Sensory play

Great playgrounds include sensory play activities in addition to physical play.  For a young child, their sensory system is developing along with their physical development.

According to EduGuide, a nonprofit whose mission is to boost student achievement,  “Recent child development research suggests sensory play builds nerve connections in the brain’s pathways, which helps the brain develop. These experiences are basically food for the brain. They lead to more complex learning tasks, so that children are able to do more complex learning.”  But most important, studies show that children who don’t have enough sensory play experiences may suffer learning problems.  In fact, some researchers believe that children’s access to sensory experiences is declining.  A reason for this decrease is that children are spending more time indoors where there are limitations for sensory experiences.  Therefore, as playground designers it is imperative that we include as many sensory experiences as possible so that when children do come and play they are having the opportunity for their neurons to connect.

Children with a disability, and those with multiple disabilities, are perhaps even more at risk of living a sensory-deprived life.  What are some reasons children with special needs might not be given a diet rich in sensory play experiences?  According to Ellen Metrick, chief toy  evaluator at AblePlay, a non-profit organization that researches, rates and reviews toys and play products for children with disabilities, some reasons might be:
•   Lack of mobility
•   Lack of muscle coordination
•   Over sensitivity to some sensory stimulation
•   Other health concerns
•   Tendency to over-protect and minimize risk by parents

Authors of the Inclusive Play Design Guide recommend that the playground be rich in textures, sounds, and visual experiences.  It is important to offer a variety of each of these to enable a child to explore and find experiences they enjoy the best.

The Guide suggests that there be opportunities for children to touch:

  • Smooth items like a metal slide
  • Soft items which is material that yields readily to touch such as grass or the rubber of a Ripple Bridge
  • Hard material that does not yield to pressure such as rocks and pieces of play equipment
  • Rough material like boulders, rocks and rope
  • Grainy materials such as sand, dirt, rocks or boulders
  • Bumpy texture that one might experience when going down a slide with built in texture
  • Loose or liquid materials such as sand and water

The Inclusive Play Design Guide goes on to encourage that the different textures not just be experienced with a child’s hands, but with their entire body.  For example, a child rolling down a hill gets many different sensory experiences at one time.

On the playground, children should also encounter a variety of sounds from their own voices to those generated by hitting or pushing something.  Therefore, a play space that is sensory rich includes items such as talking tubes, musical instruments, and cause and effect panels that result in sound.  Playworld Systems offers some unique auditory experience through its electronic play series.  Environmentally friendly Kid Powered Energy (KPE) runs entirely on the charge kids give it when they spin, push, and press its wheels and buttons.  As they use energy to create  those motions they get the reward of sound.  When rocking on a Spring Rider a child can hear the sound that an animal or machine would make. Little girl riding a bumble bee playground spring rider

Playgrounds should be sensory rich experiences for all children enabling them to participate in new experiences that help their brain further develop.  Why types of sensory rich play is available at your local playground?

Further resources:

Research Continues to Explore Benefits of Sensory Play by AblePlay

The Importance of Sensory Experience for Learning: Jean Piaget’s Theory of Intellectual Development by Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service

A Handful of Fun: Why Sensory Play is Important for Preschoolers by Amanda Morgan of

Previous Article Freeing up time for play Next ArticlePlayground surprise for Detroit boy