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School adds sensory room

At Hollywood Park Elementary School, a new sensory room is part classroom, part indoor playground -- a space teachers hope will help calm anxious kids and stimulate nonresponsive ones.

In the freedom of the sensory room, the children "can come out of their shell,'' said teacher Maria Diaz.

It's one of a handful of similar rooms in South Florida that stem in part from a 1970s Dutch philosophy known as ûSnoezelen (pronounced snooze-a-lun), which says surroundings can have a meaningful impact on behavior.

The idea behind sensory stimulation is to control an environment so people can feel protected, either by calming a student before going to class, for example, or offering comforting physical activities that will make a passive child more alert.

"It's supposed to feel very safe and secure, like the inside of a womb,'' said Gillian Hotz, a neurotrauma researcher at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Anecdotal evidence touts the success of sensory-stimulation rooms, but research on them is fairly recent.

Still, the rooms have been popping up the past few years across the country.

Bel-Aire Elementary in Cutler Bay and Riviera Middle in West Miami-Dade have sensory areas for kids with intellectual disabilities, and most Miami-Dade and Broward elementaries offer sensory stimulation for autistic students.

Sensory rooms were already available at a couple of area schools for disabled students, like Neva King Cooper Educational Center in Homestead and the Quest Center in Hollywood, which has a room with black light that soothes students.

In Hollywood Park's sensory room, one corner houses a vibrating mat for kids to lie down. For fine motor skills, there's a tabletop sandbox with different textures and little shovels.

To improve large-muscle coordination, there's a tunnel to tumble through and brightly colored circles that look like lily pads and make noises when kids step on them. A piano mat lets students make their own music.

Across the room, a sound-responsive panel lights up to students' vocalizations to encourage them to speak.

For Cesar Calderon, an 8-year-old with cerebral palsy, the challenge is to keep the board lit for full sentences at a time, to practice taking longer breaths.

"I like cookies and milk,'' Cesar said, sitting up in his electric wheelchair as the board flashed in yellow, red and blue. "I like to do math in school. I am the math master.''