Updated: Oct 6, 2021
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a framework first described by occupational therapist, A. Jean Ayres, PhD, in the 1970s. It refers to the body’s way of handling and processing sensory inputs from the environment (American Academy of Pediatrics). SPD, sometimes called Sensory Integration Dysfunction affects 1 in every 20 children (Ahn, Miller, Milberger, McIntosh, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 2004) and further research suggests that 1 in every 6 children experience sensory symptoms that may be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life functions. (Ben-Sasson, Carter, Briggs-Gowan, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 2009).
October is Sensory Processing Awareness Month. When creating a playground full of sensory-rich play experiences it allows you to build a more inclusive space for all children, including those with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Playground designers can play a major role in creating inclusive playgrounds that contribute to the positive sensory development of all children.
The Designer’s Guide to Sensory Development
While most people generally know about only five senses, there are, in fact, seven important senses that guide our actions through life. All seven senses work together, gathering input and feeding valuable information to the brain.
The Senses We Know
The five commonly known senses are familiar to us: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. All of the senses are important, though we sometimes underestimate or are unaware of how much we rely on them. For instance, while many parents understand the importance of singing rhymes or showing books to their babies, many are not aware of how critical the sense of touch is for guiding actions that lead to important life skills. Taking in information through the body’s largest organ, the skin, the tactile sense provides detailed information about the shape, size, and texture of objects. This sense offers information about the body and the surrounding environment, and is critical in development of body awareness and control of actions. Through manipulation of objects and experiencing different surfaces and pressures, children learn to coordinate motion. Play features, such as a sandbox, a water sprinkler, or an interactive play panel, capture a child’s interest in touch. Incorporating various textures, shapes, and objects is a great way to harness a child’s drive for tactile feedback. Varying the textures of equipment is another strategy. The inclusion of objects that children can manipulate and move with their hands also engages touch. Using different brightly colored components and designs with various patterns and textures and sounds engages both sight and sound. Visual and auditory inputs are also important in early childhood, and those senses develop in an integrated way with the primary senses, such that access to a varied play environment helps to further support healthy sensory integration.
The Lesser-Known Senses
We also rely on two additional senses: our sense of position, called proprioception (pronounced: PRO-pree-o-SEP-shun), and our sense of balance and movement, called the vestibular sense. These are two critical, primary senses that also develop before birth and, along with the sense of touch, give us our most basic understanding of how we move and experience the world around us
Proprioception provides awareness of the position of our bodies. It helps us integrate touch with movement, allowing us to move effectively through an environment. Proprioception, as it develops, helps children to judge how much force to use, how far or near to place themselves in relation to objects or people, and how to use and move their bodies appropriately. Anything that stretches, pushes, or pulls on muscles and joints supports proprioception. Play equipment that involves activities such as jumping, pushing, pulling, and hanging nourishes proprioception. Swing sets, teeter-totters, and overhead ladders are examples of playground equipment that support this sense’s development.
The vestibular sense provides spatial awareness though alerting and informing us about the direction, speed, and rhythm of the various types of motion we experience. This sense makes it possible for us to hold our heads and bodies up against the force of gravity, to keep our balance, to coordinate our eye muscles as our heads move, and to integrate the two sides of our bodies. The vestibular sense is the sense that drives our need to move throughout the day, whether we are young or old. Play equipment and activities that ask children to move in a rotary way, to balance, to spin, or to rock are ideal for supporting vestibular input. Movements that rely largely on the child for propulsion are also excellent. Any play that is bilateral, such as a climbing wall or jumping rope, also promotes this sense.
Designers can create a playground experience that will be sure to facilitate positive development and participation for all children by ensuring that play equipment supports and challenges all aspects of sensory motor functions, as well as social, communication, and conceptual development. Even a small playground can feature equipment that engages all of the senses in positive and protective ways. For example, play structures can support the vestibular sense through products that provide opportunities for swinging, spinning, and moving through space. The need for proprioceptive input can be met through equipment that facilitates climbing, jumping, or crawling. Textures on surfaces can facilitate tactile abilities, and colors and sounds can also be incorporated in ways that can be both soothing as well as invigorating without being irritating or distracting.
