Tag Archives: sensory friendly

Indoor Parks for the Winter

By: Kelly Nesbitt, MOT, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist

As the winter creeps up, my client families have been worried about their children not getting “their energy out.” It is a time when recess is moving from outdoors to indoors and fun trips to the park are being replaced with play at home. Not to mention with the sun setting after 4:30 PM, parents are a little weary of having kids play outside in the dark. 

So how do we make sure that our kids get the needed movement, play, and sensory input when the days are too short and invariably too cold to go outside? 

Besides indoor sensory activities that you can do at home (see previous post on Indoor Toddler Activities), here are a collection of indoor sensory parks in the Chicagoland area. These gyms have indoor swings, equipment, and sensory play that can help support your child in the winter months (or year round) when playing outside may not be possible.

These recommendations are based upon input from other therapists, clients, and online research. Sites have not been individually inspected on-site by the author.

We Rock the Spectrum

OT Overview

  • What is it?: A “gym for all kids” that  “is committed to providing a safe, nurturing, and fun environment to foster learning, exploration and safe sensory experiences.” We Rock the Spectrum is owned by a speech pathologist whose mission is to provide a safe space for all children to play and explore. We Rock the Spectrum is a large gym facility that hosts both open play times, respite care, birthday parties, and classes. We Rock the Spectrum is specifically designed for children with special needs, especially those on the Autism Spectrum! Open for children in infancy to 13 years old. All children must be accompanied by an adult and wear socks. 
  • Why an OT likes it: We Rock the Spectrum has a handy graphic of all their pieces of equipment and what sensory input they provide! 

General Information

  • Where: 553 East Dundee Road Palatine, IL
  • Hours: Open gym typically runs 10am-7pm during weekdays, but hours may vary, please check website for details. 
  • Amenities: This gym has a lot of the same swings and equipment seen in therapy gyms- There is a zip line, swings, crash pit, weighted blankets, trampoline, tunnel, platform swing, hammock swing, monkey bars, and bolster swing. 
  • Pricing: There are drop in prices as well as memberships. $14/child, $12/siblings for open play. You can get membership cards (5 visits for $60, 12 visits for $120, etc.) See website for full conditions and price listings. Unlimited monthly packages are available too.
  • Contact

ColorWheel Playhouse

OT Overview

  • What is it?: Owned by parents of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ColorWheel Playhouse aims to be “a place where kids with all ranges of abilities could come together and find joy and smiles on our Color Wheel of happiness.” ColorWheel playhouse is a facility that has a large gym, can host classes and birthday parties. Classes include a variety of topics such as bully prevention, CPR, karate demonstrations, fire safety, and much more. This facility is specifically designed for children with special needs! 
  • Why an OT likes it: ColorWheel Playhouse has various different areas in which your child can choose what kind of input they are needing; there is an “Action Room,” designed to get your child the heavy work (push, pull, carry, climb, etc.) types of input to their muscles and joints that has a calming effect. There are various types of swings so your child can get the needed vestibular input (movement input from swinging back and forth, spinning, and jumping). Also there are arts and crafts/sensory bins available if your child needs a quiet moment to themselves. I also enjoy that the owners have a child with Autism, so the staff understands a child on the Spectrum and all potential needs and challenges. If birthday parties are challenging for a child, ColorWheel Playhouse offers themed birthday party packages at their facility. 

General Information

  • Where: Sandpiper Plaza, 2000 Army Trail Road, Hanover Park, IL
  • Hours: Open play hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10am-6pm, Closed Sunday and Monday.
  • Amenities: This facility has a rock wall, ball pit, monkey bars, log swings, rope climbing wall, cacoon swing, trampoline, zip line, an arts and crafts table, and sensory bins.
  • Pricing: Open gym: $10/child, $9/addition child. Punch cards and monthly memberships are available as well; See website for full conditions and price listings.
  • Contact: 

Ball Factory

OT Overview

  • What is it?: Ball Factory is an indoor gym that has specified areas for babies, toddlers, and young kids to explore and play. Children up to 12 years old are permitted to play with their parents present. Ball Factory aims to make play comfortable for all ages, they have equipment and toys suited for babies to 12 year old kids, as well as comfortable seating for parents and senior discounts available for when grandma and grandpa want to visit! There is even a cafe inside where you can grab a bite. This facility is designed for all children, of all ages and abilities. 
  • Why an OT likes it: I personally love the variety of equipment available at this facility- everything from ball bits, climbing structures, to push toys. I would recommend this facility for my clients that cannot get enough pretend play with cars and other vehicles, since there are kid-sized vehicles to drive around (and get vestibular and heavy work input as they pedal and push their cars around). I also love that this facility encourages family members not to just sit on the sidelines and watch their children play- but to get in on the action! Adults are allowed in all the play areas and there are comfortable seating options so that moms, dads, grandmas, and grandpas can play with their children, then rest and recharge. After all, a place with fun equipment is great, but made into an amazing experience for a child when their loved ones join in play with them. 

