What Is a Sensory Playground?
We use our senses at nearly every turn. A task as simple as brushing your teeth can engage all the senses at once. The minty smell and taste, the brushing sound, moving your arm back and forth — it’s all part of the sensory experience. Though we engage our senses every day, there’s something extra special and extra fun about sensory play. A sensory playground for kids brings sensory stimulation to life in new and exciting ways, making playtime more interesting and more enriching for their development.
What Is Sensory Play?
Sensory play is any type of play that stimulates the senses. All activities involve some sensory input, but sensory play should deeply engage one or multiple senses. People have seven sensory systems — sight, hearing, touch, balance, body position, smell and taste — all of which can be engaged through sensory play. While we use our senses in everyday life, sensory play makes these sensory experiences fun. By infusing sensory lessons with fun, kids can become more engaged and excited by sensory experiences.
There is so much to discover through your senses when you’re a kid. Imagine the thrill of feeling your body soar through the air the first time on a swing set or pressing a button and hearing exuberant music play. Sensory play is full of wonderful sights, sounds, textures, movements and more — all of which can help kids learn and develop.
How Does Sensory Play Impact Child Development?
Sensory play can certainly be enjoyable, but it’s more than that — sensory play can also help advance kids’ development. Kids develop in several key ways, and each of these areas involves the senses:
- Cognitive development: Kids develop cognitively as they learn more about themselves and the world. They learn this information largely through sensory experiences, especially at a young age. Babies and toddlers are highly motivated to see, hear, touch and taste everything around them. They also start moving their limbs and trying to balance from a very early age. Sensory play gives kids lots of opportunities to engage their senses and develop crucial cognitive skills like memory, reasoning and problem-solving. Sensory play can even lead to improved spatial and mathematical abilities.
- Language development: Language development progresses rapidly in most kids, especially during their first three years of life, and the best environment to support this development is a sensory-rich one. As kids start communicating, you can use sensory experiences to help them practice their language skills. Asking a preschooler to describe what a texture feels like, for example, can provide great practice for translating thoughts and sensations into words and sentences and even learning new vocabulary words. Through social sensory play, kids get endless opportunities to practice their communication skills.
- Social and emotional development: Sensory experiences in nature can be especially positive when it comes to our emotional health, even as adults. As kids feel the sunshine and the breeze, they can feel a true sense of joy. They can also increase their confidence as they try new things. The social interactions that can take place during sensory play also do wonders for a child’s development. They can learn how to manage conflict, empathize and enjoy fulfilling relationships with others.
- Creative development: While structured educational activities can help aid kids’ development in many ways, when it comes to creativity, there’s simply no substitute for unstructured sensory play. Kids may see that the treehouse playset is a similar shape to a rocket and create an imaginary scenario where they’re blasting off into space. Or, they may play with musical playground equipment, imagining they’re all grown up, playing in an orchestra. Kids’ creativity can be free during sensory play, which can lay the groundwork for future ingenuity and creative skills.
- Physical development: Our senses help us physically engage with the world, so sensory play can be an excellent way of furthering physical development. Kids can advance both their gross and fine motor skills through play. Gross motor skills involve large muscle movements, like pumping legs on the swing set, while fine motor skills involve smaller muscle movements, as in the case of picking up and placing building blocks to construct a tower.
When it comes to any aspect of childhood development, it’s important to note that this development doesn’t always look the same for all kids.
For kids with certain disabilities or unique challenges, certain areas of development may not come as naturally. For example, some kids may experience delays in their language abilities compared to their peers. While specific interventions like therapy can play an influential role for these kids, a sensory playground can also be a wonderful place for getting the extra stimulation and practice needed to develop crucial skills. For kids with sensory processing disorders (SPD), sensory play can help them learn to process sensory input and regulate their response.
How Does Sensory Play Impact the Body?
Sensory play can engage the body in a variety of ways, improving physical health and well-being and helping kids advance their physical abilities. This is especially true for sensory playgrounds, which encourage active play. Let’s look at how sensory play on the playground can engage kids physically across all their sensory systems:
- Visual system: Most people receive visual information through their eyes, which the brain then interprets. Recognizing different colors and shapes are some of the earliest examples of kids exercising their sense of sight. All sorts of play can be visually engaging. When a child makes it onto the playground, they’re likely to first notice how the equipment and the area look. Colorful, imaginative equipment designs and activity panels can all appeal to kids’ sense of sight.
- Auditory system: Hearing is primarily what allows us to communicate through speech and appreciate music. We use our brains, not just our ears, when we listen. Sorting through multiple sounds and interpreting what you hear is an important skill. When children play, they can listen to and process noises of other children playing, as well as sounds from musical toys or equipment. Sensory playgrounds are more likely than other playgrounds to include equipment that makes noise to engage the auditory system.
- Tactile system: A child’s tactile sense includes the feeling of touch. When we touch different items, our bodies send signals through neural pathways to our brain and other parts of the body so we can understand what we’re feeling. A variety of surface textures can engage a child’s sense of touch. Playing in sand or water or gripping a rope, for example, can feel interesting to a child and help them learn about their environment.
- Vestibular system: The vestibular sense is responsible for a person’s sense of balance and movement. It takes some time to develop this sense, which is partly why young kids tend to fall frequently as they learn to properly balance themselves. Many types of physical play engage the vestibular system. As kids walk along a balance beam or rope bridge, they must use their bodies to keep steady. Kids also use their sense of balance and movement when they climb, swing, skip and do just about any physical movement.
- Proprioceptive system: The proprioceptive system senses movement in the muscles and joints to judge your position in space. You likely don’t need to think much about moving your body and knowing where each part of your body is at any given time — it feels automatic. But this is a sense we all must develop as kids. Physical play nearly always involves a child’s proprioceptive system. As children jump, crawl or slide, they become more familiar with how their bodies move.
