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posted: 5/16/2013 6:29 PM

Sensory Garden Playground to be tailored to kids with autism

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By Sherry Manschot

Spring brings out the kid in all of us. After hibernating all winter and enduring those seemingly endless April showers, warmer weather and the welcoming site of May flowers definitely boosts one's energy level. If you have children, you can almost see their energy level skyrocket. Thank goodness we have an abundance of options for outdoor play, including playgrounds.

Unfortunately, there are children and families who are unable to enjoy a visit to the playground because of a disability. Whether it is a child with autism who becomes overwhelmed or is understimulated at traditional playgrounds or a parent who has restricted mobility issues, not everyone is able to take advantage of the benefits derived at a playground.

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According to the latest U.S. Census, nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population has some form of physical or cognitive disability. The numbers from the Centers on Disease Control on those living with autism were recently changed from 1 in 88 to 1 in 50. That means that there are a lot of families and children for whom playing on a traditional playground is just not an enjoyable experience.

Outdoor play has so much to offer our children and much that is critical to their personal development. First, there are the overall benefits derived from fresh air, sunshine and physical exercise. Outdoor play can be used to manage agitation, anxiety, depression and of course boredom. Second, playgrounds can present an excellent landscape to develop both fine and gross motor skills. Tactile panels can promote manipulation and coordination; bridges and ramps can promote loco motor skills; slides and swings can promote balance and coordination.

Then there are the lessons that are apparent in the complex social network that comes with playground play. For young children, playgrounds include a whole host of lessons critical to life. Beyond the pure joy of running, jumping, sliding and swinging, we learn to negotiate, follow directions and take turns. We learn to meet and play side-by-side with peers whom we meet for the first time. We learn self-control, tolerance and so much more.

What if this magnificent learning arena was off limits because of a barrier due to a disability?

Thankfully there is an innovative playground coming to the area that will assure that families with special needs always have a special place to play.

The vision of the Sensory Garden Playground is to create a barrier-free and universally accessible play zone for all children including those with a disability and is planned especially for kids on the autism spectrum and those who have sensory processing issues. It will also allow adults with mobility challenges to be able to play with their children at an inclusive, accessible playground.

Plans for the SGP include sound and fragrance gardens, two separate age-appropriate playground areas, boulder and ropes areas, a water play area, an accessible tree house and baseball fields. Centrally located off Naperville Rd. in Lisle, this 50-acre playground will be easily accessible from both I-88 and 355. As a destination, there are 1 million people within a 15-minute drive and 8 million within an hour drive.

As early as this summer, Phase 1 of the SGP will be breaking ground and the anticipated completion of Phase 1 is Fall 2013. Phase 1 is scheduled to include: a Play Along the Way path filled with interactive experiences for children, a centrally located gathering space acting as a hub for the entire playground, a scent garden filled with flowers and herbs, a sound garden with assorted musical elements, and a pony stables playground specifically designed for young children.

The beautiful part of this entire project is that it is being designed to specifically address disability-related needs. The overall ground material will provide cushion for falls while accommodating wheelchairs and mobility devices. Benches will include arm rests for easy transferring on and off. The Play Along the Way is going to be an interactive artwalk area filled with tactile experiences to work on fine motor skills and engage the entire family. The central gathering space will offer a place to sit or relax and shaded areas, perfect for kids who are sensitive or won't wear sunscreen or hats.

Offering multiple play areas, families can choose the area that is best for their child. The fragrance and sound gardens will offer an amazing multi-sensory play opportunity. Especially for those children who need more stimulation, there is the ability to touch and feel the plants and play music.

With two separate playgrounds, young children and older children can play safely. Phase I will include the Pony Stables Playground for ages 2-5 in mind. There will be cozy domes to settle down in if a child becomes overwhelmed. There will be rocking horses for those that need the rocking sensation.

Later Phases will include a playground specifically for ages 5-12, an adventures area with climbing boulders and ropes, a water play area, accessible tree house and baseball fields.

The Sensory Garden Playground will be the only one of its kind in the Midwest. To learn more about the plans for the Sensory Garden Playground or Phase 1 and future phases, visit www.dupagesensoryplay.org.

• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at sherrym@wdsra.com. More information about WDSRA can be found at wdsra.com.

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