SENSES Park Provides Much-Needed Inclusive Playground For Children With Autism

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In an effort to fulfill a great need within the community, Osceola County created SENSES Park in Kissimmee, Fla. Unlike most playgrounds, this park was designed to be a truly inclusive play space catered to children with autism just like Danny Roger’s 3.5-year-old grandson.

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“My grandson thoroughly enjoyed the experience and did not want to leave,” Rogers said. “It was good for him in that if he got uncomfortable, he could go to another part of the play area, where most inclusive playgrounds tend to confine children to a limited space.”

Playground manufacturer Superior Recreational Products partnered with KorKat to design and install SENSES Park.

“We were tasked with coming up with a multi-sensory play environment that promoted differences and similarities in kid’s play abilities,” KorKat Design Consultant Josh Verdone said.

In creating this design, Verdone made multisensory play a top priority by incorporating components and different play quadrants that were unique to children of varying abilities and sensory needs.

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“From the very beginning we believed quite strongly that every child should have the opportunity to play outdoors. We realized our current playground inventory was incomplete,” Director of Parks and Public Lands Robert Mindick said.

The parks department had been approached by parents who wanted more playground equipment that catered to children with special needs, especially those falling within the autism spectrum.

“As we looked at the estimated numbers of children falling into the autism spectrum alone, we became instantly committed to working on the SENSES Park project, designing a park specifically for those children with autism,” Mindick said.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 in 59 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder.

“As we looked into the issue, it became very obvious that adding a few pieces of equipment to a pre-existing facility did not work in our case,” Mindick said.

They chose the site of an old fire station for this much needed park.

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This inclusive playground consists of a variety of play equipment including a compact structure with safe challenges, freestanding climbers, swing, wheelchair accessible merry-go-round, musical play instruments, sand box, and site furnishings.

“Every item in SENSES Park is purposeful and enriching for the kids’ play experience,” Verdone said.

The musical play area is a key focal point of the park. Each instrument is designed to be harmonious, so they can be played individually or together as a small orchestra.

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“The Contrabass Chimes are a particular favorite because the vibrations can be felt throughout the body along with being heard. A child with a hearing deficit can still experience the joy of music radiating through their body,” Verdone said.

Instead of a standard swing set they chose the Team Swing, which allows children to develop spatial orientation while giving them the freedom to position their bodies in different ways. The swinging stimulates balance, eye movement, and body position.

Another popular item is the Inclusive Orbit, which is a wheelchair accessible merry-go-round. It allows children with or without a mobility device to experience the fun spinning sensation.

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In addition to the play equipment, one very important part of SENSES Park is the poured in place rubber surfacing. Not only is it great for accessibility, it is also designed with different colors to designate different areas of the playground. It also has a unique texture, which adds to the sensory play experience.

“Every component in the playground is meant to elicit an intentional and unique play experience either individually, with the child’s caregiver, or in a social or cooperative setting,” Verdone said.

Mindick said the most important feature was creating spaces with limited social experience. This was done by providing separation between play items to allow room for self-exploration and to limit outside stresses. What’s more SENSES Park creates a nice balance of design, spacing, play equipment, landscaping, and sound to best cater to an inclusive environment.

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“The community immediately embraced the park, complimenting us for taking the time to understand the various and broad issues related to autism and putting that knowledge into our design of the park,” Mindick said.

SENSES Park offers a great play experience to children of all abilities.

“We often hear that children who were not comfortable going to a more conventional playground enjoyed SENSES Park and found their special spot there. I have received calls from complete strangers wanting to just tell us what a difference the park was already making in their child or grandchild’s life,” Mindick said.

In addition to children, this park is also a great place for adults.

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“We are finding some families taking elderly adults, many within early stages of dementia, to the park for many of the same reasons as children with autism. SENSES Park has truly become an all-inclusive park,” Mindick said.