Sensory paths provide increased physical activity in schools and help focus kid’s minds for better learning outcomes
By Heidi Tattrie-Rushton
When the children in Jane Purdy’s grade 1 classroom at Smokey Drive Elementary in Lower Sackville start to get fidgety, she sends them out to play in the pond.
“The pond” at their school is in the hallway and is not made up of actual frogs and water, but is a series of vinyl decals along the floor in the design of a pond which makes up their sensory path.
Sensory paths are designed to provide a space for children to incorporate physical movement into their day, which has the added benefit of increasing mental focus, calming feelings of anxiety, working on mobility challenges, and accommodating different learning styles.
These paths began to receive a lot of attention amongst educators and parents last winter after the CBC shared a clip in early January that went viral. As a result, some local schools decided to install them.
Harry R. Hamilton Elementary School in Middle Sackville laid its sensory path in April. It had been on the radar since the fall when members of the School Advisory Council (SAC) talked to some occupational therapists who recommended the paths as another way to support children with attention or mobility needs. When the CBC clip started circulating on social media, it spurred the school into action.
Jane Gourley is the principal at Harry R. Hamilton Elementary School. She says the SAC was able to use some funding to purchase a sensory path set from Jump2Math, a Canadian company.
“The whole idea is to allow students who need to move around, who need a break, or who need to get rid of some of their energy and express themselves through movement, to have that space, which will help support their engagement once they’re back in the classroom,” Gourley says. “Kids start to self-identify that this is what they need right now in order to be more successful.”
The path features a variety of movements, including hops, squats, wall-sits, and fun twists and turns directed by colourful, imaginative themed designs. The set also includes letters and numbers, so children are learning while they squeeze in some extra physical activity.
“The main goal is movement and being able to express yourself in a different way,” Gourley says. “A lot of classes have movement breaks built into the day, so this is an extension of that part of the curriculum. The movement helps their bodies to grow along with what they’re learning academically.”
The school’s path is in its library’s makerspace in the hopes it will add to the inviting environment being built there, and receive less wear than if it were in the main hallway. The school also ordered an eight-foot by eight-foot hundreds chart on a mat, which can be placed anywhere in the school. Teachers can use it to play games such as finding even or odd numbers or to solve math problems by having the children hop onto the mat. Gourley says the hope is that by providing alternative ways for children to learn, they will be accommodating more learning styles.
“We want all of the children to be comfortable in their learning space,” she says.
THE LINK BETWEEN PHYSICAL AND COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT
Frasier Keaney works in the research and design department at Jump2Math. This past year 10,000 of their sensory paths were sold to schools across North America, about half of which were nature-themed.
Keaney says the nature-inspired themes are intentional.
“A good dose of nature has been shown to improve emotional well-being, that’s why we spend a lot of time designing beautiful, nature-themed decals to bring some colour and beauty indoors where children, especially those who can’t go outside, spend most of their time learning,” he says. “We also found that by merely changing the environment it can help kids who might have different types of anxieties, whether social anxiety or something like agoraphobia.”
To ensure the paths are engaging, challenging, and fun for all children, the company collaborates with kinesiologists, occupational therapists, parents, and teachers to gain insight into the types of movements and the designs used in the paths.
“We strive to keep up with the growing body of science and we’ve learned that sensory paths can also help children with lower inhibitory control. This is thought to explain a wide range of behavioural issues found in children, including those with ADHD,” Keaney says. “Game mats and sensory paths in schools allow more opportunities for aerobic exercise, which has shown to benefit cognitive performance in children.”
Based on feedback from schools and parents, Jump2Math is now developing outdoor and wall paths for schools, and even sets for Grades 7 to 12, including a Hallway Olympics path.
SETTING CHILDREN UP FOR SUCCESS
At Smokey Drive Elementary School in Lower Sackville, Purdy worked with the Sackville High School’s O2 class to make their own set of sensory path decals. They were installed in May.
She says her focus for the path was to give children who might be overstimulated or have special attention-related needs the space to burn off some energy so they can be more successful in the classroom.
“For us it was less about exercise than about providing an option for when the kids need to get up and move and centre themselves,” Purdy says. “They can be sad about something or disappointed or in an argument with a friend and just need that little bit of time and it’s providing that.”
The high school had coincidentally received a large donation of vinyl from a company, which made it a cost-effective option for a class project. The teens met with Purdy’s Grade 1 class and together they designed the look of the pond path, as well as the physical activities to incorporated into it.
She says the pond gets used on a regular basis. Sometimes children self-identify they need a break. Other times she can spot when a child is finding it difficult to concentrate or seems upset about something, and so she sends them out to the pond pre-emptively to set them up for success.
“They just need a break from the room and it’s something to help them burn some energy, refocus their body, and be able to return to class,” she says.
Children, in particular those working with educational program assistants, have enjoyed the pond for transitions from the classroom to the Learning Centre. Before the sensory path existed, they would take walks around the school. Now they have an interactive option that also works a wider variety of muscle groups and provides a fun transition the children look forward to.
Purdy says the whole school community is enjoying the path and there are plans to eventually purchase a pre-made set for the upstairs part of the school. She says although it’s an excellent chance to add in those short bursts of exercise throughout the day, the school is most excited about the changes already being seen in the children’s classroom behaviour and learning capabilities.
“This is about giving kids that time and place to go when they need to get up and stretch or refocus their mind,” she says. “It’s about getting their bodies into a place to learn.”
Physical activity and brain development are linked
By Heidi Tattrie-Rushton
Most people have heard that being active is important to their physical health. However, what most don’t know is how important it is to their mental health.
The data keeps coming back that Canadians aren’t meeting the daily minimum requirements for physical activity. Even more recent research is emphasizing there’s a strong correlation between physical activity and developing brain function and structure.
Despite this research, ParticipACTION’s 2018 Report Card shows only 35% of five to 17-year-olds are reaching their recommended daily physical activity levels.
The report card shows increased physical activity, even in short bursts, can support learning and brain development: “Active children and youth are better able to pay attention, focus, and concentrate on a given task for a longer period of time. This also appears to be true for children and youth with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder, with even a single bout of physical activity improving attention and focus.”
The research also says physical activity can serve as a short-term distraction from anxiety symptoms for children and youth, and can be a confidence and mood-booster for all kids.
The Public Health Agency of Canada published a plan called A Common Vision, with the goal of getting Canadians of all ages more active: “Children and youth are spending approximately 8.4 hours of the waking day sedentary, the majority of which is spent at school.”
Schools have been incorporating movement breaks into their curriculum, as well as increasing outdoor and physical education classes whenever possible. However, there are many children who still need extra activity to help keep them focused and have success in the classroom. New strategies, such as sensory paths in schools, are some of the alternative options schools are adopting in response to this research.