When many of us reflect on our childhood days spent on the playground, we remember the fun adventures with our friends. Maybe the memory of the first time you climbed from one end to another on the monkey bars comes to mind.
While the playground created great memories for some children, others might have different stories. Many neurodivergent children might associate the playground with their first experiences with sensory overload.
This article answers some common questions about sensory overload and recommends some preventative measures that parents, teachers, caretakers, and even parks professionals can implement to make play fun and enjoyable for everyone.
1. What is Sensory Overload?
Ellen Braaten, Ph.D. gives the following definition for sensory overload:
“Sensory overload happens when something around us overstimulates one or more of our senses. That could be a loud TV, a crowded room, or a noisy, smelly cafeteria. There’s suddenly too much information coming in through our senses for our brain to process.”
The following signs can indicate sensory overload in children:
- Anxiety, irritability, and restlessness
- Avoiding specific places or situations
- Closing the eyes
- Covering the face
- Placing the hands over the ears
- The inability to converse with others or connect with them
- Running away from specific places or situations
- Walking on tiptoes
- Hand flapping, finger flicking, and other stimming behaviors
2. Who Feels Sensory Overload?
Reflect on the most recent concert you attended. The strobe lights were flashing, the music was blasting, and maybe a woman next to you kept bumping into you, wafting her heavily applied perfume as she danced to the beat of the drums. As the night goes on, your feelings of enjoyment turn to frustration.
That might have been sensory overload.
Anybody can experience sensory overload- it’s not uncommon for most people to feel it at some point in their lives. Some neurological diagnoses might make some people more prone to sensory overloads, such as ADHD, autism, anxiety, PTSD, or Sensory Processing Disorder. Children with Down Syndrome, Chronic Fatigue, MS, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome can also experience sensory overload more often than others.
3. What Causes Sensory Overload?
The following tables from “The Chaos and the Clutter” describes some triggers for sensory overload:
As you reflect on this list, think about the potential triggers found at parks and playgrounds. Some children might get overwhelmed with all the information they are taking in through their senses.
This doesn’t mean that children prone to sensory overload don’t enjoy playgrounds. They love playing on all the fun equipment as much as any other kid. The only difference is that they might need some unique preventative measures to enjoy the equipment to their fullest potential.
4. How Can I Help Prevent Sensory Overload in Children?
It’s important to know there isn’t a “cure” that rids a child from experiencing sensory overload; however, there are many great strategies for prevention.
One great strategy is the sensory diet. A sensory diet chronicles a list of activities and accommodations to help a person meet their individual sensory needs. This strategy aims to understand a child’s sensory profile and create coping strategies for when the child feels overwhelmed.
If a child in your care is experiencing the beginning signs of sensory overload at a playground, guide them away from the busy area and engage them in the activities their sensory diet deems soothing.
Playgrounds need to offer activities that help in this sensory relief, such as rest areas or soothing sensory activities. When these activities are available to children, they learn self-regulation and build confidence in who they are.
We interviewed neurodivergent adults to reflect on their experiences with playgrounds growing up and what parks and recreation departments could invest in to improve their experience.
- Person X’s common sensory overload triggers were sand, dirt, and grass as surfacing. They enjoy the sand in confined spaces such as a sandbox, but it was unavoidable and overwhelming as surfacing. Their sensory relief mechanism of choice was to wash their hands and face of the loose sand/dirt/grass after playing, so having a well-stocked and cleaned bathroom is a must. They also commented that weather, such as rain or snow, was overwhelming, which signifies the importance of shade and shelter options.
- Person Y’s common sensory overload triggers were large gatherings of people and the noise it would generate. They found communication a struggle in these heightened states and commented that they might come across as “snappy.” They use headphones to help keep the noise to a minimum and prevent sensory overload. When designing a park or playground, it’s essential to consider how you can offer areas of retreat and respite for people who need them.
A New Approach to Prevent Sensory Overload on the Playground
Preventing sensory overload is not a “one size fits all.” While the sensory diet is a great place to start, no two diets will look the same.
Caregivers, reach out to a local occupational therapist and start tracking your child’s sensory relieves and triggers. Once your child starts to learn these coping strategies, they’ll blossom on the playground.
Parks and recreation departments, contact a GameTime representative and start planning some inclusive additions to your playground. Create spaces that provide sensory relief and become a play advocate for all.