The Benefits of Sensory Play and Inclusive Playgrounds
Much of the modern world focuses primarily on visual input, such as from television, smart phones, computer screens, and whiteboards. This can be a problem because while the visual sense becomes highly developed, the other senses remain underdeveloped. Sensory play allows all senses to become developed, and inclusive playgrounds promote that development for all children. Thoughtfully designed sensory-enriching playgrounds can be trans-formative for all children, especially those with special needs. The playground can be an important factor in their ability to socialize and play among their peers. On an inclusive playground, all children find themselves integrated easily with other children, playing and relating naturally. However, if the playground proves to be a frightening or overwhelming experience, some children are likely to feel afraid, left out, and alone. A well-constructed, sensory-supportive playground allows children, especially those with sensory issues, to engage in the sensory experiences they need in socially acceptable ways. The selection of playground equipment, its location within the playground, and a thoughtful approach to the play area itself are vital elements in developing a sensory-friendly playground.
Equipment to Foster Sensory Development
When children run, walk, or roll excitedly onto a playground, they do not think: “Here is an opportunity to develop all of my senses.” All they see is an opportunity for play and fun. But a savvy designer will specify playground equipment that will not only provide playful fun required, but assist children in sensory development that will have lifelong benefits. Here are some types of playground equipment and their benefits.
Swinging provides both vestibular and proprioceptive inputs. Balance, eye movement, and body position are a big part of the activity. On the playground, children learn to recognize how their movements affect the speed at which they swing, the timing of the activity, as well as where the body goes as a result of these movements. Equipment examples: Swing set, tire swing, multi-user swing, and parent/child swing.
Spinning involves balancing and body positioning while engaging the child’s vestibular, proprioceptive, and visual senses. Equipment examples: Merry-go-round, pole with standing base, and seated spinner.
Sliding provides children with sensations of movement and speed without requiring any a great deal of additional effort. Sliding down the slide offers vestibular input because of movement, while the hard or textured surface of the slide can provide both tactile and proprioceptive input. Different types of slides provide a variety of sensations, including those brought on by twists, waves, and different textures. Incorporating slides with multiple bed-ways and climbers helps children develop physical skills and muscle tone, along with cognitive skills, such as problem solving and memory, by visualizing where and how to position their bodies. Equipment examples: Roller slide, spiral slide, and tube slides.
Climbing and its related activities help to develop the vestibular and proprioceptive inputs, improving muscle tone and balance. Fine motor skills and gross motor skills are developed simultaneously when traversing climbing walls. Incorporating climbing equipment helps children enhance their spatial awareness, coordination, and body management skills by offering a variety of different types climbing challenges. Equipment examples: Rope tower, rock wall, and ladder climber.
Rocking stimulates the vestibular and proprioceptive systems, while also helping to develop muscle tone. The rocking motion helps establish a sense of timing that is stimulating for a child’s sensory system. Equipment examples: Teeter-totter and spring riders.
Crawling helps to develop balance, strengthen muscle tone, and develop eyehand coordination. The crawling movement is repetitive, and this stimulates brain activity to develop cognitive processes, such as concentration, memory, comprehension, and attention. Equipment examples: Climbing tunnel and crawl tube.
Balance uses both vestibular and proprioceptive inputs along with visual and motor skills. Balance and coordination help children gain awareness of their own bodies by supporting the development of gross motor skills. This type of equipment also supports children’s awareness of their center of gravity and equilibrium, essential for physical skills. On the playground, children use their sense of balance to maneuver, while developing muscle tone and using problem-solving skills. Equipment examples: Stepping pods and balance beam.
Bouncing offers vestibular and proprioceptive inputs along with the use of gross motor skills. The stimulating and repetitive motion provides an exhilarating experience for children. Equipment examples: Stationary pogo stick with spring and standing platform, and stand-up teeter-totter with handle bars.
The ability of children to make sounds from playground equipment aids in the development of their auditory sense. Equipment examples: Activity panels and outdoor musical instruments.
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Fostering Sensory Development
To a child, a playground looks like fun. But it can be so much more than that. Thanks to the integration of wisdom from child development experts, equipment manufacturers, and landscape architects, playgrounds can provide vital experiences that foster sensory development. These developed senses make it easier for children to move around in the world, to communicate, to get along with others, and to have a sense of self and self confidence. Opportunities for sensory development are even more important for children with physical limitations and those who have sensory processing disorders. With knowledge gained from this blog you can ensure that a playground is not only fun, but also a safe, energizing place for children to develop, with lifelong physical, cognitive, emotional, and social benefits.