Subscribe to our free fortnightly newsletter and stay ahead with the latest news in edtech

Stimulate the senses for a brighter future

Dr Margot Sunderland on how and why a sensory-rich school environment can support mental health and optimise learning

Posted by Julian Owen | June 26, 2019 | Health & wellbeing

Recent scientific research shows that children learn best in sensory-rich classrooms.    

Key Stage 1 and early years environments are sensory-rich: full of colour, texture and sensory stimuli. However as children ascend through primary and secondary school, there tends to be a significant scarcity of colour-rich walls, plants, fabric, sculpture; instead, they become replaced by desks in rows with bare walls and harsh lighting.  In short: a move from sensory-rich to sensory-poor. 

Policy makers in education seem to believe that older children are less in need of a sensory-rich environment. This contradicts the latest enriched environment (EE) studies, which prove the vital benefits of sensory-rich environments for mind, brain and body at any age. Our failure to apply this new knowledge to schools is detrimental to both pupils and staff.

But what exactly do neuroscientists mean by ‘enriched environments’ and why are they so vital for learning? EEs stimulate the brain in positive ways and bring about improvements in cognitive performance, problem solving, focused attention and stress management. To qualify as ‘enriched’, environments must engage the student in four ways: cognitively, physically, socially and on a sensory level. The environment must be changed frequently - not the same old sandpit and toys repeatedly.  

To ignore the impact of enriched environments on children’s minds and bodies is tantamount to social, psychological and cognitive neglect 

Enriched environments induce the genetic expression of important brain fertilisers known as neurotrophins, trigger synaptogenesis and promote anti-anxiety chemicals. 

Neurotrophins trigger brain growth, which means new brain cells are produced. This process is called neurogenesis. Neurogenesis takes place in the brain’s frontal lobes, the area focused on learning, planning, handling stress well and social/emotional intelligence. 

Neurogenesis triggered by enriched environments also occurs in the hippocampus, a small organ located within the medial temporal lobe - key for memory and so vital for learning. In one study, rats were given an enriched environment with lots of apparatus on which to run and climb, interesting food, and plenty of social interaction. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies found that “two months later, the rats had an extra 50,000 brain cells on each side of their hippocampus”. Following the experiment, the animals passed learning and memory tasks with flying colours! 

Enriched environments can also prevent and/or repair cell damage in the brain caused by the toxic stress of unprocessed, painful life experiences. They also result in improved social behaviour and lowered stress chemicals. When at-risk children aged of three-five were given an enriched environment, they had better psycho-physiological functioning by the age of 11.

Synapses are the connections between brain cells that allow inter-cell communication. New synaptic connections result in increased brain activity and better cognitive skills. Although synaptogenesis can happen in adulthood, it is particularly important whilst the brain is developing in childhood and adolescence. 

When schools ensure that classrooms, halls and corridors are fitted with welcoming lighting, pleasing colours, soft fabrics, plants and sculptures, optimal levels of the anti-anxiety chemical oxytocin are produced, which can significantly reduce children’s stress levels.  With high levels of school children self-harming and almost 18,000 children under 12 prescribed anti-depressants, we must take a neurochemical approach to ensure schools offer soothing environments. 

Policy makers in education seem to believe that older children are less in need of a sensory-rich environment

One way is to introduce a system of cognitive tasks with sensory breaks. This could be a designated, separate area in the classroom with a variety of sensory stimuli. Through a card system, pupils who are working well can be given permission for a five minute break to de-stress and emotionally regulate. Such breaks are essential to aid creativity and help pupils re-focus.   

To ignore the impact of enriched environments on children’s minds and bodies is tantamount to social, psychological and cognitive neglect. 

We should strive to provide this for all children, not just those lucky four-six year olds in early years education. We must ensure that the 10,000-12,000 hours in a child’s school life take place in an imaginative physical environment, fully enriched throughout every stage of learning.

Dr Margot Sunderland is a child psychologist and psychotherapist, and director of education and training at the Centre for Child Mental Health

Subscribe to our free fortnightly newsletter and stay ahead with the latest news in edtech

Related stories

Senior leads have important role to play in mental health

Report: Schools' cyber security guidance urgently needed

Bristol Cathedral Choir School unveils new extension

Market place - view all

Moxton Education

The Moxton Group is a specialist organisation focused in the Educat...

Netgear

Welcome to the New School of Wireless.
Digital textbooks. Onl...

Sparkol

Sparkol makes tools to engage your audience. They're like nothing y...