Playground Safety for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder

Playground Safety for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder -*The required FTC disclosure: I am a Better Beginnings brand ambassador. I get paid to write an article for them once a month, but the best thing is that I get to learn, and in turn share with you, great information about how kids learn and helping them learn through play. All thoughts and opinions are my own. I believe in the mission of Better Beginnings – quality early education for all.

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I’ll never forget the terror I felt when I looked up and saw my preschooler about to walk off one of the top levels of the playground equipment. It was clear she had no awareness of the danger she was in, no understanding that the platform didn’t extend any further, no fear of plummeting to the gravel several feet below, no clue that the fireman’s pole in front of her was the right way down from that point. I screamed her name, intent on getting her attention, on keeping her from taking that last step, while I ran toward her, praying to get there before it was too late.

I made it. Just barely.

A couple of years later, my daughter was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), and the playground incident (and so many other things) began to make sense. I also understood better how to keep my daughter safe on the playground.

Playground Safety for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder

Playgrounds provide great therapy for children with Sensory Processing Disorder. They’re also a good place for you to find out your child’s strengths and weaknesses. You will discover quickly if your child is over-responsive (avoids certain sensory input), under-responsive (it takes a lot of input to get him going), or sensory seeking. My daughter can be any of these on any given day, depending on how her body is processing (or not) the sensory signals it is receiving.

While sensory avoiders tend to cry a lot at the playground because they’re scared and overwhelmed, they don’t seem to be in quite as much danger as the passive child or sensory seeker, whose lack of ability to process the environment or craving for as much sensory input as possible put them in precarious situations.

fireman's pole on park playground -

Here are some good tips for keeping kids with Sensory Processing Disorder safe on the playground:

  • Be aware. If your child hasn’t been diagnosed yet, but you see some strange behaviors, realize that SPD might be part of the problem. Our scariest playground incident occurred before I realized that my child’s behavior might indicate Sensory Processing Disorder. Knowing it’s a possibility will help you to understand potential issues better.
  • Enlist help. It can be hard to see what your child is doing during every second on a busy playground. Ask other moms to help you keep an eye on your child, walk the playground to keep him in sight, or pay an older child or teenager a few dollars to help you watch her.
  • Discuss safety rules. Before you go to the playground, you should discuss safety with your child—rules for safety on playground equipment as well as basic safety rules (which should be part of an ongoing conversation with your child).
  • Introduce your child to the play equipment. Point out the different levels on multi-level pieces of equipment; discuss appropriate ways to play on the swings, slide, monkey bars, etc.; explain games other children may want to play there—anything else that might be difficult for your child to determine on his own.
  • Get a diagnosis. If you’re able to have your child evaluated to determine if your child’s dangerous behaviors are due to Sensory Processing Disorder, and your child receives the diagnosis, your child can get therapy, you can do activities with him at home, and you can gradually see changes in your child’s behavior as her sensory integration improves.
  • Play. Spend time playing with your child on the equipment. You get the chance to revisit some of the simple pleasures of your own childhood, and you stay within arm’s length of your child.
  • Consider alternatives. If you’re tired or not feeling well, and you don’t have a friend or mother’s helper available, consider doing something besides playing at the playground. There are lots of other things to do outside that both of you will enjoy—and can learn from. When she was younger, my daughter liked digging holes to find earthworms and roly-poly bugs to hold and watch. We took the opportunity to learn more about these critters too, so it was also an educational experience! You can also enjoy the sandbox, jumping rope, learning to ride a bike, and other outdoor activities—all without risking the playground equipment.

If you’re looking for more information about family safety rules and great ideas for outdoor learning opportunities, check out free resources in the Better Beginnings Resource Library like 10 Family Rules for Safety and Play, Explore, Learn Outdoors.

If you’re in Arkansas and need child care, please consider a Better Beginnings provider. They have fun, hands-on educational activities for every child!

Other articles in the Learning Through Play series:

Back to Basics: Learning Through Play -

This entry was posted in Parenting, Sensory Processing Disorder, Special Needs. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Playground Safety for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder

  1. Jennifer, this is a fantastic post. I will be sharing it! My son was the same way – he appeared to be reckless when it came to safety and did not realize when he was in danger. He has come such a long way through therapy, though, and I feel like I can sit back more now when he is at the playground. It is amazing to see how much he has learned through OT!

  2. Tina McGrevy says:

    The same playground “step off” almost happened with my son, too Jennifer! Oh, these grey hairs were earned :) Great tips for helping special needs families. My son is now a teenager, but he doesn’t think that he is too old to play on the playground. Got to love his enthusiasm!

    • That is awesome enthusiasm! And yes, I have earned every one of my many gray hairs too. 😉 Thank you for the kind words. I’m sorry you experienced the same drama, but I’m glad everything turned out okay for you too.

  3. Astrid says:

    These are great tips. I never quite realized how playgrounds can be a safety issue for kids with SPD.

    • Thanks, Astrid! I wondered if I was alone in my experience, but from some feedback I’m getting, it seems I’m not! I think sensory processing issues can cause a lot more issues than any of us realize. Fortunately, sensory integration can be improved. The brain is amazing!

  4. Shell says:

    GREAT post. I have two kids with SPD and so understand.

  5. betsy says:

    Such a great post! I am an OT, who has worked with preschoolers, and I love this post, great info, easy to read, too. I blog at BJ’s Homeschool, about preschool 2 high school, and even applying to college. My cousin’s kid has ADHD and SPD issues, and I blog about that, too. So nice to meet you! #homeschoollinkup

  6. betsy says:

    Great post! Here’s the right one, lol! #laughlearnlinkup. Have a great day!

  7. Great tips, Jennifer! Thanks for sharing this at the #laughlearnlinkup.

  8. I have had some scary playground moments as well. I think these are great tips even if your child doesn’t have a sensory processing disorder.

  9. This was helpful. I’ve never heard of SPD. Found you from IBN!

  10. Christy says:

    Our 12 (almost 13!) year old daughter has SPD and it took years of odd occurrences before she was diagnosed. Thankfully she never walked off of equipment like you described, but mostly because she is a sensory avoider. However, she always seemed so unaware of her surroundings and would walk right into kids swinging and jumping. She was one of the cryers too because she would try something and then it was too terrifying to continue. But the SPD kids, even with therapy, don’t really outgrow the need for many of these tips. Our daughter still wanders in front of swingers and doesn’t quite get the danger of parking lots.

    • While my daughter has improved, I do see what you’re talking about – that it never fully goes away. I know we’re still looking for ways to help her adapt and compensate, and it sound like (based on your experience) that will continue. Thank you for sharing the perspective of someone further down the road than we are. (My daughter is currently 9 years old.) I think it’s important for us to stay vigilant so our kids stay safe.

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