Springfield College Student, Professor Develop Sensory-friendly Space for Youth

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield College senior Kait Bonsignore and Occupational Therapy Chair Lori Vaughn are assisting local youth by helping transform the space on the third floor of the Springfield College Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement and turning it into a “Spirit Space,” a sensory-friendly space to be utilized by youth taking part in the Springfield College Homework Heroes and Middle School Mentors programs, which focus on mentoring local youth in the surrounding community.

“As a mentor in the Middle School Mentors program, I would observe students coming to the center completely exhausted from a long day at school, and some students physically could not participate or be engaged in the social setting,” said Bonsignore, who is studying occupational therapy. “When the third-floor space opened up, I recognized its potential to be utilized as a sensory space. The space is separated into two rooms. Quickly, I was able to visualize one of the rooms as a calming room and the other more of an integrative room — that way, a student can have the option of deciding which setting would support their needs best.”

During the current academic year, Bonsignore has been working with Vaughn on an independent study focused on sensory-processing research. As part of the study, it was determined what the proper supplies and equipment would be for a Spirit Space on the campus. Also as part of the research, Bonsignore and Vaughn created a budget and identified sources for the supplies, sought donations, and connected with the Springfield College Arts Program to plan the aesthetics of the space.

“The goal of the Spirit Space will be to create a calming area, which will allow students to decompress and reorganize themselves after a long day at school before continuing academic work,” Bonsignore said. “The integrative or classroom area will be an area for students to find sensory tools that support participation and academic task completion. The Spirit Space will be a welcoming environment for all students to feel connected and engaged through their spirit, mind, and body.”

Addec Bonsignore, “the creation of the space and the maintaining of up-to-date sensory tools will provide the college with opportunities for students and staff to be engaged through research and application through curriculum in departments like occupational therapy and art therapy. Additionally, the Spirit Space could be the starting foundation of the creation of sensory bags for other afterschool programs.”

Through the assistance of a mini-grant awarded to Bonsignore and Vaughn through the Springfield College Center for Service and Leadership, they were able to receive additional funding to help make this project a reality.

As part of the initiative, they recently helped sew sensory stimulation bags containing various fidgets, as well as some handmade items, such as Orbeez in gloves and rice in tube socks, for participants in the community programs to use at home.

In November, Michelle Erlikh, Loghan Nace, Hannah Harrison, and Nicole Dyer, students in the occupational therapy management course, also assisted with the creation of sensory bags that were distributed prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.

“The sensory bags were created due to COVID not allowing students to come to the center and utilize the Spirit Space,” Bonsignore said. “I still wanted to use the grant to enhance students’ sensory stimulation, especially at home since virtual school has affected students and various learning styles, so the bags became last semester’s focus.”

In addition, the project includes creating weighted lap pads to help ‘ground’ the students while they are doing their homework.