- Olfactory system: Your sense of smell is also an important way you receive input about the world around you. Kids automatically learn the differences between smells they like and ones that make them want to pinch their noses. The olfactory system can be engaged during sensory play. Whether a child is playing with scented stickers inside or smelling trees and flowers outside, the sense of smell can enhance their playtime experience.
- Gustatory system: Parents are used to keeping babies and toddlers from putting every object they encounter into their mouths, but kids do this to learn through taste. We associate taste most with meal and snack time, but sensory play can occasionally include the sense of taste, as well. Whether it’s a juice box on the playground or a taste of an edible flower or herb outside, kids can engage their sense of taste during sensory play.
What Is a Sensory Playground??
Sensory play can happen at home, in the backyard, at daycare — nearly anywhere. But one of the best places to engage in sensory play is a sensory playground. These playgrounds are designed with sensory stimulation in mind to maximize play and support kids’ development. This typically means they include equipment and activities made to engage as many senses as possible. Sensory playgrounds might consist of:
- A variety of colors and textures
- Fragrant plants and other natural features
- Sandboxes or water play equipment
- A variety of equipment for different types of movements
Quiet areas are an important feature for kids who may become overwhelmed by sensory stimulation. Having a quiet, isolated area to retreat to can help kids regroup and rejoin the fun when they’re ready for more sensory input.
Some playground equipment is designed expressly for sensory stimulation. Great examples include sensory panels available from Miracle® Recreation. These panels are brightly colored and feature shapes with different textures to make them even more engaging. You can arrange these panels into a maze for a fun activity that helps kids learn spatial reasoning and problem-solving skills. A sensory playground maze can also be a great way to get kids in close proximity together for meaningful social interactions.
You can also engage kids’ sense of hearing with our Concerto line of playground equipment. Plus, with Concerto Vibes, kids can feel the vibrations and see the vivid colors, making the equipment even more sensory-rich.
Want to add more to your sensory playground? The Miracle Museum™ lets kids engage their senses in varied and exciting ways. Use the Miracle Museum collection of products to transform under-utilized areas into sensory-rich spaces where kids can play, touch, see, listen, move and explore. Children can deeply engage in sensory learning by exploring the Miracle Museum’s Grand Gallery, Dynamics Lab, Odyssey Hall and other interactive playground components. Miracle Museum’s Tranquility Corner provides a quiet retreat for kids who may become overstimulated by sensory input.
Who Benefits From Using a Sensory Playground and Why?
Sensory playgrounds are beneficial for all kids since everyone can enjoy and learn from sensory engagement. Parents can benefit, as well, since they can watch their kids learn valuable lessons that would be harder to teach at home or school.
While all kids can enjoy and learn from sensory playgrounds, these installations can be especially helpful for kids with disabilities and sensory processing challenges. For example, a sensory playground with design considerations for autism can be a wonderful asset to a community. Kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have sensory processing challenges. And some kids may be diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD) without an autism diagnosis, as well. Kids with SPD often struggle to process and organize sensory stimuli in their environment, which necessitates a bit more practice and some special accommodations.
Kids with other cognitive and learning challenges can also benefit. A study of kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) found that engaging a variety of senses at once through play was more engaging and led to better outcomes in a play therapy context.
Along with other design considerations, a sensory playground can be truly inclusive for all kids. This includes kids with physical challenges, as well. Sensory panels are accessible for kids who use wheelchairs, making them a great option for fun and learning even when certain types of physical play aren’t an option.
When a playground welcomes all kids and enhances their development, the whole community benefits. An inclusive sensory playground can set the tone for your community, showing the value you place on kids and their ability to grow and thrive.
How Can You Design a Sensory Playground?
If you want to create a sensory playground in your community, you’ll need to complete the following steps:
- Choose your location: Start by choosing the best location for your playground and determine what you’ll need to do to prepare the site. Where possible, it can be helpful to preserve natural features since these can add to the sensory experience of your playground.
- Fund your project: Playground funding is another area of consideration you should focus on in the early stages of your project. Try to get the whole community involved and share your vision with local businesses, nonprofits and individual donors so they can help support it.
- Create the layout: Layout is essential when it comes to inclusivity and sensory stimulation. Determine the best arrangement for the types of equipment and activities you want your playground to feature. Make sure there are sightlines for parents and caregivers. You should also incorporate pathways and surfacing that will make the playground accessible and navigable. Consider fencing in certain areas or the playground as a whole since this can help reduce the chance of elopement, a common problem among kids with ASD.
- Select equipment: Choose equipment for your playground that will promote a sensory-rich environment. Look for equipment specifically designed for sensory playgrounds, and you can be sure your playground will engage kids’ senses in varied and exciting ways. Variety is key, so make sure you purchase enough different types of equipment to accommodate different abilities and engage different sensory systems.
- Add site amenities: Finish off your playground with final touches like landscaping and site amenities. You may want to include picnic tables, benches, litter receptacles and signs, for example. Giving families a place to eat at the park can broaden the opportunities for sensory experiences.
Explore Sensory Playground Equipment at Miracle Recreation
Sensory playgrounds play an important role in helping kids learn about their sensory abilities and the world around them. They can also help kids who struggle with sensory processing learn how to manage the sensory input they receive. Sensory play is beneficial for all kids, and sensory playgrounds can bring this type of play to life in exciting ways.
Miracle Recreation is bringing the thrill back into playgrounds. We believe that all kids deserve play spaces that are sensory-rich and endlessly invigorating. To get started, explore the sensory playground equipment available from Miracle Recreation and request a quote or contact a representative if you have any questions.