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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Practical Solutions for SEND Friendly Playgrounds

Pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) can lose out at school if the outdoor amenities aren't inclusive. Although every school has to provide access to the playground, once outside, SEND pupils can easily become isolated and often have fewer things to to engage them. In this post, we’ll look at some practical solutions that can transform your playground for these children.

literacy and phonics

Why outdoor learning and play are so beneficial for SEND pupils

SEND children face more barriers than other children when developing key learning skills. The lack of space indoors can restrict them in classrooms and for some, a crowded and busy classroom can be too unsettling for them to learn. Supporting them with a well-designed and well-equipped outdoor environment means they have more space and, if needed, quieter areas, where they can better take on the challenges that will help them develop and progress.

Regular outdoor play helps SEND pupils to lead happier and healthier lives. It encourages them to try new challenges, take safe risks and make mistakes – all activities that help them become, resilient, confident and independent. At the same time, the less structured nature of the outdoor playground exposes them, in a safe setting, to the unpredictable and all the lessons that teaches.

The importance of playground design for SEND pupils

Design plays a fundamental role in making school playgrounds inclusive for SEND children. One of the main focuses should be on creating discrete zones, each designed to cater for specific kinds of activity. At the same time, you need to develop a layout that enables pupils of all abilities to move easily and safely from one zone to another.

There are many factors to consider when designing such a playground. These include the kinds of equipment you wish to install, where to place the zones so as to encourage play, how to ensure everyone has physical and emotional access, providing enough space for children to play and wheelchairs to manoeuvre and, importantly, making sure the playground is safe.

For those who need quiet spaces, it’s usually a good idea to locate these near the entrance to the playground. This way, less confident children don’t see going outside as a big ordeal and can quickly go back in if they feel uncomfortable.

Aside from the zones and the equipment you use, other important design features of a SEND friendly playground include the type of surfacing you use for each zone and their interconnecting pathways and whether you introduce fences, trellises or planters to screen areas off from each other. These can be installed for safety reasons, to reduce noise, to make areas more private or simply for improving the aesthetic of the environment.

Encouraging physical activity

Although some SEND children will face challenges taking part in certain types of physical activity, all of them should have access to activities that are appropriate for them. Not only do they need this to improve overall fitness and develop skills like coordination and spatial awareness, being unable to take part prevents them benefitting from its important social aspects. Participating in games and sports helps all pupils, including those with SEND, to learn about teamwork, social interaction and following rules. Installing appropriate playground and PE equipment and safe surfacing, like wetpour and artificial grass, can help make physical activity far more inclusive and prevent SEND pupils being isolated from their peers.

Physical activity doesn’t just have to come from structured activities either. Free play on equipment where they can have fun while learning to improve balance and mobility can be just as beneficial and rewarding.

Sensory stimulation and imaginative play

literacy and phonics

Sensory activities and imaginative play are important for SEND children’s development and creating a playground that offers an array of these experiences can make a big difference. Many schools opt to create a calming sensory zone, away from the more boisterous areas of the playground, which is built to stimulate a child’s curiosity. These can include things like body warping mirrors, sand and water play, bughouses, planters, outdoor musical instruments and a wide range of other resources to touch, see, smell and hear.

Imaginative play can come in many forms. Imaginative zones can include quiet areas to sit and listen to a story, somewhere to draw, paint or colour, exciting equipment that can inspire role play, such as a sit-on train or wooden shop counter or even themed climbing towers that create magical, made-up worlds with forests and castles.

Getting in touch with nature

A school nature area can bring lots of benefits for all pupils but for SEND pupils who need quiet, calm spaces it can be a haven. Even if you don’t have the luxury of a school garden, you can create a nature area with planters and trellises and encourage wildlife to move in with bug houses, butterfly boxes and bird tables. You can also use the planters, digging pits and growing boxes to engage the pupils in gardening activities and even use investigation tables to learn about the things they discover.

