wouldn’t be visually overwhelming. But, we also wanted it to be fun for the boys! We got some shelves with hooks and small cubbies that could organize the few toys we allowed to remain out in each room. The rest of the toys got put away into large plastic bins for play in the main area of the house. We had them help us choose funky wall lights that would provide a soft glow. The addition of cloth bean bags allowed for running and crashing, as well as providing a safe way to climb in and out of the swing without assistance. One of the coolest features in the room is the wall-mounted locker desk. After moving the swing out of the way, the desk opens up to provide a writing surface and storage space for things like a pencil cup, laptop, etc. Then, it closes up and can be locked (hiding precious electronic toys that cannot be played with unless they are earned!). When the desk is closed, it’s flat enough against the wall as to not impinge their ability to use the swing.
The only other thing we did was move the punching bag into Grumpy Badger’s room so that he could use it to diffuse his anger when it flared. Our punching bag has a weighted base that sits on the floor with the bag suspended on top of an upright, slender spring. It’s a great way to get him to focus his energy on calming down and not being violent toward others. Another sensory tool he uses is a weighted blanket. We had it made very large and heavy so that he wouldn’t be able to toss it off easily in the night. It can also be folded over for extra, localized weight when needed. He used to have lots of problems sleeping through the night and would wake up countless times screaming or crying. The weighted blanket has been a lifesaver and is the only way he sleeps comfortably through the night. As long as the blanket covers his body, he’s able to maintain a calm body and sleep. It’s one of the most important items in his room, and in our house for that matter.
One last critical sensory tool in our house is the mini-trampoline. We keep it in our family room and the boys jump on it every day. It helps them both get the proprioceptive input that their joints crave, and it also diffuses some of their energy when they’re really hyper. If we’re having a particularly trying day, sometimes I have them jump as many times as they can while we all count out loud to see who can go the longest. They have a ball doing it, and it keeps me from having a psychotic break. These are good things!   
Even though their rooms are essentially identical, we customized them with color and accessories to make the rooms feel individual. Now our boys have a sensory-friend place to play, sleep, do homework, crash and swing. They love their rooms and so do we.
Monkey hanging out.
Prince Charming calm and happy.


  1. Wow! What a cool mommy you are. The lycra slings remind me of Temple Grandin's "hug machine"-- super cozy.

  2. Thanks, Camille! :-) The lycra gives them good, even pressure on their body which creates a calming effect. I learned all about this from our OT. I noticed a change in my boys' behavior after they got in a lycra swing as part of their therapy sessions and I knew we needed to replicate it at home.

  3. Have you found the punching bag to be helpful in diffusing the anger?

    My son struggles A LOT with anger and I haven't found anything that helps him to diffuse that anger in a good way. I've been afraid to suggest and try a punching bag because then I think that in his mind he will think it's "okay" to punch things when he is angry. So I have bene quite conflicted on using this method. I'm wondering what your thoughts are and if it has been successful.

  4. I wish I could give you a definitive answer, but the reality is that my son's needs change all the time and what works for him one day will not work as effectively (or at all) the next.

    We used to use the punching bag a lot as a positive redirection and we would try to get him to also engage with it during calmer times. We would work a counting game into it to make it very focused. For instance, if he was mad and needed to calm down I would take him into his room and tell him he couldn't leave until he punched his bag 20 times as hard as he could. I would have him count it out loud as he did it. By doing this, he got distracted by the activity and often calmed down quickly. It did great for a while, but it has since lost its proverbial luster.

    We have also done things like brushing, joint compressions, bear hugs, squishing in large couch cushions, jumping on the trampoline, etc.

    When we used the punching bag we were careful to frame the appropriate usage. We told him that he could punch the bag whenever he wanted (whether he was angry, happy, excited, etc.), but that the only other thing he was allowed to hit was the carpeted floor or his pillow and only while in his room. Punching, or even play hitting, was not going to be tolerated with anything else (including people) or anywhere else.

    We made his room his "safe" place to calm down and it continues to be the place where these types of things happen.

  5. My son has sensory problems and I'm finding out the brushing and joint compressions are not working anymore. Does the swing you made really help? Where did you find the fabric? Did a bean bag chair ever help?

    I think I need to do room over. I have lots of pictures hanging on the wall and stuffed toys sitting around.

  6. Yes, the swing is very calming. The boys don't actually use it very much anymore (just like we don't really need brushing and joint compressions anymore either). It seems they are getting better about regulating their bodies without the need for a lot of help. This is good news for them!

    I got the fabric at a local fabric and craft store (out here there is JoAnn and Michael's). Definitely use a coupon if your local store has any. Lycra is expensive!

    The bean bag chair has many different uses - chair, toy prop, stepping stool, crash pillow, etc.

    Busy Mom, good luck as you figure out your next steps.

  7. So lovely and crazy at the same time 'cause well they are to young and well at these ages are more hyperactive.

  8. Wow, what an awesome idea! I think any children would love it!

  9. This is so wonderful. Can you share more information on making the lycra swings and exactly how you hung them up. We are trying to make one. Thanks!

  10. Anonymous, in the post I tell you how much fabric to buy...I think it was 3 yards for each layer. I folded it in half and knotted each end to a rock-climbing carabiner. My husband and I pulled the fabric and the carabiner like a tug-of-war in order to get it tied very tightly. The knots can loosen with usage, so be sure to check them periodically. You could also attach it at the 4 corner points, but we didn't have the room for that. As the boys have gotten bigger, we added a 3rd layer of fabric in order to keep them from dragging on the floor when they are in the swing. Hope this helps!

  11. Do your children ever sleep in their swing? I've been thinking of putting one in his room and I know he will end up sleeping in it.

  12. I am an OT and this is awesome. Have you though about a black light and glow in the dark objects to go with it? Way to be a great mom!

  13. Fantastic Mother! Delightful creative thinking. Thank you so much for sharing!

  14. Trampolining is very fun and exciting activity. Actually every children loves to jump on a trampoline. A trampoline gives a much of entertainment to the children. I suggest everyone to collect a trampoline for their kids. It is a great fun for both children and adults. So you can add a mini trampoline in your bed room. www.trampolinesforyou.com

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