Sensory paths at HLH exercise the brain and the body

By Debbie Adams

Students at Herman L. Horn Elementary School returned from winter break to find the hallways of the school transformed with bright, shiny, colorful, sensory paths. Students from preschool through fifth grade all seemed to be intrigued as they delightedly cavorted down the halls.

The two sensory paths at HLH are made up of a series of decals in various colors and shapes affixed to the floor– like a colorful game– with instructions along the way to do things like hop, jump, push, squat, side step, and blast off. Sensory paths allow children to exercise their brains and bodies at the same time. 

When students at Herman L. Horn Elementary School in Vinton returned to school after winter break, they discovered their hallways had been transformed with bright and colorful sensory paths.

The sensory paths at HLH are the result of the combined efforts of the school PTA (in particular member Erin Berry), Principal Julie Sandzimier, the Roanoke County Schools Occupational Therapist Liz Kasza, students and their advisors in the OT program at Radford University Carilion, and fundraising efforts by the school community.

“I had seen a few videos about sensory paths online,” said Berry. “My husband and I are both in the medical field (he’s a physical therapist and I am a physician tssistant) so we are both interested in things that can help people physically and mentally.  Sensory paths seem to be very helpful in a school environment for kids who have special needs and the original one was developed by an occupational therapist to help kids in her school.  

“The path is educational as well as helps them with movement, coordination, and balance,” Berry said. “We discussed it last year as a PTA board and felt it was something we wanted for our students to enjoy. 

Sensory paths encourage students to exercise their bodies and their brains at the same time.

“I reached out to the Radford OT students to see if they would be interested in helping us develop and create our own sensory path,” she added.  “I remember being a student and I really enjoyed hands on learning and putting things I had learned into action.  

“The OT students were very interested in helping,” Berry noted. “They came to our board meeting, got our ideas, looked at our space and developed a presentation for a few ideas for our particular space. Since we had set money aside in our budget, we were able to purchase two sensory paths.”

Berry says the OT students from Radford did all the prep work and laying of the paths over their winter break.  

Students and advisors from the Radford University Carilion Occupational Therapy Assistant Program and Master Occupational Therapy Program spent months researching and designing the project, and installed the sensory paths over their winter break–quite an intensive process.

“They were really happy with how it turned out and were excited to see how the kids would enjoy it,” Berry said. “They also seem happy with this partnership we have created and are willing to help us develop projects in the future– perhaps a reusable outdoor path.  

“I know all of our students were excited to see it when they returned to school from break, not only our special needs classes.” Berry said. “Some classes have also used it for their recess time during the day when it was raining or too cold to go outside! We hope it helps get the wiggles out and calms some students, as well as teaches them some things along the way.”

The sensory paths at HLH include sequences of numbers, the alphabet hop, logs to jump, footprints and handprints that encourage push-ups, frogs and lily pads to encourage leaping, and a long-stemmed flower for hopscotching. There are planets of the universe decals which encourage students to “Reach for the stars” and include the “One small step for man; One giant leap for mankind” quotation by astronaut Neil Armstrong as he stepped onto the moon.  

 Radford OT student Corey Woodford spearheaded the project.

“The elementary school’s PTA had been discussing the possibility of installing a path at their school and they had reached out to their school occupational therapist, Liz Kasza,” said Woodford. “Liz thought it would be an awesome opportunity to involve the local OT program which was our Master of Occupational Therapy program at Radford University Carilion. It was a huge group effort that took about 10 months to plan and coordinate.” 

Woodford described the process involved in actually installing the sensory path at HLH.

“In order to place the decals on appropriately, the floors had to be stripped of their wax which usually does not occur until the summertime,” Woodford said. “Since we put the path down over Christmas break, the school had to pay to have the floors stripped and then to have them waxed with several layers once the decals were placed. The cleaning didn’t just stop with the removal of the wax on the floor. The floor had to be mopped to remove any dirt remnants. The decals were then placed on the floor with their paper backings still on so that way we could figure out how we wanted them to be laid out.” 

“Once it was time to place them on the floor, we had to go through each decal one by one, spray 409 cleaner, wipe the area with a paper towel, take the backing off the decal, and then place it on the floor using a squeegee to make sure there were no air bubbles left behind,” she explained. “We put down two different sensory paths, so the entire process took about seven hours to complete. The wax will have to be stripped and replaced this summer, but one layer will be left over the paths so that it can stay in place. 

“Sensory paths were designed for children with sensory deficits,” Woodford shared. “Sensory deficits aren’t physical, and they cause internal problems within a child. During class time, this can be seen as a child becoming unfocused, distracted, drowsy, agitated, etc.

“With the help of a sensory path, a teacher can simply have the child go into the hallway and go through the course on the sensory path,” she continued. “The different movements on the path will give the child the sensory input they need to refocus and return to their optimal learning state.

 “The path was designed to be inclusive for the entire school,” Woodford said. “In the wintertime, many schools cannot take their children outside for recess due to the weather. This disrupts a child’s main occupation, which is to play. Not allowing children to move throughout the day impacts their abilities to learn. The sensory paths will provide the school with an alternative to recess, so the children can bounce, move, jump, and have fun even though they aren’t outside on the playground.” 

Woodford said this was the first sensory path the Radford University OT students have had the opportunity to be part of. “It was a lot of fun and a great learning experience.”

 RUC Adjunct Faculty Professor Myrnouse Gabrial and Assistant Professor Leah Savelyev are advisors for the Student Occupational Therapy Association (SOTA) which took on the project. Gabriel says that one primary goal of the organization is to encourage active community involvement by students. When students were approached with the sensory path project for HLH, they eagerly took on the challenge.

Gabriel said she is very proud of the students. Planning and execution of the project took almost a year. 

“It was a very strenuous project– very intensive; installation took all day,” said Gabriel. “Our students unselfishly gave up their holiday break to give of their time to complete the project.”

Students from the OT Assistant Program and the Master OT Program participated. Some students who participated in developing the program from research through design had graduated before it was installed at HLH.

“It is a great addition to our school and will be a valuable resource,” said Sandzimier.  

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