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Five Sensory Playgrounds for Kids of All Abilities

Inclusive play spaces in the Seattle area welcome kids with special needs.

November 13, 2017

Meadow Crest Playground in Renton, Wash.

Find a free, public sensory playground near you

For kids on the autism spectrum or with other special needs, a trip to the neighborhood playground can be overwhelming, socially confusing and even unsafe. That’s why changes afoot in playground design are so welcome. Modern playground design is pivoting towards meeting the needs of all children, and this has spawned new places, usually referred to as “inclusive” or “sensory playgrounds.”

What makes a play space a “sensory playground?” In short, it’s an inclusive place for kids to play. The space may be fully-accessible for kids who use wheelchairs, and fenced off to contain kids who could wander or bolt. These playgrounds typically offer sensory options for kids who seek them, such as wind chimes, sand to dig in, nubby surfaces, mazes to explore, mirrors, kaleidoscopes and bouncy swings. They also often feature safe places to escape to for children who seek refuge from typical playground hub bub; these could be an alcove, play cave or wiggle tube. Structures to scramble up and climb on help build muscle strength and balance, while soft surfaces below cushion potential falls.

Children of all abilities can enjoy a sensory playground — that’s the key of inclusion. When bringing your typically-developing children to a sensory playground, you can support positive interactions by emphasizing the abilities of children with special needs, rather than their disabilities. Kids on the autism spectrum may experience sensory dysregulation from feeling overwhelmed, and this can be challenging for siblings and friends to process; you can guide children to refrain from staring or making insensitive comments in these trying moments.

Seattle Children’s Playgarden. Credit: Linnea Westerlind

Seattle Children’s Playgarden

Find it: 1745 24th Ave. S., Seattle

This fully-accessible, securely fenced playground engages kids with autism, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments and other disabilities in ways a typical playground falls short. Kids can pick and taste ripe berries in season, dig in the dirt, explore a tree fort, tumble on an expansive foam play area, make melodies at the musical sculpture and much more.

Owen’s Playground at Rotary Park. photo courtesy of Bainbridge Island Parks.

Owen’s Playground at Rotary Park

Find it: 969 Weaver Road N.W., Bainbridge Island

All kids deserve the right to play together, and this new inclusive play space makes it all possible with adaptive swings and seesaws, smooth and wide paths for wheelchairs, boulders to scramble up and wide slides to glide down. Animal sculptures, a sandbox with water features and a wheelchair-accessible sensory garden offer children tactile experiences. This unique playground is dedicated the life of a local child, Owen Marshall, whose parents, Stacy and Kelsey Marshall, advocated for its design and creation after their son passed away from complications related to cerebral palsy.

Miner’s Corner Park in Bothell, Wash.

Miner’s Corner Park

Find it: 22903 45th Ave. S.E., Bothell

This 13-acre universally accessible park immerses kids in a natural landscape where paved paths meander through wooded wetlands and alongside a pond that invites you to dip your hands into. (Note: some kids on the autism spectrum feel drawn into water so keep a close eye on them here.) The playground features a 10-foot tall lookout tower that is wheelchair-accessible.

The colorful caterpillar at Meadow Crest Playground is a popular climbing structure on the playground.

Meadow Crest Playground

Find it: 3000 N.E. 16th St., Renton

This colorful inclusive playground features several elements to engage children and their five senses. Splash with abandon at interactive water table, tap out a tune on the oversized musical instruments, and then climb atop a giant caterpillar in the foam-floored play area. Note: The park is closed to the public before 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday during the school year when it is reserved for exclusive use by the adjacent preschool. It's open to the public all day Friday–Sunday, during holidays, school breaks and summer, and after 4:30 pm Monday through Thursday.

Inspiration Playground at Downtown Park in Bellevue, Wash. Photo courtesy of the City of Bellevue.

Inspiration Playground at Downtown Park

Find it: 10201 N.E. 4th St., Bellevue

The eastside debuted this fully-accessible, sensory-friendly play space this past summer in a colorful and vibrant corner of Bellevue’s urban oasis, Downtown Park. There are giant pipes and chimes for little musicians, safe slides down a foam hillside, a wheelchair-accessible glider and merry-go-round, saucer swings, whimsical nature sculptures to climb high on, and wide, barrier-free paths that criss-cross the space. Read ParentMap's review for more info.

Coming soon

Sensory Garden at the Woodland Park Zoo

Find it: 700 N. 50th St., Seattle

This grant-funded project under construction next to the zoo’s Rose Garden will be a fully-accessible, welcoming delight for all the senses with elements that stimulate sight, touch, smell and sound. Fragrant plantings with diverse textures, Braille signage and cool sprays of water are just a few of the garden’s sensory-rich design features. Construction is scheduled to be completed in early 2018.

Inclusive playground in Snoqualmie

The city of Snoqualmie is in the early stages of the design process of what is being called an “all-inclusive playground” to be built at Centennial Fields, located at 39903 S.E. Parks St. The local community will have the opportunity for input. Check the city's Parks & Recreation page for updates.

More playgrounds

Photo credit: Shelley Bjornstad

We are lucky to have so many wonderful playgrounds in our region.

Discover a new playground with our guides:




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