June 10th, 2009

Battling Autism And ADHD With Play:
KidSense sensory playgrounds help kids focus

By Kaisja Clark, Playground Magazine
Reprinted with permission.

Stimming. Rocking. Inability to focus.

These are just a few of the hallmark symptoms of children who have autism or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Thankfully, these children have found a little playground oasis in the work of one mom dedicated to helping her child and others like him find a new way to become centered.

As the mother of a son with autism, LeAnne Cantrell knows firsthand the challenges facing children with special needs. While a sound education is essential for any child, being educated can make the difference between independence and dependence for a child with special needs. Children with autism, which statistically will affect between 1 in 150 children, face an uphill battle towards independence due to the incredibly broad spectrum of symptoms and other needs that severely impede their ability to learn. Kids with ADHD, about 1 out of every 20 children, also struggle to learn in an environment that calls for rapt attention to succeed.

Enter Cantrell and her idea to create a new type of playground. She bases her idea on research from a landmark pilot study at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, that pointed to a 91 percent increase in focus and attention abilities in children who had integrated motor sensory play therapy.

The former petroleum geologist was spurred into action after delivering her son Cole 14 weeks early and weighing only one pound. Trading in her work drilling oil in the Middle East, she chose instead to work as a sort of interventionist and advocate on behalf of her son. The boy and his now special needs mother are helping to spark an entirely new concept in the legacy of sensory integration playgrounds in Louisiana and across the country.

KidSense Is Born

All children with special needs undergo traditional occupational therapy—learning to manipulate objects with their hands and other things that will assist them in undertaking daily skills. Cantrell wanted to pursue the same kind of sensory integration work on a larger scale—ideally on a playground.

Armed with her background in geophysics, Cantrell and another special needs mother, Stacey Autin, under advisement from occupational needs specialists and paraprofessionals, doctors, principals and teachers and utilizing research on motor sensory integration, began planning a sensory play yard at Cole Cantrell’s (now eight years old)Pontchartrain Elementary School in Mandeville, LA. (You can read more about the playground in the news section ofPlayground Magazine’s website, www.playgroundmag.com, which ran May 12, 2009.)

Kidsense Playground

KidSense Playground

The new KidSense playground—soon to be a trademark and in progress to Limited Liability Company status—has a host of sensory experiences for children. Some unique features of the Mandeville playground include painted murals of sea and sky that are also tactile, climbing areas, boulders, covered corner areas for autistic children who feel safer being in enclosed places, spring riders, slides and textured concrete with touchable items like shells, fossils, keys, gears and chains that are worked into the walling. Even the words “love” and “respect” are worked into the touchable surfaces in Braille. All of this helps a child with sensory integration issues feel calmer, more relaxed and after playtime is over, able to attend to schoolwork and focus for longer periods of time in the classroom.

The hard data on the subject is still being measured, although the school principal, Kim Thomas can point to a heartening difference in the kids’ behavior.

“Do I see a change? Yes I do,” Thomas said. “It’s completely different; it’s a positive thing.

The principal remarked it was as if the kids knew what their business was in the yard. They are eager to go, eager to get to that environment. “It has been helpful for both parents and the special education teachers as a refocusing device,” Thomas said. “Just having that (sensory playground) as a provision, really meets those sensory needs.”

But, there is no better evidence than the achievement and smiles of a child

Take one boy, who has struggled at school with energy, rocking and stimming symptoms. After a brief cruise through the playground’s circuit of large gross motor play and a four- minute ride on a spring rider jet-ski toy, he has the ability to be calm and focused for work in the classroom.

Cantrell pointed out that this child’s parents remarked that he has done better now than in the entire previous school year. His teachers can only point to the difference of the sensory play yard

“He’s just really turned a corner,” said Cantrell. She noted increases in attention and overall increases in meeting goals and communication for the children who have done large scale sensory play therapy. Temple University’s research backs her up, citing a dramatic decrease in stimming and overall better communication after kids have access to motor sensory play

By The Numbers

From fundraising, planning and meeting after meeting, Cantrell, Autin and other mothers and school officials worked to create the sensory playground completely from scratch. The playground itself ended up being less expensive than a traditional playground, at a total price tag of $121,000, sponsored by the 501.c.3 Angels on Earth Foundation.

The tile surfacing from Sof’Surfaces and the play equipment from Landscape Structures and Playworld Products were $55,000, while $10,000 went to installation.

Eve Werner, the manager at Dyna-Play in Louisiana, (a dealer for Landscape Structures and Sof’Surfaces) was the representative who oversaw the selling of the play structures and surfacing, build and installation.

