For some people, a sensory gym is simply a “playroom” for kids. Gyms like these look like they are made more efficient with kid-friendly equipment. But that’s where most people get it wrong.
For children with autism and special needs, a sensory gym is a place to enjoy and play without stress. It’s not only a place to get fit but one of those place where they can explore and make sense of the world around them.
A sensory gym: what is it?
Sensory gyms are like a kid’s paradise and a therapy room rolled into one.
You’ve probably seen a sensory gym with bright walls. Or maybe encountered kid-friendly stations that look more like something you’d see on a playground than an actual gym. But that’s just it.
Sensory gyms are structured environment meant especially for kids with special needs like autism. Sensory gyms are not standalone establishments where you just walk in and enrol your child. You can find sensory gyms in therapy clinics and hospitals. Even schools have started to adopt them, too!
But that’s because sensory gyms are meant to be a fun and safe environment to help nurture a child’s learning and sensory experience with the help of different sensory equipment. Sensory gyms are a good place for kids with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities that might have caused sensory issues.
Here are some of the medical facilities in the US that make use of sensory gyms to help kids and adults alike with special needs:
- The New York Center for Child Development
- Permian Basin Rehabilitation Center, Texas
- Tiny Tots Therapy, New Jersey
- The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey
- And many more.
So your next question might be…
How do you start a sensory gym and what do children learn from it?
Most people think that kids with special needs want to keep to themselves. They want to be alone. They don’t like talking – or interacting in any way – with others.
But that’s just not true.
Most of the time, kids with autism and other special needs like to socialize. They just don’t know how.
This is where a sensory gym comes in.
While the idea of socializing with other kids is great, every child with disability has his or her own uniqueness.
As a parent or guardian of someone with special needs, you need to know if your child is ready to explore and process information with others. They could do great with a fitness trainer that specializes in special needs. But the opposite can also hold true if your child is not yet ready to socialize with others. It could also be that they have not gained enough skills and awareness to what’s happening around them.
Don’t worry if you can’t enroll in a sensory gym, though.
If you want to, you can actually make fun sensory play available at the very comfort of your home.
Building a home sensory gym
At this point, your biggest question can only be put down to one word:
Parents usually think that building their own sensory gym at home is expensive. The thought of providing your child with all the necessary sensory gym equipment can already be breaking your wallet just by thinking about it.
But the actual cost depends on your budget and your preference.
If you don’t have a place yet, then you might need to renovate a room to accommodate all the sensory gym equipment that you’d need along the way. The type of equipment for your home sensory gym would also matter.
Sensory gym equipment can be broken down into many categories depending on the kind of stimulation that your child needs.
Most of the time, sensory gym equipment not only caters to the five regular senses but also the development of the sixth and seventh senses which is the vestibular and proprioception (read: prō′prē-ō-sĕp′shən) senses.
What’s the difference of the sixth and seventh senses from the other five senses?
Compared to the five senses, the vestibular sense refers to the body’s sense of movement and balance. This sixth sense helps us stay upright when we stand, walk or sit.
On the other hand, the proprioception sense or seventh sense involves awareness to the body’s position. It also involves the force needed to respond to a certain stimuli accompanied with the proper bodily action like when you need to pull in a tug of war.
Do you really need to build a sensory gym at home?
Children with autism and special needs struggle with sensory input.
Too much information can overwhelm them.
Or they might not respond to sensory information – at all.
Some children with special needs take time to respond to a stimulus. Others become frustrated when introduced to new things which are not part of their usual routine.
The good news is there are several indicators that would tell you if a sensory gym would be beneficial for your child.
You know you need a sensory gym if your child:
- loves running around
- jumps constantly
- climbs every peak at your house
- does headache-inspiring spins around
- crash into walls like it’s nothing
- hates new experiences
- cannot stand touching
- becomes agitated when sounds get too loud
- shies away from different textures
- hates clothes that are too tight or likes clothes that are loose
- unengaged most of the time
- unable to respond to normal stimulation
- lacks muscle control as is the case of children with cerebral palsy
- hates simple tasks like tying his or her shoe or buttoning clothes
If you tick one or more of these boxes, then yes. You definitely need a sensory gym.
If your child doesn’t suffer any of these things, still a sensory gym would be helpful in fine-tuning their sensory, motor and social skills.
Should you enroll your child in a sensory gym?
The answer is yes!
Sensory gyms help your child improve awareness and balance. It will also develop their coordination and fine motor skills and enjoy the process in a fun and non-threatening way.
