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Special Needs Students Benefit from "Sensory Playgrounds"

Bourgeoning playground designs focused on sensory activities offer social interaction as well as therapeutic learning time. While all children benefit from stimulating play, research shows that those with special needs progress considerably when such play environments are integrated with their school routine.

Common playground activities such as swings and trampolines inherently encourage socializing, concentration skills and physical awareness, which the steadily increasing number of children with autism and other attention-deficit conditions lack. However, parents, caregivers and educators of special needs children should note the recent advent of KidSense "sensory playgrounds," as the industry lexicon now describes them.

LeAnne Cantrell, an oil drilling engineer turned sensory playground pioneer, has established the KidSense Pilot Yard on the shared campus of Pontchartrain Elementary and Tcherfuncte Middle schools in Mandeville, La. where her autistic son is a student.

Cantrell recognized the importance of outdoor play in developing learning and social skills. She also saw in her New Orleans-adjacent community the absence of playground equipment and layout schemes that properly accommodate youngsters with special needs, most notably those whose wheelchairs often restrict their access to traditional play facilities and school yards.

So with the help and input of many friends and neighbors -- and despite Hurricane Katrina -- KidSense came to be with the intention of creating places where children with special needs can inclusively interact with parents and peers.

The Pilot Yard at Pontchartrain Elementary builds on previous accessible playground concepts such as the nearby Boundless Playground design covered in a previous posting. It consists of 12 areas based on three types of "sensory stations." "Equipment stations," according to the KidSense website, "offer very specific types of either hard work or sets of movement that are needed to fulfill students’ sensory diets." "Natural stations" such as a thicket of crepe myrtle trees are intended to "soothe and calm while introducing opportunities for imagination."

The playground also has a "multi-sensory wall" that expands the traditional mural concept "with the use of tiles, mirrors, castings and even manipulative [activities] such as wheels to turn, cranks, pulleys and levers," explains. "Braille messages written in stones can be decoded with the help of a friend or the permanent Braille alphabet key."

Innovative playground attractions include a climbing wall, balance beam, tunnels and buddy slides. Each piece of equipment is accompanied by different types of plants and trees. These natural surroundings provide "a sense of protection...and offer alternative place experiences," states the KidSense website.

KidSense yards are based on "sensory rooms," which are common in special education schools. These play areas provide students with activities that sharpen concentration and lengthen attention spans.

Cantrell's concept draws heavily from research that began in the 1970s with Jane Ayers' "sensory integration" techniques. Only recently has the medical research community caught up, however.

It wasn't until 2005 that Temple University researchers turned heads with the first of two large-scale sensory integration studies. It found 95 percent of kids with ADHD improved their ability to focus on schoolwork and interact with family members.

A second survey completed in May reported that 91 percent of autistic children "displayed fewer stereotypical behaviors after participating in sensory integration schedules and were better able to concentrate on achieving set goals," according to The Times-Picayune newspaper.

Currently, KidSense is fundraising for its third sensory playground project since the non-profit began in 2007. As quoted in her local newspaper, the St. Tammany News, Cantrell said, “We are building a better playground for all children, not just those with special needs.” 

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