by Richard Hirstwood


On many of my visits to schools I see an empty softplay room. So first of all, let us consider the area for ‘quiet time’. This cold be on a group or individual basis. When dealing with a child with severe sensory impairment and little movement, they are often bombarded by the many stimuli in the classroom environment (directed or non-directed activities). They may need time, in a quiet area, to escape or to focus on one activity. The soft play room could be then used to take the child into an area which is both interesting and safe. It may then be used as an area to develop the child’s attention and concentration span, gradually enabling him or her to become more successful in the multi-stimuli classroom.

A quiet session should not be seen as ‘segregation’ or ‘punishment’, but as part of an individual’s learning plan. The child’s need has been identified (i. To develop sufficient coping strategies to function in the noisy classroom) and this will be met in the soft playroom. A child with complex learning difficulties may also retire to the area for a one-to-one session with different members of staff, such as the speech and language therapist, physiotherapist or teacher of the deaf. The session is a not an energetic session but a welcome haven from the bustling classroom activities and the focus of the session is the relationship, communication and learning between the teacher and child. Thorough assessment of the child’s needs is also possible in this situation, as is ongoing assessment once aims have been set.

The area is safe and this is often communicated to the child, as the adult will not need t direct the child away from dangerous hard surfaces and harp objects which may injure. The soft floor mats allow a child to safely explore, either directed by the teacher or moving of his or her own accord.

The environment is therefore safe for the child to explore and discover bright colours, different tactile surfaces etc. using different motor kills than those required in the classroom. Sitting with a child, listening to music, experiencing with the child is often very valuable.

But first we need to evaluate the child’s needs and then set our aims and objectives in the softplay room. For instance, if you were to count the range of tactile experiences you are exposed to over the period of a day, then compare this with that of a child with complex learning difficulties, the difference is vast. When a child has visual and hearing difficulties, touch will be an important mode of communication and this skill needs to be experienced, developed and learned.

Imagination will need to be used to achieve this experience in the soft play room as the floor mats and wall in themselves may not offer a varied range of tactile experience. Small nets, balls (hard and soft), false fur, plastic shapes and cushions will all help a child discover the varied range of tactile sensations we experience everyday.

The point needs to be emphasised that to ensure the appropriateness of the session, the teacher will need to know with some accuracy the visual, hearing and physical abilities of the child and they will need to use the furniture to accommodate the child in his or her best position. For example, it may be easier for a child to access tactile material prone over a small wedge, rather than in a sitting position or a child may need to be laid on their ‘good’ side to allow them to best hear the sound. One of the most important aspects of this session will be to allow the child to discover their senses at their own pace without outside stimulus. Using tactile objects can lead on to a host of ‘life skills’@ visual perception, hand-eye coordination, fine motor control and communication, to list a few.

Another area which could be addressed in a softplay room is confidence. A child with complex learning difficulties is often disempowered and may have low self-esteem. Things may be done for/to the child. He or she may be directed by more able peers. Softplay areas can allow children to take control of a situation and learn about this. For example, the room can be designed to incorporate different heights using slopes and blocks. These could be utilised to allow the child to gain control over a situation.

Children with physical difficulties rarely get the chance to be at the same height level as their peers. So the child could be encouraged to scale the slope with help and lie on the top, or be positioned there so they are on the same level as the teacher. The child can then be encouraged to control the situation. This will change the usual hierarchy of control from the teacher to the child. Directing the teacher or other peers in simple, enjoyable activities will also empower the child—a chance to be the ‘teacher’. This will help the chld gain confidence and understand control in a safe, soft environment.

When working with more able children, more advanced educational activities may be undertaken in a quiet play session in the room. Again, the area is safe and reassuring. As play sessions are often one-to-one or in small numbers, the activity may be more specifically directed at the child’s ability. For the mobile child, finding and touching the colours of the various mats, or matching the colours to cards could be an interesting activity. Language comprehension and expression could be developed. From single words and two-word utterances (i.e. ‘blue’, ‘red ball’) to more complex sentence construction (‘John stand on the yellow mat and point to the big, green ball.’) the soft playroom is full of possibilties for developing expression. Equally, the potential for extending comprehension of language is great—all in a fun, exciting place! Allowing children to problem-solve is a great way of learning. Allowing children to push large physio balls over mats, slopes and obstacles will help children gain body coordination, motor control and the cognitive abilities to find the answer to the given task or problem. Children need to gain the confidence to go under the tunnel, over the bridge and through the forest. They may need to gain the confidence independently from the teacher in a session where staff are present, but the child or children are left to explore at all levels by themselves. A greater sense of achievement is felt when we accomplish something on our own. We often like our own space and territory. Children encouraged to freely play in the area will develop the knowledge of ‘territories’ and personal space. ‘When he is in the tunnel I can not go in there’ or ‘this is my space, stay away!’

