Zen Den strives to increase inclusion

Anna Melgaard couldn’t help but smile as she watched her son, Wayde, play in the Zen Den at Maniscalco K-8 School, a room designed for children who have sensory issues.

The first-grader has autism and found a place to have fun, while other students were out in the cafeteria celebrating the Lutz school’s Fall Ball event.

“The Zen Den is catered towards kids who have sensory issues,” said Daniella McClutchy, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA).

The Zen Den creates a serene atmosphere at Maniscalco K-8 School, for students who have sensory sensitivities. It was unveiled on Oct. 25, during the school’s Fall Ball. (Brian Fernandes)

Based in a music room, the environment is a place of solace for special needs students who may be overwhelmed with too much noise.

The PTSA board realized it was hard for these students to be included in certain school events, McClutchy said. So, the board decided to take action — creating the Zen Den.

The term “Zen” refers to a form of meditation that aims to bring about a state of calmness.

The play space is intended to do just that.

It has an array of colors – from pillows of various shapes, chairs, blankets, bean bags and a matted floor.

It also has Legos, coloring sheets and headphones to block out the noise.

McClutchy noted that Maniscalco embraces diverse students, regardless of their limitations.

The Halloween-themed Fall Ball was the first time the Zen Den play space was implemented at the school.

At the Fall Ball, faculty members and parents accompanied students dressed in costumes to the school’s cafeteria, where there was dancing in the open space.

Some students needed a break from the large crowd and the lively tunes playing, so they headed to the Zen Den.

Tammy Reale, Maniscalco’s principal, said: “Some of them get very overwhelmed with noise, so that gives them the opportunity to step away, take a moment and then come back and be able to have fun with their peers.”

The school serves over 140 students with varying exceptionalities – those with physical, mental and emotional disabilities, Reale said.

Several classrooms cater to these students, including some students with autism spectrum disorder, which refers to a broad range of conditions that can cause significant social, communications and behavioral challenges.

The classrooms also incorporate a “safe place” or a “chill corner” for students to take a break and regroup before joining their fellow classmates.

Some of the faculty at the school have children there who have special needs.

Reale said that this is a “win-win” situation, because the teachers know how to educate and empathize with other parents with unique kids.

Melgaard is a math and science teacher at Maniscalco. She sees the challenges her 6-year-old son faces at school and at home.

“Just things that you wouldn’t normally think about, he struggles with all the time – making friends, talking to people, doing work, sitting in a seat,” she explained.

Melgaard said she was surprised when she heard that the PTSA board was going to introduce the Zen Den.

“It makes you feel like your child matters, because they’re doing things to show that they know that there’s kids that need more,” she said.

Other students without sensory issues also came into the Zen Den to have some fun, too.

It was a chance for Wayde to interact with other kids, and for those kids to better understand Wayde and others in his situation, Melgaard said.

There are plans to include the Zen Den in future school functions going forward, McClutchy noted.

“It’s something I’m so proud of, and it makes all the hard work worth it. It’s helping so many people on such a deeper level,” she said.

Published November 13, 2019

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