Feature Article - November 2010
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Play Date

What's New on the Playground?

By Deborah Vence


Richardson recalled a group of children who used the product and created a bridge, and had a troll hiding under it. Some built three different houses, while another group built animal habitats.

"[They can] imagine and create these things and activities, [which are] linked to what they are doing in the classroom. Imaginative play is the most important factor," she said. "It's so open-ended. Children are inspired to use their imagination."

McConkey noted that there are three play challenges that children with sensory processing disorders have—social play domain, imaginary play and sensory play domain. Social and imaginary play are among the most sophisticated play skills that kids develop, and he said that children with disabilities need that development and can benefit from that experience.

Company research, via interviews and focus group sessions, revealed that play structures can be over-stimulating, and can be too much for children with sensory disorders. "It's not as engaging," he said.

Therefore, some children with disabilities might need smaller, isolated spaces that are more intimate with a smaller group of kids, with sand and water elements, a spinning area, areas of multisensory display elements, he said.

For example, one special needs child might need to have some calming time, so they go into a space limited to outside stimulation—one that's quieter, darker and calmer, while another child might need a lot of sensory input.

"All ADA guidelines for playgrounds are geared around providing access, not necessarily what the play experience is like, or if it's functional for them. And so, we look at designing for a wide range of kids that come to the playground. One characteristic of [special needs] kids is their sensory processing disorder, but that crosses a lot of other disabilities, [such as] Down syndrome, learning disabilities, speech and language disabilities," he said.

A helpful exercise involving what's called proprioceptive input [heavy work activities] is climbing, whether it's a simplistic climber, a big plastic climber or one made out of more flexible material—high tension cables designed in a spider web configuration. Heavy work activities are used for children with sensory processing difficulties to help increase attention, decrease defensiveness and control excitement.

In a therapeutic environment with heavy work activities, "[a therapist might say], you're going to help move this whole bookcase of books, and pull all the books off the shelf [and then put them back on]," McConkey said.

That repetitive activity can help the proprioceptive system. Proprioceptive input is essential in helping the human body incorporate and process both movement (vestibular) and touch (tactile) information.

Also, play elements that spin create a tremendous vestibular input. A child with autism might start to feel overwhelmed or over-stimulated, so the spinning helps to provide what an occupational therapist calls a sensory diet, a therapy regimen used in schools to help give kids sensory input, to help them calm and center themselves.

"These types of activities help to provide just the right level of sensory input," he added. "Sensory play is the fundamental entry point where everybody connects and everyone has that connection, and [can be] the gateway for kids with autism or sensory processing orders that can bring them together to create common interests."