The benefits of sensory play for children with special educational needs

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Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

Sensory play is important for the cognitive development of all children but it’s especially vital for children with autism and other special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

In essence, sensory play is any activity that stimulates a child’s senses while involving movement and balance. The benefits of sensory play – with bubbles, fabrics of different colours and textures, playdough, sand, water, mud, and so on – to investigate and explore the textures, smells, tastes, sights and sounds of the world, cannot be overstated; it’s how little children explore and engage with their environment. But for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other additional needs, sensory play is absolutely essential in order for them to thrive. 

Sensory play activities stimulate neurons in the brain to make positive connections, contributing to brain development and development across all areas of learning. Gross and fine motor skills are improved and refined by playground sensory play – it can improve muscle tone and increase focus and concentration, better enabling self-occupying. Many children with SEND struggle in traditional learning environments and for these children outdoor sensory play in inclusive playgrounds and play spaces can be especially valuable. Researchers believe that sensory play improves information processing in the brain, enabling autistic children to transfer lessons learned in this way to other areas of life, including social situations and more conventional classroom-based activities. 

Sound and music

Music is really important for children – many learn best when an activity is accompanied by music. Learning to dance and to keep a beat encourages motor skills development. Musical instruments such as the glockenspiel, drums, bells and other percussion instruments hold universal appeal, and children with ASD are often particularly drawn to them. Playing with these instruments can help with the development of hand-eye coordination and impulse control, as well as being an outlet for self-expression and a great way to burn off energy!  

Improved concentration

It’s common for children with SEND to find paying attention a particular challenge. Providing appropriate stimulation can help increase focus and concentration as well as fostering a sense of achievement in their exploration. Offering a ‘treasure basket’ of suitable tactile items ripe for investigation and experimentation is a fantastic way to aid memory development, as well as fine and gross motor skills. If provided within a supportive, enabling environment that also contains quiet spaces in which the child can retreat when they choose, feelings of wellbeing and security can flourish.

A calming environment

Outdoor classrooms that stimulate all the senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch – have the potential to enrich the lives of children with ADHD and ASD. At the same time, accessible play areas with gentle colour schemes can be more effective at calming children down and encouraging relaxed play than more traditional playgrounds that can overload and overwhelm children with sensory processing disorders.

Studies have revealed that as little as five minutes’ exposure to green space had a positive impact on mood and self-esteem, with the presence of water further increasing the impact. Exposure to greenery can reduce symptoms in children with ADHD, helping to improve concentration and alleviate anxiety.


A recent survey reveals that children with physical disabilities have less than half the chance of accessing playgrounds than typically developing children. In fact, it found that 71% of playgrounds were completely inaccessible to wheelchair users. This needs to change.

All children deserve to enjoy the huge benefits that sensory play and accessible outdoor play equipment can offer. With the right approach, inclusive, sensory-rich play activities and environments can hugely impact the quality of life and learning experiences of children with special education needs. 

We are proud to stock a range of beautiful outdoor sensory playground equipment and wheelchair accessible play equipment and picnic benches. If you’d like to find out more, don’t hesitate to contact us today.  

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