If this whole “educating America’s youth” thing doesn’t pan out, Wingate Elementary School might have a promising future as Centre County’s most eclectic resort and spa — a place where the downtrodden can go to log some time in a pea-pod chair or stick their hands in a bucket full of beans as a panacea to the day’s rigmarole.
Everything inside the school’s new “sensory room” — from the beans onward — has been arranged to evoke a sense of, if not relaxation, then equilibrium. There are posters of beaches and lakes, a small tent for quiet introspection and a distinctive blue quality to the light courtesy of some filters that have been placed across the overhanging fluorescent lights.
The students who drop by usually do so on the recommendation of teachers who feel that their classroom performance or emotional health could benefit from a 15- to 20-minute interlude here in Xanadu, where the tactile sensations acquired from even a simple blanket run deeply therapeutic.
“We want them to go back to the classroom, their minds more focused,” said Megan Weisbrode, an occupational therapist with the Bald Eagle Area School District.
Youth may be wasted on the young, but one would be hard pressed to say the same thing about trampolines. A towhead boy was bouncing vigorously on a miniature version located inside of the sensory room as recently as Tuesday morning.
To the casual observer, it could have appeared indistinguishable from what a parent might refer to as “getting all worked up.”
Weisbrode is not a casual observer.
“Movement paired with strong input to muscles and joints is usually really calming for kids,” Weisbrode said.
And then there’s the other possibility.
Weisbrode had some indirect experience with sensory rooms prior to bringing the concept to Wingate and her biggest fear was that without structure, the whole enterprise could devolve into a free-for-all working in direct opposition to the soothing ambiance they had created.
Students — with an assist from faculty — create a “visual schedule” that keeps the whole thing from becoming “Curious George” with putty.
Activities corresponding to a color-coded board ensure that every jump of the trampoline is balanced by some time under a weighted blanket or entombed in the pea-pod chair. The tactile input can have a calming effect.
Kristin Conklin, a paraeducator with BEA School District, said morning visits to the sensory room help the two kindergarten students she works with remain focused and still during quiet reading time.
Conklin said she thinks that the brief respite helps the students to decompress.
“They can just be by themselves for a little bit as opposed to a big group,” Conklin said.
Melissa Butterworth, the director of special education at Wingate, said they’ve already seen kids returning to class with more focus.
“It’s really worked out. I think we’ll probably expand it,” Butterworth said.