Make your Sport or Recreation Center Sensory-Friendly

Are accessibility and inclusion important to you? Indoor and outdoor recreation centers or rec centers, sports centers or clubs, community centers, activity centers, and play parks are busy, noisy and bright! For people of all ages who experience sensory sensitivity or sensory overload, a busy, noisy and bright environment is a barrier. As a result, many people, including families with children, avoid going to activity centers, rec centers or sports centers. Create a sensory-friendly recreation center or facility and you make it accessible to more families and include more people.

Are you curious about becoming more accessible, inclusive and sensory-friendly? Read on to discover simple ways to create a sensory-friendly recreation center or sensory-friendly activity center of any type. Welcome more people, of all ages, and make them comfortable at your location.

Several young children hanging from outdoor swing at recreation center.

Why are sports and recreational activities important for children with sensory differences?

It is important for children, adults and seniors alike to engage in different sport and recreational activities. This is especially true for children with sensory differences or disorders. Participating in sports and recreational activities helps to build physical skills. Furthermore, it also affords children the opportunity to build other skills, like problem-solving and social skills. Research by Sefen et al., (2020), “Beneficial Use and Potential Effectiveness of Physical Activity in Managing Autism Spectrum Disorder” found that participating in physical activity helps to improve emotional regulation in neurodiverse children. Moreover, for children with sensory differences, sensory-rich environments that are busy, noisy and bright are a barrier (Sefen et al., 2020) 1.  All the more reason to make your sport or recreation center sensory-friendly. 

Additionally, many centers have different equipment and toys that children can play with. Exposure to different types of equipment and toys increases children’s physical capabilities, motivation and self-confidence. Ultimately, this helps healthy childhood development.

What are ways to create a sensory-friendly recreation center or sports facility?

Many recreation centers, activity centers and the like are sensory-rich. However, it can be easy to introduce a few changes that make a difference. Discover simple changes to make your center or facility sensory-friendly, accessible and inclusive.

Infographic highlighting 4 ways to create a sensory-friendly sport to recreation centre.

Add sensory-friendly activities and equipment

You have more than five senses. Include activities and equipment that helps children explore their different senses:

  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Smell
  • Movement
  • Balance
  • Interoception (Internal Body Sense)earing

For example, following a leader activities include the sense of vision (in person or on screen). Dancing to music includes hearing. Having a snack area to eat/drink involves taste and smell. Water, sand or sensory boxes incorporate touch.

Oftentimes, movement and balance activities and equipment are often the focus of sports, activity or recreation centers. Include activities and equipment that truly do encourage and invite all types of movement and balance. In particular, incorporate safe and fun things that encourage children to get their heads out of vertical. With so much screen time, children’s heads and bodies do much less moving through space in all directions. Therefore, make movement and balance fun.

Additionally, interoception is your internal body sense. It tells you when you are hungry, thirsty or have to go to the toilet, as examples. It also helps regulate your breathing and your emotions. Choose activities that incorporate breathing, like yoga, and encourage mind-body connections like meditation.

Create a low-sensory space

Another important aspect of creating a sensory-friendly space it to have a quiet zone or low-sensory space. For many children, exploring the senses through movement and activity can become overwhelming. Create a special calm-down space or chill zone to help. For example, include features like:

  • Screen-free zone
  • Comfortable seating
  • No overhead music
  • No bright lights

Offer sensory-friendly hours

Plan special times to make changes to the whole space that are sensory-friendly.

  • Minimize crowds. Consider adding in a schedule for special times for people to book in advance to visiting your facility. Ensure that there are not too many people in your facility at once. Oftentimes, large crowds lead to increased noise and lack of personal space. Ultimately, people who experience sensory overload will be uncomfortable.
  • Lower lighting. Typically, flashing and fluorescent lights are problematic and uncomfortable. Therefore, adding in special times with lower lighting helps. Make sure lighting is adequate for safety, though!
  • No background noise. Background music or noisy equipment are often irritating for people with sensory sensitivities. Simply turn off noises and music at specific times to create a more inclusive environment.

Provide sensory-friendly staff training

Another important feature of a sensory-friendly facility is having sensory-friendly training. Ensure that your staff members are aware of the ways to interact with different children and families at your event. In particular with people who have disabilities. For example, it might be common that children with sensory differences

may be less talkative. Therefore, it is important that staff help to facilitate comfortable interactions.

This blog post highlighted the importance of activity, sport and recreational activities for children with sensory sensitivities and ways to create your own sensory-friendly facility. As a further example, read more about the importance of recreational activities for autistic children in this blog post from Autism Speaks.

Finally, interested in learning more about the creation of sensory-friendly spaces? Then, check out:

Create a More Welcoming World and Tame Sensory Overload

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  1. Sefen, J. A. N., Al-Salmi, S., Shaikh, Z., AlMulhem, J. T., Rajab, E., & Fredericks, S. (2020). Beneficial Use and Potential Effectiveness of Physical Activity in Managing Autism Spectrum Disorder. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience14, 587560.
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