Snoezel rooms: a safe, calm space for special-needs pupils


University students from Brussels are helping teachers realise the full potential of snoezel rooms, calming spaces that allow children with mental disabilities to relax and explore their senses

More than a playground

Snoezelen is one of those Dutch terms that’s hard to translate, the word being a contraction of the verbs snuffelen (to explore) and doezelen (to relax). The concept was coined by two Dutch therapists in the 1970s, when they set up an experimental sensory tent for people with mental disabilities at a fair.

The tent was filled with simple installations such as a fan blowing paper shreds, ink mixed with water that was projected on to a screen, musical instruments, tactile objects, scent bottles and tasty foods. The purpose was to provide a multi-sensory experience that would entice visitors but also help them to relax.

Since then, this kind of therapy has gradually been integrated into the care for people with mental disabilities and also for others with special needs, such as patients with dementia. Large centres with extensive snoezel spaces have been launched, like Het Balanske care centre in the Flemish Brabant town of Sint-Joris-Winge and the Sens-City centre in Overpelt, Limburg.

The Children’s Rehabilitation Centre at Ghent’s University Hospital, meanwhile, started a project to help rehabilitate children with brain damage via selective sensory stimulation, to rediscover certain perceptions and to calm down.

But more and more schools are installing their own small snoezel rooms for their pupils. One of them is Ter Bank school in Heverlee, a district of Leuven, which provides special education to toddlers and pupils at primary and secondary level.

“We used to go to Het Balanske with groups of youngsters but decided it would be both financially and pedagogically more advantageous to create our own room for our about 210 students,” says Tine Dupont, who co-ordinates the secondary education department at Ter Bank. She also wrote a thesis on snoezelen.

For the design of the snoezel room, Ter Bank entered a contest run by the TV programme Huizenjacht (House Hunt) on VT4, through which the school received the help of a specialist architect. They relied on sponsorship and donations to pay for the snoezel room, which cost about €32,000.

Look and do touch

The first thing the children at Ter Bank do when they enter the snoezel space is take off their shoes, which immediately instills a sense of cosiness. They can then explore the different spaces in the room, which can be softly lit in relaxing colours. 

The room encourages that sense of wonder that we often lose as adults

- Tine Dupont

The room features a water bed, a ball pond, a quiet corner with mirrors, a virtual aquarium, a column with bubbles that change colour if a button is pushed, glowing cords and other materials that are nice to look at or touch. The room also has a projector and a sound installation, to play music or relaxing videos such as scenes of nature.

Children enter in small groups of up to eight, so it is never too crowded. Individual sessions can also be valuable for the development of certain students.

“We have clearly noticed that the room encourages that important sense of wonder that is so healing but that we often lose as adults,” says Dupont (pictured below with pupils in the snoezel room). “But we also had the impression that snoezelen was too much of an activity in itself, instead of a means to achieve certain developmental goals with the children. So we set up a project for pupils to create specific learning tools. One tool could serve to help a child with autism break out of a position of isolation, another could help to calm down a youngster who is normally hyperactive.” 

Structured snoezelen

This project was taken up during the last academic year by two students in orthopedagogy at the Odisee University College, previously known as Brussels University College (HUB). It served as the Bachelor’s thesis for Sophie De Grève and Eleija Wauters.

Many teachers were also a little in the dark about the purpose of snoezelen

- Sophie De Grève

However, when the two students observed the methods of the teachers at Ter Bank, they quickly realised that their original plan was too ambitious; they had to lay a better foundation for snoezelen first.

“I had little knowledge about snoezelen when we started the research, since I’d never encountered it during my previous internships and didn’t learn much about it in class,” says De Grève. “We discovered that many of the teachers at Ter Bank were also a little in the dark about the precise purpose of snoezelen.”

According to the students, the children were mostly free to roam around snoezel spaces, without much structure in the activities. “It sometimes felt like it was just used as an expensive indoor playground, with children throwing around the balls from the ball pond,” De Grève says.

So the students decided to focus on creating an information brochure to clarify the purposes of snoezelen and to provide practical tips on improving the multi-sensory experience for students.

“We don’t mean to say that children cannot explore in a snoezelen room on their own, but it’s good to have some variation in the activities,” explains Wauters. “It should also be possible to have structured snoezel sessions in which there is a focus on one of the separate senses or a particular body movement. At a playground, children want to try everything at once and get excited instead of calming down. That is not what snoezelen is about. A snoezel room should invite children to explore and should surprise them.”

Far from finished

One of the practical tips that De Grève and Wauters mention in their brochure is to create a ritual to make it clear to youngsters that class is over and they are going to the snoezel room.

“Children with mental disabilities often benefit from repeated actions that provide structure to their schedules,” explains Wauters. The students suggested singing a particular song whenever they were going to the room or giving them a specific doll in class when making the transition.

The students also made certain proposals for new materials in the snoezel room. “Professional snoezel equipment can be very expensive,” says De Grève. “But it’s actually not so difficult to create your own tools.” A sensory play board can be made with a simple wooden board and everyday objects like a sponge, brush and washcloth, for example. 

We could set up a project to involve parents more in snoezelen

- Eleija Wauters

“There actually is a lot of information available,” says Wauters. “We got a lot of theoretical background and practical tips from the authors of Het Grote Snoezelboek [The Big Snoezel Book].”

All the information and tips that the students gathered is summarised in an easy-to-use guide for the teachers at Ter Bank. “But this brochure can also be of help to other schools or teachers with similar challenges,” says Wauters. She has received several requests for the brochure – one, for example, from a Fleming who was going to teach in Peru.

Thanks to the project, teachers at Ter Bank are making more efforts to improve the sessions in their snoezel rooms. “Many teachers now use rituals and take along extra thematic materials to bring more variety into the snoezelen activities,” says Dupont.

But the project at Ter Bank is far from finished. Two more students, also from Odisee University College, will this year try to develop the learning tools for specific developmental goals for youngsters – as was the original plan last year.

“I also hope to establish a separate working group at the school soon, which should focus on expanding the scope of the snoezelen activities in our room,” says Dupont. “We could set up a project to involve parents more in snoezelen, since they know best the needs and preferences of their child. That way, we can adapt the experience further to the personal needs of each student.”

Photos: Natalie Hill

University students from Brussels are helping teachers realise the full potential of snoezel rooms, calming spaces that allow children with mental disabilities to relax and explore their senses.

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