General Information

  • Where: (there are 2 sites!)
    • Naperville: 864 S Route 59
    • Mount Prospect: 1042 S Elmhurst Road
  • Hours: Sunday-Thursday 10am-7pm, Friday-Saturday 10am-9pm
  • Amenities: Ball Factory has many fun areas for your child to explore that is age and abilities appropriate:The “Imagination Playground” has large soft blocks for children to play with, the “Tot Area” has padded equipment, cushioned toys, balls, and a small play structure with large, soft, Lego blocks. Based upon pictures from the website, there does not appear to be any indoor swings. However, there is a “Pedal Tractor Area” with pedal tractors with loaders, trailers, tractors, and fire trucks. There is also a pretend play gas station for all of the vehicles to refuel! Other pieces of equipment include a ball pit, maze, multi-story playground, ball blasting area (soft balls shot out of air-cannons), baby slides, interactive play floor, and super slides!
  • Pricing:  
    • Children over 12 months (Monday-Friday) are $12.95, Weekends are $15.95. Children 6-12 months (Monday-Friday) are $10, weekends are $12. 
    • Children under 6 months are free. 
    • The Ball Factory also offers 5 visit passes that are $55. 
    • They also have fun discounts such as “PJ Play” in which children cost $8 for the last hour of the day and “Happy Hour Play”, in which children are $10 after 3pm  (Monday-Thursday).See website for full conditions and price listings.
  • Contact:

Urban Air Trampoline and Adventure Park (Naperville)

OT Overview

  • What is it?: This massive facility has all kinds of activities such as go-karts, “Wipe Out” styled obstacles, ropes course, etc. This facility offers Open Play hours where you can explore the building’s fun activities- such as an indoor trampoline park and climbing gym. There are so many activities available for open gym play as well as special events such as birthday parties. This facility is not specifically tailored to children with special needs, but may be suitable for these children with adult supervision and support. 
  • Why an OT likes it: This facility would be perfect for some of my clients who love coming to OT to get intense crashing, pushing, pulling, and are “thrill seekers!” Some of my clients are obsessed with Wipeout and American Ninja Warrior- and Urban Air looks like a place where those “adrenaline junkies” could pretend they are competing in American Ninja Warrior themselves. 
  • Special Note: Some activities at Urban Air may be a little more intense than the previously mentioned indoor playgrounds. I think this facility would best suit children who are more independent in their play and need just supervisory support to engage in novel gross motor activities. While these activities certainly do offer opportunities for heavy work and vestibular input (especially trampoline course, ropes course, zip line, climbing structures, rock walls, etc.), children with motor delays and/or are sensitive to intense movement input may have difficulty engaging in all of the activities offered. That being said, there are so many activities at this facility, that you are bound to find something for kids of all abilities to be able to participate in.  Please see the website for pictures to make your own assessment if these activities would be fun for your child. Consult your child’s Occupational Therapist if you are unsure if they would enjoy a certain activity. 

General Information

  • Where: (3 Illinois Locations)
    • 1955 Glacier Park Avenue, Naperville, IL
    • 67 Ludwig Drive, Fairview Heights, IL
    • 19800 South La Grange Road, Mokena, IL
  • Hours: (Varies by location, please see website for site specific hours)
    • Naperville Open Play hours:
      • Sunday-Wednesday (10am-8pm)
      • Thursday (No Open Play hours)
      • Friday and Saturday (10am-11pm)
  • Amenities: Urban Air definitely offers the widest variety of obstacle courses (rope wall, Wipe Out course, tubes playground, dodgeball, warrior course, ropes course, strapped-in zip line), bumper cars, go-karts, trampolines, and much more!  There is a Kids Under 7 area with little-kid appropriate trampolines. 
  • Pricing: Endless Play Memberships are available as well as birthday party prices. See website for full conditions and price listings.
  • Contact

I hope these ideas will help jump-start your planning for outings for the winter months! If you have any questions or concerns about any of the aforementioned facilities, please contact the facility. Also, ask your child’s Occupational Therapist about what types of activities would be most beneficial.

For more information on occupational therapy at Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley, visit http://www.easterseals.com/dfv/our-programs/medical-rehabilitation/occupational-therapy.html. 

Supporting Children with Sensory Disorders while Traveling

By: Kelly Nesbitt, MOT, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist

When a child with sensory processing disorder goes on vacation, it may be difficult for their bodies to go into that “relax and restore” mode. Children with sensory processing disorders are constantly “battling” with their environment in many of the following ways:

  • Every sound is too loud and hurts their ears
  • Smells are abrasive and can cause them to gag or vomit
  • New tactile sensations send them into a panic
  • Changes in their normal routine can make them extremely anxious
  • New sights and movement in their environment can startle them

The following are some tips that may help support a child with sensory issues during a summer vacation so they may have a relaxing experience.

