When Mandi Darr’s son Elijah was born, she knew almost immediately that something was different. For his first 48 hours of life, he wouldn’t stop crying. “Physically, there was nothing wrong, but I don’t think he slept at all in the hospital,” Darr, a Denver mom of four kids, ages five to 14, remembers. The doctors sent the family home, thinking that Elijah would eventually calm down. He didn’t.
With help from the experts at the Centennial-based STAR Institute, Elijah, now 8, was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), meaning that his brain was misinterpreting everyday sensory information like light, sound, and movement. Because of Elijah’s SPD, as well as his 12-year-old brother Isaiah’s SPD, many typical experiences during which families connect were extremely stressful for the Darrs. Going to restaurants, amusement parks, museums, fireworks displays, the mall, and church caused behavioral or emotional meltdowns for the brothers. Elijah might scream or walk in circles; Isaiah might hide or refuse to do anything.
How do they connect as a family instead? “We go to the playground, where there is no pressure to behave in certain ways,” says Darr. “On the playground, Elijah is a leader…We pretend to be animals, astronauts, or book characters. The playground becomes the great equalizer for all kids to have the same freedoms.” It’s this concept that’s led parents and therapists to view playgrounds as not only places to get exercise, but also as essential tools to help children with sensory issues.
The Brain/Body Connection of Playground Play
The STAR Institute’s therapists know that whole-body play engages the brain, and “this need is even more acute for kids with SPD,” says Virginia Spielmann, executive director of the STAR Institute. Every piece of equipment on the institute’s playground at their former location was selected for its social and therapeutic benefits. It featured a Cozy Dome: where kids could feel their body weight shift as they climbed up the outside, or could take a “time-in” inside, which helped them learn to self-regulate. The Omni Spinner—a safer sort of merry-go-round with back support—allowed two different types of sensory stimulation, for the kids riding inside, as well as for those pushing it.
“[Play] helps activate the joint and muscle receptors…it activates the body to get rich information to the brain,” Spielmann says. “It is such a revolutionary thing to understand that being confident in gross motor skills helps [you] be confident in agency and sense of self, and builds self-esteem.” In addition, she says, “We hypothesize that when we’re having fun, we get more integration at the brain and body level and that helps with things like impulse control.”
Not Your Grandparent’s Playgrounds
In his work as a playground specialist for Landscape Structures, John McConkey began leading focus groups consisting of parents with kids on the autism spectrum, about 11 years ago.
“I asked, ‘What makes a successful day for you at the playground?’ And there was silence,” he says. It turns out, the families didn’t go to playgrounds because playgrounds didn’t meet their needs. At that time, playground designers were considering children with mobility challenges, but not other special needs like autism or SPD. “We started to design for inclusion and not just accessibility,” McConkey says.
McConkey began researching children’s play needs with child development experts, and presented what he learned to his design team. Out of this research came many inclusive structures including the Rhapsody music features for kids seeking auditory input; a climbing net made of cables that allows kids to react to the movements of others (which occupational therapists love, says McConkey); a merry-go-round you can access by wheelchair; the Oodle saucer swing, which is large enough to accommodate young adults with special needs. “We’ve had parents tell us in tears that [the Oodle swing] was the single thing their kids gravitated toward,” McConkey says.
Great Playground Features for SPD
The sensory needs your child has will determine what type of playground equipment will be most beneficial to them, notes Spielmann. When you’re headed to the playground, look for:
- Equipment that is spread out. Kids that find movement and sound alarming benefit from space and opportunities to take a break without leaving the play/playground.
- Structures with graded demands for climbing and moving. For kids with dyspraxia, planning and processing movement is harder, and this can make them feel more successful.
- A fence or barrier around the play area, so kids labeled as “runners” will not disappear.
- One entry/exit point, so parents have just one place to keep their eye on.
- Swings. It’s a positive therapeutic experience, and many kids love them. Look for types of swings that might allow for different body positions or multiple people at once.
- Well-maintained ground surfacing. If loose fill materials have been dug out or if a ground surface has been kicked out or has settled, it could expose a concrete footer and be dangerous. Report dangerous surfacing to the playground’s owner.
- Equipment that you can interact with in a variety of ways, in order to increase physical and mental agility.
- Slides with different inclines and multi-user widths; some that allow kids to climb up if they wish.
Darr likes to look for playgrounds with structures that kids can creatively turn into something else, she says, thinking of the pirate ships, spaceships, and other things her kids have imagined out of playground equipment. “That’s where the social piece comes in.” And when you go, Darr advises, “let the child lead the way…and remember that the way you connect just might look different than your neighbors.”
October is Sensory Processing Awareness Month To raise awareness, STAR Institute will be introducing a new illustrated character and story each Thursday, through social media posts that describe a different way that SPD presents itself in children. “We want people to understand that sensory health is relevant to every body,” Spielmann says. STAR will be closing out Sensory Awareness Month with a socially distanced, sensory inclusive trunk-or-treat fundraising event.