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The title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, has absolutely nothing to do with playgrounds. But the phrase has stuck with me as an illustration of what it means to be a child, where at times the world can be overwhelming and, frankly, a bit scary. Playgrounds are intended as places of fun and liberation. In these spaces designed and built for children, little ones have license to be themselves, to yell with abandon as they swing to new heights, to chase their friends, laugh, and let loose.

But for some children the playground can be a daunting place. They stand at the fringes and plug their ears. They don’t have any interest in swings. They don’t wish to smile for the flashing cameras of adults eager to document each milestone. For children with autism spectrum disorder and sensory integration disorders, or others, like my son, who are more introverted and sensitive than many of their peers, the noise and commotion of a playground, at best, can take some time to warm up to, and at worst, can cause distress and discomfort.

All of this is reason to affirm the value of sensory playgrounds. These are playgrounds designed for children who have difficulty interpreting sensory inputs, such as loud noises, or a hard time feeling socially comfortable. They are also intended to benefit children who have experienced trauma or neglect, or those with mobility, sight, or hearing impairments.

A crisp synopsis on the healthcare site bundoo, reviewed by Kristie Rivers, a pediatrician at a children’s hospital in Ft. Lauderdale, includes a list of key design considerations for these playgrounds. Many are not so different from what we find at most contemporary playgrounds. The sites should have a fenced-in play space to prevent children from wandering off, if they become overwhelmed. They should have impact-attenuated surfaces to soften falls (children with autism tend to climb higher) and adequate space between equipment to prevent collisions and give children for more room to move.

However, other aspects of sensory playgrounds are more specialized. Quiet areas of refuge, such as an alcove, train car, or playhouse, give children a place to escape from noise and crowds. Games like chimes, labyrinths, mirrors, clock panels provide opportunities for independent play. For designers of sensory playgrounds, and those simply curious to learn more, we offer a few suggestions for making playgrounds more enjoyable for children with physical and developmental disabilities.

Sound Column, Tilia Chimes, Rolling Bells, and Rainmaker
From orchestral concerts for children with autism to the inspiring story of Tyler Doi, a boy with autism whose remarkable musical acuity was brought to life through wind chimes, more and more is being done to integrate music into the lives of children with autism. There is even a growing body of research that shows the emotional and social benefits of music therapy for children with autism. In fact, a 2004 study reported in the Autism Science Foundation’s blog found music “to improve the mapping of sounds to actions, by connecting the auditory and motor sections of the brain, which may help improve understanding of verbal commands.”

The Sound Column, a two-foot-tall stainless steel column with ringing chimes, fosters just that kind of connection between sound and action. When a child turns the cylinder, the chimes make a glassy, twinkling sound. Intended for ground use, the two-foot diameter column is easily installed in concrete. Rolling Bells, a similar stainless steel cylinder that is oriented horizontally, makes a similarly pleasing bell sound. Other excellent musical items for a sensory playground are the Tilia Chimes, tuned to a pentatonic scale, and the Rainmaker, a mounted instrument which sounds like gently falling rain.

Distortion Mirror
The Distortion Mirror is a gently curving, concave mirror that contorts the image children see of their bodies. As the latest FaceApp craze makes clear, changing one’s appearance can be a fun diversion. We are enthralled with images of ourselves and curious as to how they reflect our identities. Interestingly, for children with autism spectrum disorder and Downs syndrome, who may not recognize their reflections as images of themselves, mirrors may hold a special fascination.

A small, exploratory British study of preschoolers, as described on the Autist’s Corner, looked at how children with autism or Down syndrome and typically developing toddlers acted toward their reflections in a mirror. The researchers found that autistic children did not generally try to relate socially to the person in the mirror. Those who recognized themselves spent time “experimenting with the mirror, tilting it to see things around the room, doing things with toys or with their faces while watching to see those actions reflected back to them.” Those who failed to recognize their own reflections spent more time watching the person in the mirror.

The authors of the study, first published in Autism, suggest that mirrors may be helpful children with autism as they develop a sense of “selfhood.” In their conclusion, they write, “Engaging with the self can also provide opportunities for learning about expressions and interaction.” In addition to fostering these kinds of connections, the Distortion Mirror gives children the opportunity to take a break from more active areas of the playground and enjoy a few moments of quiet, independent play.

Stone Abacus
If you had a good math teacher, you know that tactile learning is often the best way to make abstract ideas understandable. On a personal note, I’ll tell you it is much harder to get my three-year-old interested in numbers from reading a book than, say, measuring the carpet with a ruler or lining up a set of matchbox cars he can count. The same learning principle applies to the Stone Abacus. Small rocks are threaded on stainless steel rungs with either oak or stainless steel. Children can move and count the stones as they discover their various textures, weights, and irregularities.

We hope this gives you a few ideas. We’ll be back with a look at some of the best sensory playgrounds very soon.