Developing a Sensory Playground for Young Children

Primary pupils

We use our senses to help us live in the physical world. Without them, life would be far more challenging, especially in the complex societies in which we now live. Giving young children the ability to experience the world on a sensory level and to learn how to use the senses is, therefore, vital for their development. Here, we look at the way this can be done for sight, hearing, touch and smell in the playground.

The importance of sensory play

Sensory play develops children in many ways. On a physiological level, it helps with brain development, building important connections between neural pathways that give them the ability to do more complex thinking, solve problems, communicate, move nimbly and navigate.

Part of the way we use senses is to help us survive. As children explore, they develop the sensory skills which are important for keeping them safe: distinguishing hot from cold, low from high, soft from hard, smooth from rough and wet from dry. They become attuned to sensations which are safe and pleasant and those which are hazardous and unpleasant. In the playground, this can be done in a safe, controlled way.

Sensory play equipment for nurseries and schools

There is a sensory element to many of the pieces of outdoor play equipment that we provide at ESP Play. Below, we will take four of the five senses and look at some of the best equipment to help with their development.

Sight

Sight is perhaps our most used sense and we depend upon it in many ways. It helps us understand distance, direction, colour, shape, size, elevation, brightness, pattern, texture, speed, number, emotion and much more.

To make the most of sight in a playground, we need to give children opportunities to see things at a distance, perhaps with a play tower, and close up, with a magnifying glass or concave mirror. Indeed, in a small playground, a plane wall mirror can also help give the impression of distance. Colours can be introduced through coloured playground surfaces, painted walls, plants and a variety of different coloured equipment. Similarly, these can be a mixture of light and dark, bright and dull, reflective and non-reflective.

Movement can be created through physical activity, such as throwing balls, as well as through installing wind-moved objects like mobiles and mini windmills. Shape, of course, is everywhere, but standard shapes, like triangles, circles and rectangles, can be provided through playground markings.

Hearing

Like sight, our auditory senses give us lots of ways to understand the world around us. We use it to distinguish between types of things, their speed and their direction of movement. We also use it to communicate, both verbally and non-verbally.

Any playground will come with built-in noises: the sound of play, the sounds of nature and those of the local environment like traffic and factories. However, it is possible to complement these with wind chimes, bells and horns or even install purpose-designed outdoor musical instruments, like drainpipe drums, chimes and xylophones.

Touch

The nerves in our skin tell us not only where we are being touched but also a great deal about what is touching us and whether it is safe. Indeed, we are so sensitive to touch we can feel some things, like heat and wind, without physical contact. The more a child gets to experience touch, the better they become as interpreting the world around them.

To give children the chance to develop touch skills, they need as wide a variety of tactile experiences as possible. This can be achieved by using objects and equipment that range from hard to soft, smooth to textured, taut to slack and warm to cold. Contrasting sensory experiences can be easily achieved in a well-resourced playground through a variety of ways, from different types of playground surfacing (e.g. resin-bound gravel, rubber mulch and soft grass), climbing equipment (e.g. wooden beams, ropes and jungle bars), play apparatus (water and sand equipment, soft toys, throwing equipment) and nature (trees and plants).

Smell

Our olfactory sense plays a key part in our day to day awareness. It helps us to discover and avoid dangers, like fire and chemicals, it can tell us whether food has gone bad and when things are dirty. It is also a sense that brings much pleasure and through which we can be attracted to things like food and flowers. And though our sense of smell is far less developed than some other animals, we can still use it to identify people, places and things.

The playground can be an excellent source of smells. If there is an area of greenery, this can be used to create a garden with a variety of scents coming from various trees, shrubs, herbs and flowers and if these are carefully chosen, it is possible to have different smells being given off throughout the year. Where a school lacks a garden, it is still possible to create a nature area using planters and trellises, even embellishing it with a little artificial grass, if need be.

Aside from natural smells, it is also possible to create a smell zone. Fasten a few small wooden boxes around the site, drill holes in them and place scraps of scented material inside, perhaps using things like vanilla, cinnamon, lemon and ginger. When there’s a breeze, the scent will gently waft around the playground. You could even set children the task of identifying what the smells are each week.

Conclusion

Sensory play is essential for all children, helping them develop skills needed for living and for promoting the development of neural pathways in the brain. The playground is the ideal location for this as children have the freedom to explore the senses at their own leisure and pace. And while the outdoors naturally provides many sensory experiences of its own, with carefully chosen outdoor equipment, you can create an environment that meets all their sensory needs.

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