Inclusive play environments are essential for children with physical disabilities and sensory processing issues, but they are important for all children. Every child is unique and has the right to play, learn and feel a sense of belonging.
We speak Lisa Fruhstuck, speech pathologist and founder of inclusive play centre The Shine Shed, to find out how early childhood educators can promote inclusive play by rethinking indoor and outdoor environments.
What is sensory processing?
Sensory processing is how we process information through our senses. Children with sensory issues may have difficulties in everyday environments, which causes unusual and challenging behaviour.
Atypical sensory processing is a core feature of autism, however, many children with sensory issues are not on the spectrum. These children may be diagnosed with another condition, have a developmental delay, or have no diagnosis at all.
Simple ways to promote inclusive play in any centre
Lisa Fruhstuck is a speech pathologist and the founder of The Shine Shed, Australia’s first play centre for children with disabilities. The impressive facilities include an airbag pit with trapeze, therapy swings, spinning pods, climbing walls, and a quiet sensory room with bubble columns.
“All our activities are designed to help our children with sensory regulation but also provide opportunities to develop strength, coordination, balance, play and social interaction,” explains Lisa.
Early childhood educators may feel a tad envious of The Shine Shed’s space and resources. Luckily, the same principles can be used in preschools and childcare centres.
“It doesn’t have to be expensive and imagination goes a long way,” says Lisa, who shares these six ideas for an inclusive play environment:
1. Quiet corners
Quiet corners can be used by any child who needs time alone to unwind. All you need is a quiet, calm, low-light space in your classroom. Lisa suggests using a teepee or pop-up tent with some cushions and a sensory toy box with fidgets, squishy toys, and a massager.
2. Movement breaks
Children may have an urge to move their bodies, especially on rainy days when everyone is stuck indoors.
“Provide opportunities for movement breaks by having a mini trampoline to bounce on, large cushions to crash on and a pod swing hanging in the room,” says Lisa.
3. Heavy objects
“Heavy work is craved by lots of kids and can have a calming effect,” says Lisa, who recommends these experiences:
- encourage children to pack away heavy objects, including outdoor and indoor play equipment
- provide things to push, like bikes, weighted trolleys and wheelbarrows
- place crash mats next to climbing frames so children can climb and jump.
4. Deep pressure
Deep pressure is a technique used to calm anxious and highly aroused children. Some children like big hugs and rough play because it calms them down.
“Lycra tunnels and body socks are great for getting a good squeeze in,” says Lisa, “but if you don’t have access to these, a nice blanket to roll the kids up in firmly can be just as fun and beneficial.”
5. Sensory swings
Swings can be calming or alerting for some children and they will have a preferred direction of movement.
“Swings are great for sensory input, you can hang a swing in your classroom or from a tree using appropriate attachments,” says Lisa. “There are also cost-effective portable swing frames that can be purchased.”
6. Messy play
Lisa says traditional sensory activities, like painting, playdough and messy play, may be beneficial for children who are sensitive and reluctant to touch.
“Build up their tolerance by providing tools and implements they can touch and poke with till they are ready to get their hands dirty.”
In order to be inclusive, early childhood environments should:
- provide a wide range of learning experiences
- allow children to choose their own experiences
- be adaptable, so all children can fully participate
- encourage relationship building
- be safe
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