How to Create a Sensory-Friendly After-School Program

If you are leading an after-school program, consider adding sensory-friendly features at any time during the school year! Sensory-friendly features will help students with what is often a sensory-rich environment in after-school programs. For many parents, choosing after-school care that is a fit for their child is critical. Furthermore, children with sensory sensitivities struggle with busy, noisy, bright environment. However, there are simple and effective ways to create a more sensory-friendly after-school program that all children can enjoy.

This blog post will highlight strategies and techniques to help make your after-school program sensory-friendly and more accessible and inclusive for children.

Infographic highlighting 7 ways to create a sensory-friendly after school program.

Establish a sensory-friendly environment

First, create a inclusive environment that makes children feel comfortable. After-school programs can occur in crowded spaces. Or, open spaces with high ceilings like gymnasiums. Therefore, think about the physical location of your after-school program and its characteristics. For example, is it busy, loud and bright?

Consider these features to establish a more sensory-friendly environment for your after-school program:

  • use different rooms or spaces for different activities
  • separate loud spaces from quiet spaces
  • create spots for solo activities and other spots for group activities
  • add noise dampening materials like: carpet tile, acoustic tile, wood, fabrics, foam
  • use natural lighting
  • cover fluorescent light if it is present

Create quiet zones

Furthermore, a dedicated quiet zone is important for a sensory-friendly environment. A quiet zone is a closed-off space or separate space. Specifically, it is designed for children to relax and to have a break from sensory rich spaces or activities. So, consider adding things like:

  • comfortable seating
  • sensory tools
  • quiet activities like reading or coloring

Create rules for your quiet zone with your students. For instance, is it a no talking or low-talking zone? Make sure students feel safe and comfortable in your quiet zone.

Offer sensory tools

In addition, there are many sensory tools that would be helpful to provide students at your after-school program. For example:

Sensory tools are extremely helpful in allowing each child to adapt the environment to their own sensory preferences. For example, if you cannot create a closed-off quiet zone, noise cancelling headphones allow children to still modify their environment to fit their needs.

Group of kids playing outside

Have an accessible toilet

Another important aspect of creating a sensory-friendly after-school program is access to an accessible toilet. Moreover, did you know that having the urge to use the toilet but not being able to do so, can lead to sensory overload? Therefore, it is very important that your after-school program has sufficient toilet and easy access to toilets as part of the after-school routine.

Provide food and drink

Also, make sure children are not hungry or thirsty. According to a research article titled, “Promoting Food Security for All Children” by Gitterman et al., 2015, a lack of food and nutrition reduces a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well. Food insecurity is also linked to emotional and behavioural problems (Gitterman et al., 2015) 1.  Make sure your after-school program supports access to food and nutrition.  And create a sensory-friendly, welcoming space, so children can enjoy eating. Different children may be hungry or thirsty at different times, after school. Finally, create a schedule that prevents children from getting hungry or thirsty after school.

Encourage both individual and group play

Playing in group settings for prolonged periods can be extremely overwhelming for many children with sensory sensitivities or processing disorders. As a result, it is important that children attending your after-school program have options. For example, provide activities and games that involve both group and individual play. Alternatively, alternate them, if the program is very structured. As much as possible, give children a choice in their experience. This will help children feel more comfortable in the environment by acknowledging that their needs are recognized and important.

Complete sensory-friendly staff training

Lastly, an important way to ensure that you are providing a positive experience for children with sensory sensitivities is by completing sensory-friendly staff training. This will help your team understand the best ways to structure the after-school program, the types of activities to provide and learn strategies to best interact with children that have additional needs. By doing this, you will help to establish positive relationships with all the students.

Consider checking out York Region’s inclusive recreation program and activity guide for more ideas. To learn more about ways to make schooling more sensory-friendly, check out:

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  1. Gitterman, B. A., Chilton, L. A., Cotton, W. H., Duffee, J. H., Flanagan, P., Keane, V. A., Krugman, S. D., Kuo, A. A., Linton, J. M., McKelvey, C. D., Paz-Soldan, G. J., Daniels, S. R., Abrams, S. A., Corkins, M. R., de Ferranti, S. D., Golden, N. H., Magge, S. N., & Schwarzenberg, S. J. (2015). Promoting Food Security for All Children. Pediatrics, 136(5), e1431–e1438.
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