The Importance of Sensory Play at Playgrounds
From day one, a child’s brain is wired to use their senses to explore the world around them. Even before they can talk, babies put things in their mouths, make noises, and grab anything they can get their hands on. As children grow older, this natural inclination to explore continues — they bang on pots and pans, taste new foods and listen to music.
Sensory experiences are essential for brain development in all children. For children with an autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, or another sensory disorder, sensory experiences can be more challenging. Some children who have sensory challenges may be over-sensitive to loud noises, harsh tastes, or rough textures. Other children may be under-sensitive to certain sensory experiences, meaning that they aren’t aware of how much pressure they’re using when they hug a friend or they easily lose their balance because they don’t know where their body is positioned in space.
Regardless of age or developmental ability, one of the best places to encourage sensory experiences among children is at the playground.
Playgrounds were invented in the late 1800s in response to the need to create urban spaces where children could safely run, jump, and play. Teachers, medical professionals, and community leaders quickly realized these play spaces were essential to good physical health, brain development, and socialization among children of all ages and classes.
The importance of playgrounds in child development has only been solidified in recent years as autism rates continue to rise. But what is it about playgrounds that make them so important? And how can parents encourage their children to make the most of their local play space?
What Is Sensory Play and Development?
Sensory development is the brain’s way of exploring the world through the five senses — touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. Exploring the world through these senses allows a child to discover and understand how the world works. A sensory experience can be the smell of vinegar in a science experiment, the sound of the piano during a music lesson, or a trip to the local airport to watch, and hear, planes take off.
Sensory activities have also been expanded beyond the five senses to include a child’s sense of balance and their ability to judge positioning in space. As children grow, their brains — and their sensory development — expand, too. In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on the importance of sensory skills in a child’s development. Sensory learning has been incorporated into the classroom but has been found to be incredibly effective when sensory learning is incorporated into play. This is where the term “sensory play” comes in.
Sensory play isn’t just something to be done at a table in a classroom. Sensory experiences are a vital way of exploring the world we live in, especially the outdoors. When children are outside in their yard or at a park, they can use their senses to explore things like the rough bark on trees, the cool dirt under their feet, or the slimy earthworm living under a rock.
Benefits of Sensory Play
Sensory play is important to a child’s overall development and growth. Modern playgrounds can also provide a variety of opportunities for sensory experiences. It also has a significant impact on the way a child develops, including:
1. Cognitive Development
Children begin using their senses to explore their world as infants. A baby may grab a fistful of their mother’s long, soft hair or gleefully splash around in their pet’s water bowl. When a young child engages in a sensory experience, it sends signals to their brain, recording the experience and filing it away for future use. This stimulates their brain and contributes to the growth and development of their brain over time. The more sensory experiences a child has, the more they engage their brain, essentially exercising it and helping it to expand over time.
Sensory play and brain development go hand in hand. Children learn to balance as they walk, respond when a parent calls them, and taste new foods. All of these contribute to the brain’s growth at that time and prepare it for continued growth and development later on.
2. Fine Motor Skills
Motor skills are divided into two basic groups: gross and fine. Gross motor skills are those related to the use and development of large muscle groups, like crawling, walking, and running.
On the other hand, fine motor skills are those that pinpoint the use and movement of smaller muscle groups, such as those you would use for lacing up sneakers or zipping a coat. Because sensory play often engages actions such as picking up small items, pinching, and pouring motions, it is an important part of developing these smaller, but equally important, muscle groups.
3. Language Development
Sensory experiences are an important way of teaching a child to describe the experiences they have on a daily basis. As they see, touch, or smell something, they also acquire additional vocabulary to describe their experience.
For example, each time a child tries a new food, they experience new tastes. Over time, they’re able to express interest in certain foods that are “sweet,” “spicy,” or “tangy” as their preferences evolve. The same is true with their experiences touching leaves, rocks, and trees outdoors or seeing the colors and shapes incorporated into their neighborhood play structure.
Of course, this also involves interaction with dedicated adults who take the time to help children learn how to describe these sensory experiences, as well as regular interactions with friends who can encourage each other to communicate and share words. One of the great things about sensory play is that children can engage in it alone or with their peers.
When children engage in sensory experiences with their peers, they practice having conversations, taking turns expressing themselves, and also exchanging information with others. The playground is a great place to encourage peer-to-peer interaction, allowing children to have social experiences and practice with things like cooperation, sharing, and taking turns.