But just in case your kid is not yet ready to engage in a sensory gym outside, you can make one inside the very comfort of your home.
You only need three things:
- Sensory gym equipment
- Enough budget
You may have the space down pat and you might want to consider the money, but you probably have no idea about the gym equipment.
Don’t worry. The next part of this blog post will help you with that.
Top 10 Sensory Gym Equipment for Children with Autism and Special Needs
1. Sensory swings
A chair swing is one of the best equipment for your home sensory gym since it provides stimulation for both the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. Since kids with autism and disabilities have different needs, investing in a sensory chair swing would be a good start to cater to whatever your child might need.
Sensory swings are also very versatile. You can choose a typical chair swing or go for a more tactile approach by choosing sensory swings that are hammock- or cocoon-like. If you think your child is adventurous, you can also pick spinning swings with smooth rotations and a big round platform to help your kids feel safe and secure as they go about their sensory activities.
For strength building, core strength and balance, a trapeze swing or a rope style swing would be good choices.
Sensory swings are also very easy to install. All you need is enough space to set up a tripod stand or in some cases, get handy with a drill to set up the swing more securely in your ceiling.
2. Steppers or balance beams
Another simple yet effective gym equipment to encourage sensory play are steppers or balance beams. Sensory gym equipment like this helps develop a child’s lower body strength and improves their visual and tactile sensory skills.
Steppers placed above the ground can also help kids with autism and disabilities to develop balance and coordination. Balance beams or balance steppers may be more challenging, but they help develop your child’s confidence faster.
You can also encourage and expand your child’s imagination by letting them play pretend that they are crossing the River Nile with its ferocious crocodiles or make it to the other end before the hot lava consumes every step. You can also have them pretend that they’re doing an obstacle course or design a game where they will only step on color specific beams or steppers until they get to the end.
To make this sensory play more fun, you can vary the sizes of the steps or beams with small, medium and large sizes.
Almost every kid – disability or not – likes crawling through tunnels. The challenge of going into a confined space and moving out of it gives children a certain thrill that is vital in sensory play. Having this kind of equipment adds fun to a sensory gym and has several benefits to offer kids with autism and special needs.
Tunnels help children develop their core strength as they crawl through and their gross motor skills by improving their bilateral coordination. It also helps a child with disabilities overcome their fear of narrow spaces which in turn could lead to fostering more confidence for them.
More than that, tunnels are fun sensory gym equipment since you can be imaginative. You can play pretend and transform a simple tunnel into a cave or motivate your child to crawl through it by putting snacks or toys as a reward as they crawl.
Aside from that, colorful tunnels are visually appealing which is ideal for children who need visual stimulation.
4. Scooter boards
Another sensory gym equipment that you can use as a therapy tool for kids with special needs like autism or cerebral palsy are scooter boards.
Scooter boards are usually made of plastic and look like a square skateboard with its wheels that turn 360 degrees in all directions. Some scooter boards come with a cushion on top for more comfort or handles for safety purposes.
As an equipment for a home sensory gym, scooter boards are versatile. They provide vestibular and proprioceptive inputs which are ideal for kids who need plenty or shy away from sensory stimulation.
That is, the scooter board is the perfect choice for kids who find it difficult to try a swing or climb any other equipment in a sensory gym, however fun it might look. A scooter board is gentler when it comes to providing movement so it’s a good tool to give kids with autism or any other disability the sensory input they’re craving for. You can also use scooter boards to integrate higher level sensory skills to help them focus, listen and learn.
5. Pogo Sticks or Jumpers
A pogo jumper is another fun yet simple sensory gym equipment for kids with autism. As a sensory equipment, pogo jumpers not only improve balance and coordination but also your child’s grip and stamina. The experience is like bouncing on a trampoline but with the added thrill of having handles to control their movements as they go from one place to another.
In an article, ADHD specialist Eugene Arnold from Ohio State University explained that the vestibular system play an important role in the development of cognitive and behavioral stability. In fact, kids – whether with disability or not – gravitate towards balance games like tumbling, skateboards, swings and yes, pogo sticks simply because it excites their vestibular system.
In short, kids learn better when they make use of their vestibular senses. Hence, kids with autism and children with disabilities will greatly benefit from having a pogo stick as a sensory gym equipment to build not only their physical but also their cognitive skills.
It’s also worth noting that pogo sticks or jumpers are a great stress reliever for kids with autism.
