On-Campus Sanctuaries: How Sensory Spaces Foster Collective Calm

College campuses are dynamic environments. Students soak up knowledge in fluorescent-lit classrooms to the tune of shuffling papers and keyboard clacking. Professors’ voices echo and reverberate in massive lecture halls with high ceilings and intricate architectural details. Between classes, crowds of hurried students create a near-constant hum of conversation, footsteps, and smartphone notifications.

After a day of these experiences, imagine pushing open a door and stepping into a room with soft lighting casting a gentle, calming glow. The walls are splashed with colorful, abstract art and projections of softly moving patterns, while a discreet sound machine creates a soothing auditory backdrop.

Walking deeper into the room, a soft, oversized bean bag chair beckons. Weighted blankets are neatly folded on a shelf, offering a sense of security and calm. The ambient glow from a fiber optic lamp adds a touch of magic to the space.

Such enchanting and carefully curated environments sound too good to be true, but they’re popping up on campuses across the nation, offering comfort, engagement, and sensory stimulation. The University of Minnesota’s Wilson Library, for example, offers a special space called the Sensory Room, providing a refuge for students seeking a break from life’s demands.

The room, which students can reserve for up to two hours, is equipped with stress-relieving tools such as fidget toys, weighted blankets, lava lamps, squeeze balls, and handwritten encouragements. The Sensory Room was proposed by a student who recognized its potential to help students relax and cope with mental health challenges. It was collaboratively brought to fruition with the support of library staff and stress-reduction experts.

In September, the University of Galway opened doors to a multi-sensory room collaboratively designed with input from students, specialist staff, and an architect. It features interactive lighting, visual effects, vibroacoustic elements, and sound effects to offer a personalized sensory experience. This space serves as a safe environment for students to self-regulate their sensory experiences, allowing them to choose from various calming or stimulating lighting, sound, and vibroacoustic settings. Comfortable furniture and sensory stress-relief items enhance the environment, promoting self-regulation opportunities and engagement in college life while fostering inclusivity.

“‘Inclusivity is a priority for the University to create equal opportunities and conditions for all, and we are focused on assisting those most in need,” Helen Maher, University of Galway vice president for equality, diversity and inclusion, stated in a press release. “This space is part of University of Galway’s wider efforts to accommodate and make the campus more accessible for students with additional needs.”

Other schools provide multi-sensory environments within their student affairs departments. Northwestern University’s Sensory Space, for instance, is located within the Student Affairs Department’s Health Promotion and Wellness,  Counseling and Psychological Services, and Center for Awareness, Response & Education) offices.

The space, typically open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., was modeled after the  Snoezelen multi-sensory environment, a therapeutic approach used worldwide to support neurodivergent individuals for more than three decades. In true Snoezelen fashion, Northwestern’s Sensory Space includes a color-changing bubble wall, weighted lap pads, a lava lamp, textured pillows, fabric bean bags, fidget toys, adult coloring books, and a soft moveable footrest.

Stony Brook University’s Student Accessibility Support Center Sensory Space, a dedicated relaxation area open to all students, is also managed by the school’s student affairs department. Like other spaces, it includes various resources like fidget toys, sensory seating, blankets, pillows, an encouragement wall, artwork, and noise-canceling items like earplugs and earmuffs.

But not all sensory rooms have permanent roots. Students at Texas A&M University can visit pop-up sensory rooms in various locations on campus to reduce overstimulation, get organized, and benefit from a calming environment. While primarily designed for students on the autism spectrum, these sensory rooms can help a wide range of students take a break from the hustle and bustle of campus life. Notably, administrators can use the portable solutions in conjunction with on-campus events, such as career fairs, to create a sensory-friendly space during their activities.

Northwestern’s Sensory Space includes a color-changing bubble wall.

In another distinct approach, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, is working to enhance game day for all attendees by introducing sensory rooms in Memorial Gymnasium and FirstBank Stadium. In July, the university announced that it is creating the SEC’s first certified sensory rooms to accommodate fans with sensory needs at baseball, basketball, and football games.

These rooms are designed to provide a quiet and safe environment, featuring sensory-friendly elements like bean bags, light-up walls, activity panels, bubble walls, and custom artwork. Sensory bags, equipped with helpful items, are available upon request for attendees, and staff members receive training to assist those with sensory needs.

Brooklyn Barnes, facilities and operations coordinator of student centers at Vanderbilt University, said her student affairs department is currently working create its own sensory area inspired by that of the athletics department.

“At the end of the day, we are hoping to create a space that is heavily utilized by our campus community and provides an opportunity for students to get away from the demands of their work and possibly meet new friends in the process,” she said.

Considering the end-user when planning to implement a sensory space in your union is paramount.

In a dissertation published earlier this year analyzing the use of sensory rooms in schools, Boston University’s Lisa Nickels advises using the vision of a sensory room to inform how you fill the space:

“Reconsider the target population and identify the resources that may be most beneficial to them, especially in considering how students will use the space. For example, will students be using the sensory room as an emotional de-escalation strategy? Equipping your sensory room for this purpose will look very different than if students will be using the sensory room to receive ancillary services such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech, and language, etc. Perhaps the sensory room will service multiple uses; this, too, will drive the strategies chosen for the space. Understanding the sensory room’s intended purpose, and the needs of students and staff using the space, will ensure strategies are deliberately chosen.”

Author

  • Christine Preusler

    Christine Preusler, Managing Editor at The Wyman Company in Gainesville, Florida, writes The Lead for ACUI's biweekly newsletter, The Bulletin. Christine uses more than 15 years of experience in publication management and a master’s in mass communications from the University of Florida to highlight the latest industry news and create thought-provoking content. Contact her via email (cpreusler@thewymancompany.com) with story ideas and announcements you'd like to see in the newsletter.