School unveils sensory room for kids

DULUTH - Relaxed students learn better.

That's the premise behind a new multisensory room at the Monarch School, which provides special education services to special-needs students who are 3 to 5 years old.

The room is filled with equipment that lights up and vibrates. Students can play in a ball pit, crawl through a tunnel, change the colors in a bubble tube and experiment with sound with an interactive acoustic panel.

The room is designed to stimulate the students' hearing, vision, touch and movement, said Melinda Hernandez, an occupational therapist who works at the school. It's a controlled environment where therapists and teachers can increase or decrease the intensity of the sensations, she said.

"We have a large number of autistic students and severe profound students," Hernandez said.

A severe profound student is one whose disability is severe and profound, she said. The disability often affects vision and hearing, and the student is often wheelchair-bound.

The students' sensory needs will be evaluated, and those with the greatest need will spend 20 to 30 minute sessions in the room, Hernandez said. The goal is that the room will affect the students' moods immediately, making them more relaxed, and that in the long term the students will learn preacademic skills, such as being able to identify shapes and counting.

All students will have a chance to use the room because "it's just stinkin' fun," said Barbara Martin, the school's principal.

The room's equipment cost $25,000, and Martin said fundraising from staff and donations from Wall Technologies, Team One Repair and Ninth District Opportunity helped pay for the equipment.

Ron Harris of The Soda Shop Deli and Dairy Bar in Duluth came to the school Thursday with his 2-year-old twin daughters, Caroline and Heidi. The Soda Shop is one of the school's business partners.

The girls ran from the ball pit to the bubble tube to the acoustic panel, playing with nearly everything in the room.

Harris said his daughters like playing at the gym or going to an indoor play space.

"I've never seen them get so involved or interact with anything like this," said Harris, who daughters are not students at the school. "The hard part will be getting them to leave."