Designing A Sensory Break Path to Fit Your Space

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colorful lines and footprints on the floor and wall as a sensory path for students; Removing the Stumbling Block

**Update August 2020 - It is possible to utilize or create a path to fully support social distancing. Such spaces will be all the more important if other practices are limited or modified. For virtual learning, we might support families in creating appropriate paths or spaces at home.**

You may have seen the video that went viral of a young boy walking, stretching, and hopping along a path that a special education teacher designed, painted, and implemented in the elementary school where she works. She labored over the path for more than 80 hours, creating something special for the students in her school. 
small boy leaping from image to image painted on the floor of a school hallway; Removing the Stumbling Block 
A sensory path is meant to help a child use their own bodies and environment to calm themselves down. They use their muscles, breathing, and spatial awareness to make their way through the path and walk away from it reset and refreshed. When teachers know certain students in their class would benefit from movement breaks, they can allow students to leave class (in our space the students would leave with a madrich or madrichah - Hebrew for classroom assistant) and move through the sensory break path. It’s a preventative measure, geared toward improving focus and preventing disruptive behavior before it occurs. In our space we already have students who need breaks throughout the session walking laps around our building. I designed this as a productive alternative.

If you’ve seen the sensory path that went viral (image above), it is quite obviously a labor of love, but it is also rather busy. In my opinion there’s almost too much going on. It's always important to strike the right balance between a positive sensory experience and sensory overload. I also think that while wonderful for younger children, this path would seem too juvenile for older elementary and middle school students, who might dismiss it out-of-hand.

So, like many others out there, I designed my own. Also a labor of love, I might add; it just took me much less than 80 hours to complete.

four images that show different parts of a path on a classroom floor made from colorful tape with the phrase "Design a sensory break path to fit your space"; Removing the Stumbling Block

I was aware of the limits of our space.

Most importantly, our supplemental religious school serves children in PreK through grade 12, so I was wanted to create something that would be appropriate for the variety of ages.  

All students can use the path from time to time, to ground them on days when they’re feeling hyped up, anxious, or overstimulated in class.

video of two women trying our a sensory break path in a school; Removing the Stumbling BlockAs expected, the space was an immediate hit. The most rousing endorsement came from two parents; one who is a physical therapist and the other who is both an early childhood educator and the mother of one of our students who typically walks laps around our building.

My favorite moment was when a few third grade boys came to try it out. One, after whipping through it, declared that it was “too easy”. I tried to explain that it wasn’t a race, but he wasn’t listening.

Nevertheless, word spread fast and few minutes later the rest of the third grade class wanted to try it out, so back he came along with his peers. Before his turn he again declared, “But it’s so easy.” This time I shared, “It’s not an obstacle course, it’s a sensory path. Do you know what sensory means?”

“You mean like our senses?” he asked.

“Yes. Some people need a short break from their work to clear their head. Others need to get their blood flowing again so they can get back to work.”

“OK,” and off he went, back through the path. As he neared the end I asked, “So, is your blood flowing?”

“Yeah, now it is.”

The value of using spaces like this, fidgets, or any other tool meant to help a student find success is the context in which the tool is presented. Using the language of “this is a tool to help you” or “let’s take a sensory break,” enables students to more effectively speak about their needs and advocate for themselves in productive and meaningful ways.

Young child jumping along footprints on a classroom floor with the phrase "Sensory break path in action"; Removing the Stumbling Block
I think one of our third grade girls had the most important insight of the day:

As she completed the path she declared, “Oh, these need to be EVERYWHERE. I’m telling my mom we need one in our house.”

For more research on the benefits of sensory breaks read: The Impact of Sensory-Based Movement Activities on Students in General Education.

Updated June 2019:
***NEW*** To keep this space interesting for our students I added new elements (and will aim to do so each year). I purchased the spiral sticker and hand-print stickers below. Here are pictures of how this new pieces look:

Designing a sensory path; Removing the Stumbling Block
Designing a sensory path; Removing the Stumbling Block

Here are all the products I used to create this space:

Contact me to design a sensory break space for your setting or for additional professional development in using such tools effectively. 

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  1. I find sensory paths are good for me when I need to cross a threshold - to start and to finish a task.

    Also sensory paths are good to create and complete together with a trusted person, like the classroom assistants.

    And, yes, you can tell a path is successful when the blood is flowing!

    And you move differently in a rectangular room than in a square or circular room - I learnt this in the theatre when we studied different spatial worlds.

  2. My Level II student and I are created a sensory pathway for our school. Did you make the footprints or create them with tape?

    1. I actually purchased the footprints from Amazon. If you click on the image above it will take you to the ones I bought. Good luck! Would love to see pictures of what you create!

  3. I'm attempting to start a sensory path in my school for grades 6-8. Our school has a population of about 375 students with varying levels of ability and skills. I have a hallway between the foyer and my gym that is approximately 34' x 9' to work with. It could extend into the foyer if needed. The only ideas I have are wall sits, wall push ups and the sticky feet decals. Do you have any additional ideas for students of this level? Thanks for any suggestions you may have.

    1. Without any familiarity with your building it is hard for me to say whether or not you should avoid the foyer. If it is free of any dangerous or hazardous elements, I see no issue. If it would clog up the space or slow people down as they enter and exit, that might be worth considering. On the other hand, I am always in favor of making elements like this visible to all to open conversations about inclusion, sensory needs, etc.

      As to the actual elements, anything that will get students moving and not feel too babyish would work. One of my teachers suggested to me yesterday adding a carpet square to a wall as an additional, textured element. If you are able, I might get 2-3 students to help you come up with ideas. It will build investment in the space and would be empowering for this age cohort. Show them a few videos and pictures and let them "design" their paths. Notice the common elements and try to recreate as much as is feasible.

      Have fun! I'd love to see photos when you finish.


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