Sound is now an integral part of the sensory environments that exist in many special schools, and the latest technology involved encourages interaction, stimulation and feedback

They come in all shapes and sizes and, as small, Victorian-built special schools make way for much larger state-of-the-art edifices, architects are including them in their new designs. Multi-sensory environments are now firmly established as part of the therapeutic facilities of many special schools. But with their origins in the snoezelen rooms of the 1970s, they too have undergone something of a metamorphosis. Rooms whose key features were soft structures and ball-pools have been replaced with hi-tech environments using the latest technology to transform pupils’ sensory experience. Replete with state-of-the-art lighting systems and projectors they can transport pupils to faraway places. And part of creating that ‘other world’ is, of course, sound. Take the example of Ysgol Pendalar in Caernarfon, North Wales, where Experia provided a sensory pool, soft play environment and two sensory rooms for a new purpose-built school costing some £4.6m. The school, which is very much part of the local community, caters for approximately 85 pupils from 3–19 years of age with a variety of needs. The suppliers worked closely with architects, building contractors and other trades to ensure that floor and wall coverings, ventilation, heating and electrical infrastructure were best suited for the areas, while staff got on with managing the move from their old premises. The pool required some specialist knowledge and equipment due to height limitations of the room. Low voltage equipment was necessary in the pool area to meet with health and safety legislation and Experia was one of two companies able to supply this. The lighting within the pool included new IRiS LED lights to flood the area with colour, IRiS shape projectors and IRiS light changers—all which are controlled by the pupils from within the pool using state of the art IRiS fully submersible switches. Interactive Solar 250 projectors were used to create background lighting and effects on the walls and ceiling. Sound within the pool was emitted by high spec BOSE speakers, ensuring absolute clarity. In the interactive sensory room a quality sound system with radio microphone was also used to encourage vocalisation.

Children in control
Whereas earlier sensory environments were all about relaxation, new switch technology—and new pedagogic approaches— have now put interaction, stimulation and feedback to the fore. Carefully constructed multi-sensory environments can be used to encourage pupils to begin to exercise a degree of control over their experiences. Phil Ellis of iMUSE at the University of Sunderland recently described two examples of introducing music/sound technology to children with cerebral palsy (CP) and profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), which further inspired him to create a ‘sonic environment’—a quiet space in which a child or adult could choose to be silent or to create and control sound simply through movement. As Phil explains:

‘An important feature of the therapy is that it is essentially non-invasive, with an emphasis placed on the creation of a highly controlled environment in which individuals are able to choose to develop a range of skills through aesthetic interaction with sound. The essence lies in the internal motivation of the individual; in working from the ‘inside-out’. At all times the individual is given the opportunity to take control of the situation as far as possible. It seems that by giving a person absolute control over sound—where even the smallest movement can generate a sound—the development of expression, interaction, physical control and a sense of wellbeing can take place.’
The Development of Interactive Multisensory Environments for Expression, 1992–2007

Phil’s equipment included a digital sound processor and microphone, which were used to develop a range of vocal rather than verbal skills, and a Soundbeam. The latter is used as a standalone piece of equipment in many SEN settings, but it is also increasingly included in multisensory environments. By interacting with the ultrasonic beam emitted by the equipment the user can convert physical movement into electronically produced sound. Even the slightest gesture—a flick of the hand, a nod of the head—can produce a musical equivalent. If you would like to get some idea of what people with learning difficulties or disabilities can achieve with the Soundbeam then try logging on to It will do wonders for your blood pressure. While the original Soundbeam has undergone some significant changes since it was introduced, it has also inspired a whole new world of vibroacoustic equipment, such as the Soundbed, Soundchair, Soundbox and Minibox. These contain loudspeakers mounted beneath resonant cavities that transmit vibration directly to the person sitting or lying on them, enabling the vibrations of sound and music to be experienced physically. These are an ideal feature for any child who is deaf or hearing impaired.

