What Is A Sensory Path? How Hallway Decals Help Kids Focus, Exercise And Learn

Schools are using them to encourage physical activity in hallways.

Stomping on logs, leapfrogging over lily pads, and popping bubbles sound like summer break shenanigans for the great outdoors. But for Canadian kids attending schools that have embraced the concept of “sensory paths,” these actions help them move from class to class every day.

Typically designed with nature motifs, schools across the country are making a splash on social media with colourful hallways they’ve laid sensory paths through. Watch the video above to see how a school in Cranbrook, B.C. re-designed their hallway with a sensory path.

The new look is more than just an interior design choice. Following these routes helps children fidget less, increases concentration in class, and gives them a much-needed workout, educators say. And some schools are taking their sensory paths the extra mile, using these interactive routes to make Indigenous students feel like they belong.

How sensory paths work

Sensory paths got worldwide attention from a viral video posted by a special education teacher in 2018. Holly Barker Clay noticed that her students would lose their focus in general classrooms.

“From sitting up in the chair, the climate in the room, the other children next to them ... everything that we can usually tune out, they cannot help but fixate on,” her website reads.

Combining her graphic design background with research done by occupational therapists, she created floor and wall stickers for students who need to unplug from the information overload in class who can’t “keep [their] wiggles still.” Each sticker indicates an action for a child to follow. For example, patterns on the ground might suggest where a child can hopscotch their way around, or where they should tip-toe.

“Just by jumping, bouncing, bending, pushing, and finally breathing, the sensory build-up is able to release and then all that built up energy can be best utilized by their brain,” Barker Clay wrote under the video’s description.

Teachers have also noticed the energy switch that happens along the path, as the paths have helped kids get through the chaos of moving between classes.

Sensory paths help with learning, physical literacy

The benefits aren’t only for kids dealing with sensory processing issues. Studies show movement stimulates cognitive activity, which means kids may learn better when they’ve been active. Research into interactive activities like sensory paths has been promising: a small study of 100 grade four students found that classrooms report having an easier time learning after engaging in sensory activities twice a day.

Kids should be getting an hour of exercise every day, according to Statistics Canada, but three out of five kids are missing that mark. Canada’s youngest got a failing grade in physical activity on the latest ParticipACTION youth report card. Many Canadian schools find that the paths supplement children’s fitness needs through a form of play they can look forward to.

Another benefit: Sensory paths can curb acting up in class. One school in Manitoba has a sensory path as a “preventative measure,” according to a teacher, as they help students expend energy that would otherwise be disruptive at their desk.

Exercise physiologist Dean Kriellaars commended sensory paths for encouraging movement, and said he recommends those building them do their homework from a scientific standpoint.

“Physical literacy has a physical component, a social component and a psychological component. It’s really about creating that holistic picture of a child and saying we need all three of those working together,” the University of Manitoba professor told CBC News.

How sensory paths connect to other subjects

While the primary function of a sensory path is to get kids moving, many also draw upon other subjects. When kids feel upset or out of control, one art teacher teaches her kids mood regulation; they use the path to ground themselves until they’re ready to return to class.

Math is a popular sensory path theme, as kids need to count numbers to figure out how to move; newcomer students can also use the path to learn how to spell in English.

Paths can support Indigenous cultures

Many schools are creating paths that celebrate Indigenous stories and symbols.

A school in Alberta installed a sensory path decorated with cultural elements. St. Kateri Catholic School in Grande Prairie, which is home to many Indigenous folks in the province, designed a hallway trail that helps kids engage both their muscles and their minds. Students crawl on bear paws and dance around the Métis symbol before sitting under a poster about the seven grandfather teachings, which impart core values like respect, humility and love.

A Manitoba school’s path also incorporated those same seven teachings. Kids jump, follow paws, and crawl along the track with different portions dedicated to an animal representing a value. “The eagle carries love,” one school poster reads, which is followed by a sign encouraging kids to spread their arms like the bird while walking the path.

“Students are very much enjoying regulating themselves with the sensory pathway and learning what gifts the animals along the pathway carry,” its website reads.

Artist Jessie Recalma of Qualicum First Nation designed an outdoors sensory path for an elementary school in British Columbia. His interactive artwork honours Coast Salish people and motivates kids to think about how his visuals influence ways they move; one student enjoys finding his balance when he stands on Recalma’s painted feathers.

“The kids love its joyful active engagement, they can return to the classroom and feel really good about themselves,” a staff member said in a promotional video.

Sensory paths can also help kids learn their family’s languages: one Canadian company sells stickers in Cree and Haida.

Interested in making your own sensory paths? Occupational therapists like Your Kids OT have resources that can help.