More structured sessions could be carried out on a group basis. A treasure hunt with small groups of children can be planned with varying degrees of diffiuclty. Objects could be placed around the room which need to be found. The skills involved in this task are varied and wide-ranging and again will help children to build confidence and have a sense of achievement when completed. We can encourage teamwork by using the area for group play with more able children, ‘make a bridge to go over the crocodile pit’, for example.

Children could make parachute ‘tents’ and ‘go camping’ lying under the parachute so developing teamwork and turn-taking skills.

Drama and are could be integrated into the softplay room. The theme chosen may be curricular activity or one which is particular to that school term. The planning of the room may be the first activity. Children should be encouraged to use their skills to create and extend the theme. For an underwater theme, children oculd make the props painting sheets, making mobiles or directing an enabler to do so. When the theme is completed, the children can be encouraged to pretend play in the theme in the softplay room. Again, this can be confidence building and we could give the children total control over what happens within the theme, valuing and respecting their opinions and judgments. This would also give the opportunty for the children to develop the skills of compromise and negotiation.

So there are many activities which can be structured in the softplay room that we could not possibly hope to discuss them all! We wish to merely whet your appetite, to get you thinking and to begin an adventure in your softplay room which is fun, stimulating, meeting learning needs and exciting!

When designing the room, you must consider your aims and objectives. The design may 8include raised areas, slides, hanging bags and floor effects such as soft vertical posts. You will also need to consider the movable furniture, such as wedges, rolls and seats, which will depend on the needs of the children. Thought should be given to the colour of the room. Although the room will inevitably be colourful you may need to consider the positions of the colours. Contrasting floor and wall padding colours will help children with visual impairments realise how large or small the room is and help with special awareness. Contrasting colours on the floor may indicate changes in surface or height. The room may need to have good access for wheelchairs, so whole floor padding may not be an option. There should be no gaps in the floor padding where small feet could be trapped. Electrical sockets need to be tamper-proof yet accessible. Special fittings on doors to prevent trapped fingers are available and should be used.

However, soft play is about having fun and your room should reflect this. It should be bright and colourful. There should be the potential for many varied activities—think of your room as a canvas on which to create something different each day. But above all your room should be safe.

Safety in the softplay room is of utmost importance and this is where the subject is a little grey in the UK. In the absence of a specific standard for softplay products, BS5852 with ignition sources 0 and 5 is an acknowledged standard. Although this is a furniture standard, BS5852, with ignition sources 0 and 5, should as a minimum standard apply to the separate components, eg the foam and PVC covering. The highest standard is the ‘combined’ test PVC and foam together. However, in the past, the only foam capable of consistently meeting BS5852 parts 0 and 5 in the ‘combined’ test was graphite-impregnated foam. But there are other foam types now on the market which would appear to reach the required combined foam and PVC standard. When asking your supplier about the safety of the product they sell, it is not unreasonable to request a certificate of validation to the above standards. If the company’s softplay does not meet the standard, then you should question them to find out why and to see if there is a viable answer. In truth, the safety of softplay is a subject of discussion between the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSpa), the Association of Play Industries (API) and the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management (ILAM). Unfortunately they do not expect to see a softplay BS number for quite some time, as there are other organisations in the UK involved in the debate, each with their own view on safety

So, when the representative arrives at your door, investigate the quality of the softplay products. Loose covers will cause wear and the life of the softplay will be severely affected. One supplier commented that the term ‘softplay’ is rather misleading as a good floor mat will actually be tight and moderately hard if it is constructed well. There should be no hard corners as they will wear rapidly and the zips used should be of high quality. These are things which we may consider obvious. However, if the quality is not inherent in the products, then the installation is likely to be of concern too.

When working on a large budget you may wish to ease your mind by involving any inspection from RoSpa. It may be sensible to arrange a pre-site inspection and a completion inspection by RoSpa, which is usually paid for by your supplier. But this should be carried out with the agreement of the supplier before you place an order.

There are many considerations when setting u pand using a softplay room and the booklet Safety in Indoor Adventure Play Areas will go some way in advising you best. The book will give you some very sinsible guidelines about a vast rage of safety issues in softplay rooms and is available from the ILAM. I am also informed by the APUI that the new version will be available around autumn 1998.

So when buying your next softplay room or equipment, don’t always buy the cheapest price you are quoted as this industry is, like all,  ‘you get what you pay for’! Bear in mind also that although you may have a fantastic new room without real aims and objectives it is a fraction of its amazing potential. Happy playing.

Richard Hirstwood has ten years’ experience in the field of MSR and has been the country’s only fulltime MSR tutor for the last three years. He is the co-author of the Practical Guide to Multisensory Rooms and has contributed to two books published by David Fulton Publishers.


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