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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 06/10/2011

Sensory-friendly playgrounds in the D.C. region

There are a lot of sensory-friendly activities for kids with special needs and their families: restaurant nights, theater showings, movies, special sections set aside at sporting events.

But for free, physical entertainment on a warm day, nothing beats a playground.

Curious about what makes a good sensory, or accessible, playground, I spoke to Carol Stock Kranowitz, author of “The Out-of-Sync Child” and co-author of “Growing an In-Sync Child.”

“In general, we want to see moving equipment—merry-go-rounds, swings, clatter bridges, slides—because kids need to know how to keep themselves upright,” Kranowitz said. “When kids are a little clumsy and they fall, people get worried and take equipment away. But if a child isn’t on it, they never learn the skills to master it.”

I packed my two unofficial playground experts, ages 7 (with sensory processing issues and developmental delays) and 4 (typically developing) into the car one Sunday for a tour of some of the area’s offerings. We hit three playgrounds, one each in the District, Maryland and Virginia, all with something different to offer.

• The playground at St. Columba’s Nursery School in the District is tucked away in a residential area near the Tenleytown Metro Station. Large trees provide lots of shade for the sandboxes, tire swings, circle of pretend rocks (for impromptu powwows), xylophones and climbing equipment. During school hours the playground is closed to the public. But after 3:30 p.m. on weekdays and on weekends it is open to everyone. The only restroom is in the adjacent church.

“You need wide open spaces for big dramatic play, but also small spaces for kids who have sensory sensitivities; a place where they can find enough shelter and smallness to feel comfortable playing outside,” said Julia Berry, the director of the nursery school.

• The central focus at Adventure Playground at South Germantown Regional Park is a pretend wooden castle with swinging ladders, slides and a pretend tightrope walk. The area around the castle had large round swings that kids could either sit or lie down on, xylophones, a climbing wall and a large wooden ship to climb in and around, which was largely wheelchair accessible.

Clemyjontri in McLean, the most colorful of the three we visited, is known for its accessible carousel, which is not always open. My kids gravitated toward the maze. My son also made a beeline for the teeter-totters, which were a staple of my own childhood, but are mostly absent from the playgrounds we frequent. The entire playground is wheelchair accessible, and with its tire swings, monkey bars and rocking vehicles, it is a workout for all of your senses. My complaint with Clemyjontri is the loud cavernous restrooms with the automatic flushing toilets. They are terrifying for kids like my son who avoid loud, unexpected noises.

New this summer is Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee District RECenter in Fairfax, a zero-depth water park with fountains, sprayers and wheelchair accessible equipment. The park includes an accessible “treehouse” play area, built over a ravine, to give children of all abilities the chance to feel like they are up in the trees. Entrance to Our Special Harbor is free for individuals; there is a small fee for large groups.

Other accessible playgrounds in the D.C. area include:

• Hadley’s Main Street USA Playground at Dulles Town Center

Brandon Park in Leesburg

Opportunity Park at Allen Pond in Bowie

Fairland Regional Park in Laurel

• Hadley’s at Falls Road Park in Potomac

Martin Luther King Jr. Recreational Park in Silver Spring

Lake Waterford Park Boundless Playground in Pasadena

High Hopes Boundless Playground in Lexington Park

East Potomac Park in the District

Claude Moore Fun for All Playground in Warrenton

What is your favorite playground for kids with special needs?

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 06/10/2011

 
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