Of course, sound can be used in any therapeutic setting and there is a growing trend to include it in swimming and hydrotherapy pools. A typical example is Bleasdale House Special Needs School in Lancashire, where SpaceKraft has carried out a makeover of the school’s pool, installing its Sensory Show Magic system, which produces interactive sound and lighting effects. LED lighting installed by the company offers 16.4 million colours at the flick of a switch and, because these switches can be operated from the poolside, all learners can now control the equipment themselves and have a direct influence on their surroundings. SpaceKraft was also able to reprogram many of the existing lights and make other features work more effectively. The school currently has 25 children aged between two and 19 who use the new pool, and the emphasis is on learning. According to headteacher Bob Wright, ‘All our children have profound and multiple learning difficulties, physical difficulties and other associated sensory difficulties, and the new equipment provides a combination of effects that we can use in themed approaches with the children in lessons. When they’re in the water, they’re not just swimming or doing a water activity; the aim is to embellish activities, to accentuate all learning experiences. Our aim is to provide as many experiences as possible for this particular group of children. It’s about the pupils affecting their own environment; it’s about control and it’s about learning.’

Reaching all the senses
In a separate installation in Sandgate Special School in Kendal, Cumbria, SpaceKraft has included a high-class sound system in a new multisensory room that is proving a huge success with staff and pupils. Headteacher Tom Robson explains, ‘We like to call the room our sensory studio because it’s a creative space where you can do lots of activities, from working with individuals through to delivering whole- class lessons related to particular topics or themes. For example, in a geography lesson themed on deserts, we can actually make the room hotter to support the idea. It’s great! The system is remote controlled and interactive so that pupils can affect their own environment, even though they may have limited movement. We also have a huge digital projection system.’

Finding solutions for your setting
Naturally, in any design project it is crucial that staff and pupils are fully involved to ensure that the finished product meets their needs. Important lessons can be learned from schools that have already seen projects through to completion. Visits or telephone conversations are well worth making before you finalise your own plans. Not all solutions demand huge spaces and even bigger budgets. Most companies can offer a design service but it is important that the project isn’t company led.

One example of this approach is Beatrice Tate School in east London, which caters for pupils aged 11–19 with severe or profound multiple learning difficulties. After careful thought and planning it opted for a flexible studio system where the space could be used for a variety of functions. As headteacher Alan Black explains: ‘I wanted multi-sensory education to be challenging, innovative, fun and not an activity that could be effectively carried out only in a dedicated room.’ As a result, Alan’s final instructions to the builders were to construct two rooms of different sizes that could be completely dark when required. Both rooms would be completely white with contrasting floor colour, air conditioning, large storage spaces and a high quality audio system located in the store with speakers concealed in the room ceilings. Studio 1 would have windows to the corridor with white blinds and a ceiling window with an electric white blind to allow daylight to light the room naturally, if required, and an interactive whiteboard and projector. Studio 2 would be smaller with an overhead hoist and would be dedicated to the needs of a small group of pupils. Up to 40 electrical points were added to the walls, ceiling and floor so that multi-sensory resources could be situated anywhere within the room. Solutions like those of Beatrice Tate School demonstrate that when it comes to multi-sensory environments, as with many other aspects of educational provision, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Indeed there are signs that some of the features of what used to be an ‘exclusive’ feature of school provision are finding their way into general classroom design. Certainly as the Building Schools for the Future programme gathers pace, with its emphasis on co-location, there is evidence that something initially seen as special will increasingly become mainstream. Ambient music already plays a role in maintaining a relaxed atmosphere in some mainstream schools and the recent acquisition of SpaceKraft by RM attests to the demands being placed on major suppliers to cater for a wider group of needs as part of the BSF programme. Whatever solution or supplier schools opt for, however, it is equally important that staff training is built into any budget if the benefits of major installations are to be realised. Equipment like Soundbeam may come as part of a multisensory package but like any sophisticated piece of equipment there is the ever present danger that it will be under-used or even forgotten if there isn’t a member of staff on hand who knows how to get the best from it.