Sensory play is about more than learning. It’s also extremely beneficial for a child who struggles with sensory issues because of its calming effect. For some children, manipulating sand through their fingers, playing with water, or swinging for 10 minutes is incredibly soothing.
In fact, the back-and-forth motion of a swing has been shown to have an extremely calming effect on children who are over-stimulated or struggle with a sensory processing disorder. Other sensory activities, such as playing with playdough or enjoying a warm bath, are also calming sensory experiences that benefit children of all ages and abilities. They’re likely displaying signs that they’re feeling more relaxed or calm.
In children who tend to be high energy or hyperactive, sensory play can be an important tool to help them calm down and focus at times when they’re particularly agitated or distracted. For children who don’t have a sensory processing disorder, sensory play still provides an outlet for them to work out tension or frustration after a long day at school or after encountering a frustrating day with a parent or sibling.
Sensory play is child-directed, meaning that the child who is engaging in the activity typically decides when and how to play. When they do this, they learn about their preferences. For example, they may decide they like the feeling of splashing at a water table, but don’t like the feeling of manipulating slime.
They discover a love for playing music, but a fear of swinging too high on the swings. Giving children room to discover and explore their own personal preferences helps them develop their autonomy, giving them a better understanding of who they are as a person, as well as affirming their uniqueness in the world.
Sensory play on the playground also goes a long way toward helping children learn to be confident in their abilities and conquer challenges in a well-supervised, safe environment.
Sensory Play and Brain Development
Sensory play and a child’s brain development go hand in hand. But what exactly is it that’s developing in the brain when a child engages their senses? And how do those senses impact children — and adults — on a daily basis? When a child participates in sensory play, certain brain functions are activated; these include:
Children need to be able to manipulate objects with their hands, experience different materials and textures, and also push and pull objects around them — this is where playground features like climbing rocks and sandboxes come in. It’s also why playgrounds typically incorporate a variety of shapes, materials, and textures in their equipment.
Tactile play is essential to children learning about the world and developing a sense of security and wellbeing. The repetitive nature of touching or manipulating objects is essential to long-term learning since repetition helps children master skills and retain information over time.
2. Vestibular System
The vestibular senses are those related to the human body’s positioning in space — in other words, a person’s balance and eye movement. A person’s sense of balance starts in their inner ear — the movement of fluid in the ear canals sends signals to the brain regarding body positioning and movement as a person attempts to walk, run, stand, sit, or perform just about any daily movement or function.
These are all motions that many people take for granted, but for children who have issues with their vestibular sense, it may mean they frequently stumble, rip pages when they’re reading a book, hug too hard, or otherwise struggle to apply the right amount of motion and movement for each situation they’re in. Playground play provides a comfortable environment for these children to exercise this system and overcome certain challenges associated with it.
3. Proprioception System
This sense is the one that refers to how a person’s body is positioned in order to use it in a correct and skillful way. Picture it like this: a child decides they’re thirsty, so they walk to the refrigerator and open the door. The shelf with juice boxes on it is just above their head, so they reach their arm up, wrap their fingers around a juice box, and pull it down. Now picture what would happen if that same child opened the refrigerator and thought they were reaching for the juice box, but their hand was actually stretched out in front of them, not over their head.
The second scenario is a picture of what it looks like when a child’s proprioception senses aren’t functioning properly. It’s the brain’s ability to judge whether the body is correctly positioned to perform a desired activity. This sensation can be activated, and improved, through activities that require pulling, pushing, or stretching, all of which are common playground activities!
When a child struggles with this, they may avoid certain situations to avoid the sensations or clumsy movements that may result. By encouraging them to engage in sensory activities on the playground designed to improve proprioception, they can develop a better sense of where they are in space, as well as the muscle control and confidence they need to be more active.
4. Sound and Sight
Children interact with a wide variety of sights and sounds from infancy; these sights and sounds signal the brain to explore and better understand what’s going on. Children learn to recognize the sound of their parents’ voices, the sound of a dog barking, and the hum of the television. They may gravitate toward toys with bright lights or colors. Music stimulates the senses, as does the sight of brightly colored kites at the park or towels at the beach.
Some children struggle with sensory issues related to sights, such as bright lights, or sounds, such as loud or harsh noises. Sight and sound sensory play takes on an even more meaningful role in these cases because it provides these children with the opportunity to gradually become more comfortable with harsh sounds or sights that could otherwise push them toward a meltdown or tantrum. Over time, developing these senses can ease their reaction to certain triggers, but it can also teach them how to respond and cope when they appear unexpectedly.