Conclusion

A well designed and equipped school playground, built to meet the needs of SEND pupils, can make your school much more inclusive. SEND pupils will be able to take part in more activities with other students and have specific areas or zones that help them develop and achieve in the most appropriate ways.

For more information visit our Special Needs page.

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Outdoor Sensory Play Solutions for EYFS

Providing EYFS pupils with opportunities for sensory play is key to helping them develop the skills and knowledge needed for the more challenging learning they will face in primary school. At this age, children rely on their five senses to explore the world around them and through this they learn to understand and find meaning in things. In this post, we’ll look at the importance of sensory play and at the resources you can use for your pupils.

Developing creativity

Deluxe Mud Kitchen

Sensory play is ideal for helping children to be creative. Give children access to one of our mud kitchens and within minutes they’ll be mixing up mud pies, building sand castles, cooking up strange, exotic meals and making unusual 3D shapes. They’ll also be learning about textures, material composition, weights and measures; all quite challenging concepts to explain in the classroom but easy to discover through play.

Sound play is also great for developing creativity. Children love to bang things to see what kind of noises they make, and with easy to play outdoor music equipment, such as drainpipe drums, chimes and xylophones, there’s a world of creative discoveries to be made. Children can learn how different instruments make different sounds, how size can affect notes or that the harder they hit an instrument the louder it gets. They can also explore rhythm and pattern and develop the skills to play the instruments.

Solving problems and making decisions

Problem solving and decision making are crucial cognitive skills that children need to develop, and sensory play offers plenty of opportunity for this. Our colour puzzle table, for example, challenges children to connect squares by using the correct colour combinations, similarly, our tower puzzle uses size and colour to develop skills in sequencing and patterns.

A more adventurous way to use sensory play for bringing on problem solving skills is to install one of our play towers or some Trim Trail obstacle course equipment. These are hands-on experiences where children need to explore different pathways in order to learn the best route to get from one end to the other. They will face problems along the way and have to make decisions about how to move forwards – all whilst having lots of fun climbing, swinging and sliding with their friends.

Getting kids talking

Sensory play can be the catalyst for linguistic development in young children. By using different senses to explore their environment, they are naturally motivated to express their feelings and describe their experiences. Obviously, the more experiences they have, the more opportunity they get to use language and thus develop a wider vocabulary through participation. Whether that’s splashing in a water play pool, watching bugs in an insect habitat, doing a spot of outdoor painting, or pretending to be Thomas the Tank Engine on a wooden play train is all down to the child’s curiosity.

Social and emotional skills

Sensory play can be the catalyst for linguistic development in young children. By using different senses to explore their environment, they are naturally motivated to express their feelings and describe their experiences. Obviously, the more experiences they have, the more opportunity they get to use language and thus develop a wider vocabulary through participation. Whether that’s splashing in a water play pool, watching bugs in an insect habitat, doing a spot of outdoor painting, or pretending to be Thomas the Tank Engine on a wooden play train is all down to the child’s curiosity.

Opening up the world

The idea behind sensory play is to open up all five senses to explore the world. Whilst taste is often best left to the kitchen and the canteen, outdoor play does provide ample opportunities for all four of the other senses.

When it comes to touch, outdoor sensory equipment provides a variety of textures, temperatures and shapes to discover: the warmth of a wooden beam, the shape of a puzzle piece, the roughness of a bark pit and the sliminess of mud. For sound, there are the chimes of a xylophone, the pounding of pipe drums, the splash of water and the twittering of birds at the bird table. Smell is always a difficult sense to cater for, however, at ESP Play we have an excellent solution with our outdoor planters which enable you to grow a wide variety of scent producing plants for children to experience. As for sight, our equipment comes in all shapes, sizes and patterns and can be brightly coloured, too. We have everything covered!

Conclusion

Providing opportunities for sensory play enables children to develop their sensual intelligence and from this, a whole range of important skills that will underpin their future learning – both in school and in day to day life. Hopefully, this article will have shown you the value of sensory play and given you some ideas of how to equip your EYFS playground.

For more information, call us on 01282 43 44 45 or check out our products page.

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