Another $65,000 in in-kind donations in came in the form of landscaping, mosaics, murals and other products.

Invoking Imagination

Werner worked with Cantrell to create the exact kind of sensor climbing structure she wanted, even going as far as setting the deck heights for platforms.

Cantrell also made sure the real rock boulders would be 16 inches—a height perfect to accommodate transferring students in wheelchairs. And that works to help get those kids integrated into playing and helps them feel like they are apart of the action.

The play space has a specialized layout of green, natural buffer zones to soothe over stimulated children and numerous types of motor skill play to rev up under stimulated kids for learning, she said. She argues that there is a market for this kind of playground that the playground industry may wish to take heed of.

Cantrell also believes there is a large untapped market for this kind of play, an opportunity for the playground industry to both rack up sales while creating some altruism in the process. “If their goal is to benefit children, then they just need to take a look at the demographics,” Cantrell said. “If they can rethink out of the box playground designs for schools, they will end up making a contribution to kids’ education by adding motor sensory integration in their designs.”

New Ways To Play

Based on information gathered from the sensory playground build, some in the industry have taken notice of the demand for this kind of large-scale integrated sensory play. The thinking appears to be headed in that direction—at Dyna-Play and Landscape Structures, at least.

Landscape Structures has contacted Werner and Cantrell because this is the first playground of its kind. “They are currently working on offering more sensory play options for next year’s catalog,” said Werner, who oversaw the Pontchartrain Elementary School build.

The play structure design was customized by using preexisting modular pieces offered by the manufacturer, Landscape Structures. Werner, a CPSI, said it meets all current ADA requirements. Werner said that she and Cantrell worked together on the project for more than a year and a half, saying they held late night pajama phone conferences which have led to a friendship. The duo will be working together on upcoming builds as well.

Principal Thomas is so encouraged by the sensory structure that she is involved in more fundraising to help other schools in Mandeville get their own sensory play yards. The principal said she champions both playground manufacturers and schools to consider this kind of play therapy.

“Autism is so prevalent these days it would be good for other schools to have something to meet their needs for the sensory diet,” Thomas explained.

Sensory Play For The Masses

There was a slight degree of unspoken opposition from parents who have children with needs apart from autism and ADHD. Parents of kids who have other types of special needs were a bit hesitant to hop on board since autism and ADHD are so prevalent and these parents felt that there wasn’t enough attention being given to other types of special needs. However, Cantrell believes that the yard can help all kinds of kids.

“There have been a number of studies on how powerful this stuff is for kids with ADHD and autism, yet it is something that all kids can make use of,” Cantrell said. “What has been so striking to me is that since the playground has been up for three months, it’s not just the special education teachers and paraprofessionals who have been talking about it. It’s been the regular education teachers who have been running up to principals telling them that their typical kids are doing better in class after sensory play time.”

Cantrell said that children in general have shorter attention spans in the school setting which is geared towards academic achievement. She said kids aren’t given as many breaks as they need. Although the yard was designed for special needs kids and they are given first preference, it is accessible to all the students at the school.

Pride Rock Stars

The kids so far, seem have fallen for their new play space. Dubbing one climbing rock, “Pride Rock” after the movie, ‘The Lion King,’ the kids will gather for a completely unexpected bit of social interaction. They croon music from the cartoon together—a social feat that is difficult for children who struggle with social interaction skills.

With one victory under her belt, Cantrell is setting her sights on helping others create sensory play spaces across the country. Two more are in the works in Louisiana and there are discussions ongoing from Jacksonville, FL, Biloxi, MI and Dallas, TX. Cantrell will be continuing her fundraising efforts for the next KidSense yard to be built in the New Orleans Metroplex. The next pair of schools set for motor sensory yards are Magnolia Trace Elementary and Lake Harbor Middle schools, both in Mandeville.

Mandeville City will hold an enormous seafood festival over the Fourth of July weekend for 40,000 plus visitors with KidSense hosting the family-oriented area called Louisiana Lagniappe, which includes 50 different attractions. All proceeds go to the new yard. Dyna-Play’s Werner will be volunteering at the festival as well. You can visit Seafoodfest.com for more information on the festival.

Cantrell will be available for consulting on starting your own sensory playground after the first of September.

For more information on getting a motor sensory playground started or KidSense, you can check outwww.kidsensela.com. For information on play structures from Werner, visit www.DynaPlay.com.

© 2009 Playground® Magazine