Features of Sensory Playgrounds
A sensory-rich play space, such as a playground, provides a wide variety of sensory experiences all in one space. And, since most playgrounds are outdoors, children receive the additional sensory benefits associated with outdoor play.
Technically, any playground can provide children with certain sensory experiences, but a truly sensory-friendly playground is designed to create a nurturing and inclusive environment for children of varying abilities. Specifically, a sensory-friendly playground offers a variety of equipment designed to stimulate each of the five senses, as well as the vestibular and proprioception systems mentioned above.
Sensory playgrounds are often referred to as “inclusive playgrounds,” but the two aren’t always the same. An inclusive playground is one that’s designed to be handicap accessible based on standards set forth by the Americans With Disabilities (ADA) Act.
An inclusive playground will typically include these features:
- Surfaces that are easy to move around on, even when using a wheelchair or other mobility device.
- Special needs equipment, such as inclusive swings, that’s included alongside traditional playground elements.
- Play equipment that can be used in a variety of ways, depending on a child’s age, abilities, and imagination.
- Wide pathways between pieces of equipment to allow for ease of navigation between spaces, either on foot or in a wheelchair.
A sensory-friendly environment is often an important element of inclusive play space. A sensory playground may incorporate some or all of the components of an inclusive playground, as well as elements that are designed to stimulate the senses. These can include:
Tactile experiences like sand or water play are important for stimulating a child’s sense of touch. Water can be soothing to a child who easily experiences sensory overload, and elements like sand can help a child who struggles to cope with certain sensations or demonstrates a sensitivity to touch. A sandbox or sand table also provides the opportunity to incorporate other tactile experiences by incorporating a variety of toys and objects for children to use during sand play.
Swinging — independently or with the help of an adult — is a great way for a child to exercise their proprioception system. Swinging is so much fun that most children, and their parents, don’t realize that it works a variety of muscles and joints. This goes a long way toward helping a child establish their sense of where their body is in space and recognizing physical boundaries, which is a common problem among children with ADHD, processing disorder, or an autism spectrum disorder.
There’s nothing quite like the thrill of swinging alongside a friend and enjoying the sensation of going higher and higher together. Inclusive swing seats can be incorporated among traditional swing seats to allow children of all abilities to swing side-by-side. Plus, swinging is a great way to help a hyperactive or over-stimulated child calm down.
3. Spinners and Climbing Toys
Spinning equipment, such as the Whirl, Cyclo Cone Base Climber, and Maypole make a great addition to a sensory-friendly playground because they provide ample opportunities for children to engage their vestibular system, which is responsible for establishing and maintaining balance. Engaging in these activities goes a long way toward helping children improve their balance and coordination. It also helps children who may struggle with these traits to practice and become more confident in their abilities to move around comfortably and safely.
Climbing equipment also encourages children to engage the muscles needed to develop and maintain balance while encouraging them to accept new challenges in a structured, secure environment. There are a wide variety of options available, and an inclusive playground can include climbing options that allow children with disabilities to engage in climbing activities, too.
4. Outdoor Exploration
A sensory-friendly playground will make the most of its natural setting, allowing children the opportunity to see, hear and smell the world around them. It might mean planting a small sensory garden or including fragrant plants in the nearby landscaping. It might incorporate a small wheelchair-accessible trail near the playground for family exploration. Or, it might include items that make sounds like conga drums or a xylophone.
5. Brightly Colored Equipment
Visual stimulation comes through incorporating bright colors throughout the playground. Colors can be incorporated in a variety of different ways, including flooring options. They can also be used to distinguish between different heights and types of equipment. The tasteful use of bright colors and patterns can encourage children to engage and explore.
Sensory Exploration at the Playground
Miracle Recreation® is one of the oldest and most trusted leaders in the playground industry. We earned this reputation because of our commitment to creating kid-friendly, inclusive equipment to thrill children of all abilities and ages. We proudly work with schools, community leaders, and various kid-friendly organizations to design the right playground for any space or budget. We’re especially proud of the inclusive play equipment we’ve designed, and have seen firsthand the impact of our playground equipment for children on the autism spectrum.
Ready to start designing your playground? Contact us to set up a complimentary design consultation today!