Playing on a playground is a rite of passage for many children. From the fast-paced trip down the slide to lining up with friends to wait a turn on the monkey bars to yelling in delight as a swing reaches new heights, the playground is intended to be a place for fun. However, for children with autism spectrum disorder, playing on a playground can feel like a jumble of overwhelming sensory inputs. From noise to pushing to physical activity, the playground can cause a hypersensitive response in children with autism.
While autism affects children in different ways, some of its hallmark symptoms can reveal themselves on a playground: impaired social interaction and difficulty interpreting sensory inputs, such as loud noises.
The sensory playground exists as a solution to help kids with autism play on a playground specifically designed for their needs. The playground also helps build a child’s skills in terms of building a sense of balance and coordination.
At first glance, a sensory playground may look similar to an everyday playground. However, there are some key differences and considerations for a sensory playground, which could include:
- A fenced-in playground to prevent a child from wandering or fleeing due to overstimulation.
- Impact-ready surfaces that can soften a fall as children with autism have a tendency to climb higher or take riskier paths on a playground that could lead to falls.
- Quiet areas of refuge, such as a grassy area, dome, alcove, or playhouse where a child can have some quiet if he or she becomes over-stimulated.
- Space between equipment to prevent children from running into each other and giving children with autism their space to play.
- Games a child can play by himself or herself, such as panels that are a part of equipment. These could include a labyrinth, chimes, kaleidoscope, mirror, or clock panels.
Sensory panels are key components of a sensory playground because it allows children with autism and sensory integration disorder to play independently and be exposed to different types of sensory stimulation. Many sensory playgrounds often highlight nature, such as opportunities to dig in dirt or sand, view butterflies, or enjoy looking at flowers and unique plants.
Through sensory playgrounds, children with autism have an opportunity to enjoy the playground and improve their abilities to interpret sensory stimulation.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, January 2020
- Sensory playgrounds take into account the unique needs of children with autism.
- These playgrounds offer children with autism the opportunity to play independently and with others nearby while retaining opportunities for quiet.
- Some features of a sensory playground could include therapy panels, nature features, and alcoves or quiet spaces.