Visual Schedules

An example of a visual schedule.

If your child benefits from knowing what to expect in the day, it may be useful to set up a visual schedule revolving around your vacation. This can include the steps you will need to complete going through the airport. (Travelers Aid Chicago has resources to make a visual schedule specific to O’Hare airport).

Some children may also just benefit from going over what to expect on their vacation. You can help them prepare by saying, “We are going to the airport and this is what to expect…”  or “We will be on vacation for 4 days. During those days we can do these activities…”

Long Car Rides

3 kids in the car, reading a map, eating and wearing headphones.

Children that are constantly on the move may find it extremely difficult to sit still during long car rides to their vacation destination. Often times kids who are always “on the go” benefit from heavy work activities that involve pushing, pulling, and carrying. These activities give input to the joints and muscles which can be very regulating. Here are a few heavy work ideas specifically for car rides: 

Squigs are toys that can keep children busy on long car rides.
  • Squigs on the windows: I suggest this for children who need something to keep their hands busy with push and pull component to get heavy work. These small plastic suction cups stick perfectly to car windows and to each other. Children can build and make a picture with them on the windows 
  • Pop TubesThese toys also provide an opportunity for children to push and pull when you are cooped up in the car.
  • Animal walk breaks at rest stops: Just as you need to get out and stretch your legs during a long ride, your child with sensory difficulties will need this break too! At rest stops, take advantage of the opportunity to move by doing silly activities that promote heavy work: walking like a bear, jumping like a kangaroo, playing on a playground if the rest stop has one. 

What to Pack

Girl sitting in a suitcase

Here’s a list of sensory supports that may help your child while you are on vacation. Make sure to consult your occupational therapist about which items may be most beneficial for your child.

Girl wearing headphones.
  • Noise cancelling headphones: Some children benefit from wearing headphones if they are easily overwhelmed by the loud noises of crowds. Noise canceling headphones can range anywhere from $20 to upwards of $200. These might be handy for kids that would get overwhelmed by crowds, traveling on an airplane, or seeing a firework show on the 4th of July. 
  • Comfort item: Bringing a stuffed animal or blanket that your child finds soothing may be beneficial for when they become anxious or overwhelmed while on vacation. You could even add soothing aromatherapy scents such as vanilla, lavender, or chamomile to these comfort items for an extra sensory “treat.” (Always make sure your child tolerates and likes the scent prior to adding it to their comfort item. If the smell is too bothersome to them, they may not want to be around it anymore!) 
  • Weighted blanket or stuffed animal:  Some children with sensory processing difficulties find compression comforting. A weighted blanket or stuffed animal may provide some calming input and tell their body to relax. Weighted items are now available at most stores or online. Click here to read more about the benefits of weighted blankets.
  • Fidgets:  These are small items that kids can fiddle with in their hands to keep them busy and focused when they may feel overwhelmed. Fidgets can be bracelets, putty, pop tubes, etc. 
  • Identification bracelets: Sometimes when a child is overwhelmed, they may run away from the group. Because of this, it may be a good idea to make a bracelet with your phone number on it so that you can be reached in case of an emergency. Options include beads with numbers on them, temporary tattoos that you can specially order with your phone number on it. There are even cute “Disney-themed” buttons and tattoos with emergency contact information that you can specially order. Here are some examples of number bracelets and  temporary tattoos or you can design your own ID bracelet

The Benefit of Breaks

Children are working very hard to stay regulated and calm when they are being bombarded with all this new sensory input that comes with a vacation. They may just need a little break. It is absolutely okay to take some time in your hotel room or find a quiet spot for your child to regroup. Sometimes just a quiet room with a preferred toy or sensory tool is just the break that your child needs in order to enjoy the rest of their vacation.  

You can help your child create a “calm down corner” in your hotel room or wherever you are staying. This spot does not need to be complicated – it can be a little corner of the room with pillows, blankets, and some of the items previously listed in “What to Pack.”

This can be their special area in which they can retreat to take a break if they become overwhelmed and enjoy a moment away from whatever input is overwhelming them.

This is not a punitive space to send them to when they are behaving badly or being uncooperative. This is a calm space that you can offer them a break in or they can elect to go to when needed. Just as you may go sit by the pool after a busy day on vacation to relax and recharge, your child with sensory processing difficulties may need their own unique space to do the same.

Unexpected Meltdowns

Girl who is upset hugs her mom.

Children with sensory processing difficulties can have meltdowns when they get too overwhelmed by the sensory input in their surroundings and/or if they become too fatigued. As well prepared as you may be, you can’t anticipate or prepare for every meltdown.

