Sensory library program bolsters child learning

Mar. 12—A unique program to tap into kids' sensory needs while learning is coming to a Mankato day care.

The unique educational initiative will give teachers and families the chance to try sensory items for their kids and students without having to make the commitment of buying them.

Cultivate Minnesota and Cultivate Mankato have teamed up with Persist Therapy to bring a one-of-a-kind sensory library to the Cultivate Mankato site.

Available for checkout will be tools and resources to offer kids sensory support to help with behavior, communication and more.

Cultivate Mankato co-lead preschool teacher Sonja Fiedler, who is among the first to utilize the library for her classroom while the project is in its initial phases, said the items have brought many benefits to learning.

She said the tools help kids work through the behaviors that they have and help them express themselves.

"We've really come to find that behaviors stem from them wanting to communicate in some type of form, and sometimes they just don't know how to do that," Fiedler said.

Fiedler said having a library such as this one offers a new perspective on behaviors, adding that at the end of the day, kids are often simply trying to let adults know how they feel.

"A lot of it is the sensory that they need to push out and get out of their body," she said.

"It can be very difficult for them (to communicate.) Just because, imagine being a three to five-year-old and trying to express the way you feel, and you just can't do that."

What is a sensory library?

According to Persist Therapy owner and occupational therapist Sam Olsen, sensory equipment helps the body feel well-regulated so kids can work through those behaviors, which helps them learn the skills they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.

"We all have our own unique and individual sensory system, and how we respond to it, what the environment has set up for us, really depends on our own unique sensory system, so we all have things and supports that we might need to put in place," she said.

Olsen said while that might come intuitively for some people, kids with various diagnoses or those who need additional support might need further help in figuring out what works best.

"When our body is well regulated and we're feeling our best, skills that we need beyond that can really grow from that," said Olsen. "For example, if our body's not well regulated, it makes it very difficult to learn a new skill."

The library's sensory canoe and crash pad are two examples of items that help kids regulate their body in different ways.

"The sensory canoe, that's one of my favorites," Olsen said.

"Some kids sometimes need a little depressor, think of a bear hug, right, but they might not want to get that input from another human. They might not want someone else touching them, so the cozy canoe is awesome in that it provides that depressor and that input that their nervous system might need to feel regulated and ready to go within their environment but not get that from another human."

Similarly, the crash pad allows kids to get their energy out in a safe environment.

The large, soft mat serves as a landing spot, allowing kids to run up and jump into it during playtime.

Fiedler said she sometimes uses the library's "Mr. Skeleton," a tool that teaches kids about their body, to help her students communicate how they feel.

"The Mr. Skeleton man allows kids to not only learn about the insides of them, but also the outsides of them," she said.

"A lot of it stems from knowing how they're feeling on the inside rather than what they're feeling on the spot, so it gives them a chance to make those similar connections."

Students can also use the items to set up an obstacle course, which Fiedler said helps kids get out their energy and have fun with the items in the room.

What makes the sensory library unique, said Olsen, is its try-before-you-buy model.

Olsen said often times, an occupational therapist working with a family might recommend certain sensory support, but it's not a cookie cutter approach.

What works for one child may not work for another, which means that when equipment is recommended, it might not always be the best fit.

But for families who don't have financial resources, trying different equipment can quickly add up.

"As a provider, that's heartbreaking, and so the sensory library provides families with the opportunity to come in and rent the equipment that may have been recommended by their occupational therapist to see, 'Is this a good fit before it's something that I purchase?'" Olsen said.

Making it happen

Cultivate Minnesota Board Member Laura Walser said discussion on opening the library began as her team realized how much sensory development played a role in learning and what her team offered families.

Once they knew they wanted to make it happen, they reached out to the community to fundraise for the project.

The library was funded entirely through $2,500 in donations.

Cultivate Minnesota has been using the space at Cultivate Mankato internally since fall of 2022 and plans to open it up in phases.

Right now, they've opened the space to Cultivate Mankato teachers and expect to open it to Cultivate Mankato families in the next month to work out any kinks that might come up in their checkout system.

After that, it will open up to the community.

Walser said so far, the response has been what they've hoped for.

"I think in my mind, what I see, and I get really excited about is the education piece behind it," she said.

"For even the time we've spent with teachers and teaching them about it and the equipment, it's been really fun to see them learn more about the children. It's not just, 'Oh great, I love that this has gotten my child to quit with this behavior.' It's more that they've learned about that child and understood things."

What to expect

Once the space opens up to the public, people will be able to view items online and get a brief description of what they can be used for before checking them out.

Items will be free.

If parents and teachers decide they want to buy an item, Walser said the library will direct them to where they can do so through sites such as Amazon.

The space itself won't be available to rent out, but Walser said that's something they're considering for the future.

"We think bigger aside from teachers that might want to utilize material, or parents, even other service providers that might want to be able to use this space, because maybe they don't have the space yet, or maybe they're just starting out," she said.

Fiedler said while the tools in the library are made for a purpose, they also help bring her class together as a way to get that sensory output as a group.

"At the end of the day, it's something fun for them," she said.