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Love Little Rooms? Try a “Little Gym”!

Little Gyms can provide an opportunity for children to work on body awareness, fine motor skills, spatial concepts, and more.

Tiny box with a sun attached to a switch

If you have been working in this field with newborn to three year old students or students in Early Intervention, you know how important Little Rooms can help with development for some students. These spaces provide an opportunity for children to work on body awareness, fine motor skills, auditory awareness, spatial concepts, and so much more. There are numerous Little Room strategies, and we have all made adaptations to meet specific student needs. I have used everything from pre-made hard plastic Little Rooms to cloth teepee tents to create a small space that brings objects and learning right to little ones’ hands. For many students, these spaces have provided a much-needed opportunity to encourage independent exploration of familiar and new objects. However, you might find you have students who need a softer space, and you might find that for students with CVI (Cortical/Cerebral Vision Impairment), standard Little Rooms need a lot of adapting.

I started making Little Rooms from exercise mats and love that it is a quick DIY project and fits the need of so many students. Like many great ideas, this one was inspired by a parent who had extra exercise mats at home. The parent joked that it was a “Little Gym” for their child because of the mats and also because they were working so hard in there. Since then, the name stuck in my mind. Whether you call it a “Little Room”, “Little Gym”, “CVI Cave”, “Mat Box”, or something else, these spaces provide a great learning space.

Typically, these exercise mats are used to link together flat on the floor and make a small exercise space. They are large squares that are sturdy but soft. They easily link together to make a box that students can lay in or sit in with a small chair. The mats are easy to clean and very adaptable. The black mat material lends itself well to students with CVI or difficulty with visual complexity. The dark color really highlights light-up objects and blocks out other visual distractions. These spaces can be used similarly to the more classic “Little Rooms” but take into consideration the auditory feedback you are looking for. The mat material does not allow for as much auditory feedback as the harder materials that some Little Rooms are made from. They do block background noise from the room if you are looking for that effect. You can also add materials that provide noise themselves, like a metal bowl and spoon.

In addition to working with younger children who might be laying or sitting in the “Little Gym”, these spaces can also be placed on a table and highlight objects for students to view who are sitting facing the table. The age range has no limit for this tool. If you have a student working on print literacy who needs to block out surrounding visual complexity, you can add one of these around the book or tablet they are reading.

What to Buy

Exercise Mats

Photo of a “Little Gym” built from ½ inch mat. It sags a little on the top and is not very sturdy.

You need between 4-10 tiles depending on the style you want to build. Keep in
mind when creating a “Little Gym” that not all mats are created equal. You can purchase these
linking exercise mats almost everywhere, but you really want one that is at least ¾ of an inch in thickness. This will ensure that the finished product is sturdy and does not sag.

Screwdriver poking a hole in a mat.

A screw driver or drill is needed for adding holes to the top. These mats are so soft that you can just push a screwdriver through the top mat to create a hole where you want one. Alternatively, you can use an electric drill to add holes to the top if you want a larger hole. The holes are used to hang materials from the top of the space. However, items can also be placed on the bottom floor of the space. You can use pipe cleaners to hang items from the holes. You can also use shower curtain hooks or rings to hang items from the holes.

Bells hanging for the top a the tiny space and then a pompom on the bottom.

Supply materials you want to present in the space for the child to interact with. Suggested items include pinwheels, pompoms, bells, glowing lights.

Mylar pinwheel in the shape of a flower inside the space.

How to build a “Little Gym”

Photo of “Little Gym” that has 4 foam mats making a room with a black cloth on the floor. On the floor there is an iPad playing the Big Bang Pictures app, a Tapio connector, and yellow switch

The Classic Little Gym

The classic style is by far the easiest to create. The classic style uses four mat pieces to create three sides and one top. As with all Little Rooms, make sure that your student finds a comfortable position to be in while using the space. Find something soft like a blanket or carpet for under the Little Gym. Students may lay on their back or stomach, use a Boppy, a chair, or anything else that gets them comfortable with their head in the space, or facing the space. You may want to number the mats along the edges once they are together so you can easily put it together next time. If the pieces don’t seem to fit right just keep rotating them around until the edges lock properly. The classic style can also sit on a table easily. Mats that are ¾ inch can be found on Amazon by searching “3/4 inch black exercise mat”.


A “Little Gym” on a table with a chair in front
of it. Three shiny pom poms are resting on the table in the “Little Gym”. There is a black cloth on the table.

Extend the space to be taller or wider. If you have a student in a larger chair or a student who
rolls/kicks/moves a lot, then you may consider using more mats to create a larger space. Keep in mind that it gets much harder to fit the mat edges together when you make adaptations. You
may also need to use a room corner or add some other support to keep it sturdy. You may also
find larger mat pieces that link together and create a large space using just four pieces of mat. If you decide to adapt the “Little Gym” and use more than four pieces of mat, it will be easier if
you use 1 inch or thinker to keep it sturdy.

Put the “Little Gym” in a corner if you have a very active student who knocks down the walls.
The tiles are sturdy enough to hold themselves up but can be knocked if kicked or pushed. The
positive side of using a soft foam material is that students are less likely to get hurt or bruised if
they do knock the sides. The downside is that they might knock the Little Room down if they are strong enough.

Inside Design

Extra tall “Little Gym” that is two
mats in height. It has a small rocking chair facing in and a Glow Whip coming down from the top

When designing the inside of the “Little Gym”, objects can be placed on the ground if you are
highlighting them visually. They can also be hung from the top if you want students to reach for them or get them in a preferred visual field. These mats do not come with holes or hooks but they are easily added.


This type of Little Room easily comes apart and can be stored in a closet, under a couch, or just about anywhere without taking up too much space. I suggest to families that they keep a couple extra shoe boxes to hold objects for when they take it down—which is also easy to store!

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