Sensory experience has long been a deliberate and vital element of the curriculum of early learning environments. Now, local goverments are experimenting with the deliberate addition of sensory elements into the public open space of communities.
But what is sensory play, and why is it important?
Sensory integration can be broken down into three main systems; tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive. The tactile system refers to the information processed in the brain from under our skin, such as temperature and pressure. The vestibular system refers to the brain’s ability to understand the position and angle of the head even when the eyes are closed. Proprioception is the ability of the body to work with the physical environment around us, and relates to motor skill ability.
Children learn naturally when engrossed in play, and play environments are well-placed to provide stimulating sensory opportunities. This is particularly important to children where one of these systems does not work optimally, and the child perceives things differently to others.
Interesting tactile components can be provided through incorporation of different materials and textures in the play space. The roughness of bark for example, or the cold smoothness of stone for example. In the Heritage Play Space at the Bendigo Botanic Gardens an oversize oak leaf was cast in bronze and mounted onto a natural basalt boulder. Water from a hand pump cascades over both leaf and stone, creating a third tactile sensation.
The vestibular system is stimulated by actions such as jumping, spinning and rolling. Many children find these activities particularly enjoyable and sometimes quite soothing. Stimulation of this sytem leads to improved coordination and balance. The most common piece of ordinary play equipment that addresses this is the common swing. Other equipment includes spinning cups, other rotational play pieces, and at the most basic, a grassed slope for rolling.
Play elements that support proprioception should provide a variety of ways children can ‘measure’ themselves against the environment. Loose material play where children can manipulate materials such as sand are valuable, although they have been traditionally not well provided for in the public environment. The common impulse of children to create a route around the play equipment and then repeat it over and over again my also be an unconscious training of this system.
It is not difficult to provide for these aspects of play in a play space. It requires being aware of what elements will provide for these needs, and checking to ensure that a diversity of experiences have been designed in to the space. Public play spaces are created to serve a whole community, including many children and parents with a disability. Providing play spaces that offer a range of different experiences and physical environments allows greater inclusion for all children.