6. Climbing equipment
Climbing is a good stimulation for children with autism and other disabilities because it has several benefits to offer.
One, climbing increases muscle strength and tones muscles. Two, it improves gross and fine motor skills. Three, it develops a child’s hand and eye coordination. And lastly, it can be visually stimulating for kids as they scout for the right place to keep their hands and feet as they climb.
Climbing equipment like a rope ladder or a climbing wall would be a good addition to a sensory gym as a fun equipment.
The level of difficulty would depend, though. Some type of rope ladders are more difficult to climb while others are very easy for your kid to overcome. If you’re planning to set up a fun sensory gym at home, you must gauge your child’s ability to handle climbers. There are many types of rope ladder available that you can purchase online. Or if you think that your child will enjoy a more stable climber, wall climbers would be a good choice to consider.
Kids with autism and children with special needs can greatly benefit from playing trampolines.
If there’s only one piece of sensory gym equipment that you can have for your home, it should be the trampoline.
Kids love to jump up and down and your bed could be witness to that. A trampoline on the other hand releases endorphins which are known to be the “happy” hormones and thereby relieves stress among children with special needs.
According to the American Physical Therapy Association, kids with autism have more difficulty in developing their sensory skills hence the need for therapy. Fortunately, rebound therapy which is also known as trampoline use has been proven to improve balance and coordination, posture and even head control among children with disability. It also satisfies three sensory issues among kids with autism and other disabilities: vestibular, proprioception and visual sensory. Moreover, using a trampoline is by far one of the safest – if not the safest – sensory equipment that you can use whether in the gym or at home.
If that’s not enough, a trampoline provides your child with aerobic activity that is autism-friendly. It’s also the equipment of choice to help them work off those extra energy in a fun, safe and non-threatening way.
Slides may look like too simple as a sensory gym equipment. But when it comes to children with special needs, sliding helps improve one’s vestibular sense by improving balance and coordination.
Since sliding integrates the body’s multiple senses, it provides stimulation to fill a child’s sensory needs, especially those with autism and other disabilities.
Brightly colored slides help in visual stimulation. The act of sliding down from the top helps build balance and coordination which enhances the vestibular system. Sliding also develops the body’s awareness which is essential in developing the proprioceptive system.
9. Monkey bars
As a sensory gym equipment, monkey bars help develop a child’s fine and gross motor skills. Experts on child development highlight the importance of fine motor skills which plays a vital role in brain and muscle development. It also allows hand-eye coordination that is helpful in visual and tactile stimulation.
Kids with autism can greatly benefit with using monkey bars as a sensory gym equipment. Not only does it improve hand strength. Monkey bars also help correct posture by helping the body align properly as the kids dangle from each bar.
Monkey bars also stimulate the vestibular and proprioception systems as kids become more aware of their movements as they glide and swing from one bar to the next.
10. Crash pads
As a sensory gym equipment, it’d look like crash pads doesn’t do much. But since kids – even with autism or any other disabilities – like to crash land on anything they deem fit, having crash pads around the sensory gym makes the crashing spree much safer for them.
But contrary to popular belief, a crash pad is a good sensory equipment since it helps calm your child. It also develops their focus and attention which are very helpful in establishing their learning processes.
You can also incorporate the use of the crash pad with other sensory gym equipment like the slides, climbing equipment or even under the monkey bars.
Some kids, especially those with autism and other sensory processing disorders, enjoy hiding under the crash pad. Bearing the weight of the crash pad gives them a sense of security and protection which in turn helps them release tension and stress from frustration or anxiety.
Got no idea about sensory workouts? We got you covered here.
A few more equipment additions to sensory gyms
Here are a few additions to make your sensory gym a dream room for children with autism and special needs:
- Light filters
- Exercise balls
- Colored puzzle mats
- Music equipment that kids can play with
Remember, sensory gym equipment for kids with autism and other disabilities doesn’t have to be expensive. But you need to know the kind of stimulation that your child needs the most and provide it using the proper equipment.
Want to make a difference?
You can do so by owning a Special Strong gym franchise and provide expert fitness training to people with special needs like autism.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to break the bank to grow with us. We are a low cost franchise with competitive earnings in the fitness industry. All because you don’t have to have a brick and mortar gym like most gym franchises do.
We also have a blueprint for success – a trusted and tested business model to set you up into the future. With the addition of our expert support team, weekly coaching and online trainings, we can make a difference in so many more lives.