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Rider University's Zen Den features movable furniture and sensory touch lamps.

The Zen Den at Rider University offers a peaceful space for students to relax.

Spiezle Architectural Group Inc. 

Student leaders at Rider University in New Jersey created a relaxation lounge on campus to let students unwind and decompress, hoping to improve their fellow students’ mental health and wellness.

The relaxation space, called the Zen Den, creates a safe space for all students, but particularly those who are neurodivergent.

A contemplative space: The Zen Den repurposed an old computer lab on the first floor of the Bart Luedeke Center, which serves as the student services hub, near the recreation center and library.

The lounge features movable furniture like bean bag chairs and lounge seating, plus sensory features like touch lights. Natural-feeling elements, including a forest mural, emulate the feelings of nature and, in turn, can decrease anxiety for visitors.

At any one time, the space can accommodate around seven students, says Andrew Bernstein, president of the Student Government Association (SGA) and a senior at Rider. “We’ve included a glass window that allows students to gauge how busy the room is so they can decide whether or not they would like to wait until it gets quieter, a measure that also helps to ensure the room doesn’t get too crowded.”

The Zen Den is open 15 hours per day along with the Bart Luedeke Center.

Designing tranquility: University officials partnered with SGA, as well as administrators in student affairs, facilities and university operations, and the Spiezle Architectural Group to design the space. Construction began in June 2022, and the lounge opened in September.

SGA paid for the $135,000 project using funds from the student activities fee. Bernstein and Vice President of Student Affairs Leanna Fenneberg co-led the initiative.

When conceptualizing the space, university stakeholders prioritized access for students with mental and emotional health conditions like depression, anxiety, ADHD or autism.

Sensory Rooms on College Campuses

Adelphi University in New York was the first university to build a sensory room for its students, according to The Washington Post.

A sensory room provides a range of calming stimuli for a person to engage the senses and refocus. Since 2018, more institutions have followed suit, including features like bubble walls, lava lamps, fidget toys and coloring books.

“Students and administrators had the project on our wish list, and once we saw how significantly students were struggling during and immediately after the pandemic, we really wanted to address these struggles and provide a safe space for our students,” Bernstein says.

The original idea was a sensory room, but that evolved into a relaxation lounge to accommodate all members of the student body.

Finding inner peace: Since it opened, Rider students have used the space for finding calm and engaging in personal reflection. The atmosphere is quiet, reflective and peaceful, Bernstein says.

Rider’s counseling center hosts meditation sessions for students to learn self-care in the Zen Den, as well.

Administrators don’t track usage but are soliciting student feedback to evaluate the efficacy of the space.

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