Sensory playgrounds, also known as inclusive or accessible playgrounds, are play areas designed to appeal to all kids, including those with autism spectrum or sensory processing disorders, who might be unable to play with other children in more traditional playground settings.
Around 5 percent of American kids are affected by sensory processing disorder, and between 1 and 2 percent have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. These are conditions that make it tough for children to process and respond to stimulus from their environment and other people. Through a variety of toys and installations designed to stimulate all the senses, sensory playgrounds let children explore, play, learn, and grow. They provide a safe, welcoming environment for kids and their families to develop in an interactive play area that ensures no child is excluded.
The benefits of sensory play
All children develop key motor skills through play, including those with mobility issues, sensory processing disorder, or autism. Through sensory playgrounds, kids of all abilities get a chance to play and grow together.
Visiting the playground is a rite of passage for many children, and by making playgrounds more accessible, they can be enjoyed by a wider range of families. That’s great news for communities, because having an active local park raises property values, and can even make the people living around them healthier, both by encouraging more people to exercise, and by growing plants that absorb pollutants.
Play teaches kids much more than just balance, strength, and agility. Social interaction is an important part of their development, but for children who experience sensory overload in traditional playground settings, playtime can be a traumatic experience. Sensory playgrounds enable kids to engage with each other in ways they feel comfortable, helping to build friendships and gain self-confidence as they interact with their peers on a deeper and more meaningful level.
Even children who prefer to play alone can benefit from visits to sensory playgrounds. The available equipment helps kids develop problem-solving skills, explore, express their emotions, and experience the world through a variety of new sensations.
Accessible playgrounds also foster intergenerational relationships by providing ways for adults with different abilities to engage with their kids. Children benefit from building strong familial bonds through shared experiences, and playtime is an important part of that process. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and more can play together if the playground has the right accessibility infrastructure.
Features of sensory playgrounds
Sensory playgrounds provide fun equipment and elements designed to appeal to one or more of the seven senses—touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, vestibular (our sense of movement and balance), and proprioception (the relative position of body parts in relation to each other).
Multisensory experiences are important for children to improve motor skills, strength, cognitive processing and imagination. However in sensory playgrounds, care is taken not to overstimulate kids by making the equipment too busy or complex.
Playgrounds encourage the development of social skills through cooperative play but in sensory playgrounds, space is also provided for children to relax and unwind if they become overstimulated. Quiet areas, soft materials, and dark, enclosed spaces are used to create private spots within the wider play area.
It’s also important for a child’s mental and physical health to spend time exercising outdoors, enjoying green spaces. Many sensory playgrounds incorporate gardens and landscaping into their design, giving kids an opportunity to walk in nature and get their hands dirty.
Some things you might see in a sensory playground include:
- Wide paths for easy access between equipment
- Surfaces that can be navigated on mobility devices or crutches
- Traditional playground equipment placed alongside accessible and sensory installations, allowing all children to play together
- Versatile installations that can be used in a variety of ways
- Enclosed areas to contain children prone to wandering or running away if overstimulated
- Cushioned impact surfaces to protect against trips and falls
- Quiet areas and hidden nooks where kids can wind down Open, grassy spaces for running around and group games
- Colorful scented plants and shrubbery
Sensory playgrounds give kids choices about what they want to play with, and how they want to play. Panel games and puzzles attract children who want time alone, and encourage problem-solving skills. Mazes teach kids how to explore and navigate. Sandpits and digging areas might contain buried “fossils” to reward curiosity, and mirrors and kaleidoscopes let kids view the world in new and exciting ways. Musical installations enable children to experiment with sound, and a variety of different materials and textures makes playtime a tactile experience.
Traditional playground equipment is also available, from swing sets and climbing domes to teeter totters and merry-go-rounds. In sensory playgrounds, this equipment may be modified to make it available to all children, for example by providing adaptive seating, wheelchair accessibility, and extra supports and straps to allow safe play.
Teaching children through play
Through shared experiences and games, children can learn more than basic social skills. Kids can also discover the similarities and differences between themselves and their peers, and reach a deeper understanding of how to interact with those of different abilities. Play helps children develop empathy and acceptance of themselves and others.
Physically, sensory playgrounds help children improve their motor skills by appealing to and exercising all their senses, not just the five most obvious (sight, touch, smell, taste, hearing). Near senses such as the vestibular and proprioceptive systems control how kids balance and maintain equilibrium, and how to coordinate their limbs in relation to each other. The ability to clap your hands with your eyes closed, for example, is a result of your proprioceptive system knowing where each body part is even when you can’t see.
Finally, playgrounds provide a space where children can be themselves, without some of the usual constraints of home or school. For instance some kids love being loud, but are usually told to play quietly at home. Auditory equipment in sensory playgrounds provides a fun way for them to express their personality in a controlled way.
Sensory playgrounds are thus an increasingly popular choice for cities and local authorities looking to encourage their kids to get outdoors and have fun in an environment that’s accessible to all.