The Sensory Garden Playground

By Gina Catalano
Photos: Lana Kozol / Wheaton Park District

At the Sensory Garden Playground in Lisle, Ill., inclusive play matters. The combination of sensory-integrated play spaces and gardening areas in the 40-acre facility are being developed in phases; phase one opened in spring 2015. The playground is a project of the Play For All Playground & Garden Foundation, composed of recreation and inclusion experts whose mission is to create barrier-free and universally accessible outdoor play spaces and gardens in DuPage County. Through the cognitive, social, and physical values of play, the foundation will promote a spirit of inclusion and enhance quality of life, as well as support involvement in recreation and wellness activities for all people and abilities.

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Key Benefits
When designing this particular playground, the foundation intended that each piece was selected to help kids develop and have fun regardless of ability, especially if a child has not had access to a playground before. The playground incorporates the five key benefits of sensory play and inclusive playground designs as identified by Landscape Structures, a partner of the playground:

1. Build self-esteem and problem-solving skills. Sensory play engages the child and presents challenges. Learning to set and achieve goals, overcome challenges through interactions, and build self-esteem increases confidence to approach future challenges.

2. Increase self-control. Sensory-stimulating activities help children calm themselves and organize their thoughts, which help kids manage their feelings and social responses.

3. Enhance creativity and imagination. Sensory play can encourage creativity by engaging the whole child and utilizing all their resources.

4. Grow relationships and confidence. By sharing common play space, children learn how to transition from independent play to interaction and engagement with others, increasing verbal and physical communication skills.

5. Move with courage. Physical activities like climbing and reaching encourage children to move in new ways, as well as test their endurance and develop coordination, stability, and motor-planning skills.

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Creating The Space
According to Landscape Structures, five other elements are taken into account when creating an inclusive playground. They help provide multi-sensory experiences that help build the brain more quickly. For the sensory aspect, it’s important to have visual, auditory, proprioception, tactile, and vestibular elements within the playground. These help engage or enhance specific skills that encourage touch, body movement, and more. Motor skills, such as fine motor, agility, balance, cardiovascular, coordination, hand-eye coordination, endurance, and motor planning create a challenging element so children can work on staying upright, use a combination of muscles, increase heart rates, and engage hands and fingers. Upper-, lower-, and core-body strength create another challenge as kids work on their arm and shoulder muscles, leg and hip muscles, as well as trunk muscles. Strategic planning, problem-solving, and language and literacy are all cognitive skills that encourage children to find solutions and develop plans to successfully engage in play, all while developing their brains. The final piece involves social skill development, cooperation, and imaginative play to encourage children to work together in both verbal and non-verbal settings and think outside the box.

In a world of high tech and low touch, encouraging families to get outside and play can be a battle. While neighborhood parks provide nearby play, the foundation wanted to create a magical play space hidden away and surrounded by nature.

Playground Features
The playground currently sports an equestrian theme, built for ages two to five, with slides, stairs, and ramps. There are also baby swings and a central gathering space with accessible surfacing. The fragrance and sound garden has various instruments, raised planter beds, and textured planting while artist Joseph Gagnepain created three interactive art sculptures displayed throughout the area.

The magic of the playground begins the moment a car pulls up and children see one of the amazing interactive sculptures made from recycled materials. Kids delight in identifying the familiar household items in a horseshoe-shaped archway and using the talk-tube mouthpiece to yell to someone waiting at the other end.

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After children walk across the bridge, a play space hidden within the trees opens up. There is a sound garden where kids can play the xylophone or beat on drums to hear and feel the vibrations. There is a fragrance garden with plants to excite the senses of sight, smell, and touch. The rocking horses are a great playground piece for kids to expend extra energy and pretend they are out in a pasture riding freely. The play panels engage the children as they learn cause and effect by playing together. The cozy dome is a place where they can get away and calm themselves if they are overstimulated. Each spot is a place not only to have fun, but to learn lessons, like taking turns and playing alongside a new friend.

Despite the many options the playground already has to offer, this is just the beginning. An all-ages accessible treehouse, accessible sensory-integrated, multi-purpose sports field and water play area are all part of what’s to come in its upcoming phases.

Footnotes:
Inclusive Play Benefits, https://www.playlsi.com/en/playground-design-ideas/inclusive-play/developmental-benefits/

Gina Catalano is the Marketing & Communications Assistant for the Wheaton Park District in Illinois. Reach her at gcatalano@wheatonparks.org.