If your child has a meltdown while on vacation, first try to figure out what elicited the meltdown and remove them from the input that is too overwhelming for them. It may be helpful to go through all 5 senses: Was there a smell, sound, touch, sight, taste that they experienced that caused them to react? Were they in a loud, busy crowd for too long? Did the plan change too suddenly and without warning?  

Once you have removed them from whatever caused the meltdown (as best as you can), give them input to help calm them down. For some children, they like compression from big hugs or weighted blankets. Other children need to put on their noise cancelling headphones and have some quiet time. 

Sometimes children with sensory processing difficulties can meltdown because they are so tired from holding themselves together for so long in a new environment. As a clinician, I have an understanding of the experience, and know it must be exhausting to be bothered by what most people consider “normal” input, such as the sounds of people talking, the feel of your clothes on your body, or the smell of the pool on vacation.

It’s important for parents to understand that their child with a sensory processing disorder is expending a lot of energy processing input from their surroundings. They may need more patience and understanding when they are having a tough time with changes outside their normal routine. It may be helpful for parents to help children label when they are becoming agitated, by saying “It looks like you are not comfortable right now, can we take a break?”  

Summer vacation should be an opportunity for everyone in your family to rest and recharge. If you need help brainstorming what activities/preparations would be best for your child this summer, consult your occupational therapist for more insight into your child’s unique sensory needs.  

Read our previous blog on How to Plan a Sensory Friendly and Accessible Vacation

For more information about Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley and our Occupational Therapy services, visit: https://www.easterseals.com/dfv/our-programs/medical-rehabilitation/occupational-therapy.html .

The Benefits of Weighted Blankets

By: Kelly Nesbitt, MOT, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist

Weighted blankets have become very popular in the past year, not only for children with sensory processing difficulties and Autism, but also with “neurotypical” adults. It’s hard to go online or browse the aisles of Walmart without seeing ads for weighted blankets touting an improved night’s sleep or improved mood. So what exactly is the hype around weighted blankets and why do they help children with Autism or other sensory processing issues?

What are weighted blankets?

Weighted blankets are usually big plush blankets filled with some sort of pellet to make it heavier (depending on what type of blanket you buy or make, they are usually filled with plastic, sand, steel shot beads, plastic poly pellets, micro-beads, etc.)

They can range in weight from a couple pounds to about 20 pounds and can be made out of just about any type of fabric imaginable!  Weighted blankets can be worn on the lap to help a fidgety child calm down in order to sit at the table for a meal with family, help ease anxiety during a car ride, or help lull a child to sleep.

Weighted blankets for children should not exceed 10% of their body weight for safety (weighted blankets should be a comfortable compression, not so heavy that they cannot be easily taken off by a child). These blankets are used for calming input to help a child “slow their body down,” not to be so heavy as to inhibit movement.

What’s the theory behind weighted blankets?

Weighted blankets can have a calming effect when worn over the body for the same reason that your child would seek a big hug when they are upset. This weight provides deep tactile input to the skin, joints, and muscles that tells your child’s brain to relax.

According to the American Sleep Association, deep tactile input provided from weighted blankets tells our central nervous system to switch from our “fight or flight” sympathetic state of being anxious and panicky to our “rest and recharge” parasympathetic state where our heart rates slow and we are able to calm ourselves down. Deep tactile input causes the body to release serotonin in the brain, a feel-good neurotransmitter that creates a sense of calm and well-being.

For children with Autism Spectrum Disorders or sensory processing difficulties, it is really hard to get their bodies to move from this “fight or flight” to “rest and recharge” state on their own. Occupational Therapists are trained in identifying strategies to help the central nervous system to calm through the use of movement, tactile, olfactory, visual, auditory, and proprioceptive input. Weighted blankets can be an effective modality to help accomplish this.

Store Bought vs. Homemade

There are a plethora of store-bought options for weighted blankets that range from relatively cheap to extremely pricey. Whether you purchase or make your weighted blanket should be based upon how much time you have available as well how much you want to spend. Both store bought or homemade options can have the same calming effect.

Regardless, like any other blanket, it should be washed occasionally. Make sure that the materials you purchase are conducive to being either machine or hand washed without destroying the blanket. For example, your blanket is filled with sand or rice, it would be a good idea to purchase a cover to go over the blanket so that it may be removed and washed.

Where to Shop

There are so many options for weighted blankets online and in store. Here’s a list of a couple choices that I have suggested to families in the past (ask your Occupational Therapist which companies they prefer and have had good experiences with).

  • Amazon: Amazon has a large selection of blankets that range from $50-$100. Be sure to check individual seller’s policies on returns and weight specifications.
  • Fun and Function: This therapy product website has weighted comforters, blankets, sleeping bags, and lap pads with fun designs and textures that are kid-friendly.
  • Support groups: Parent support groups on Facebook often either personally know someone who makes great blankets or knows what companies make the best ones for a fair price. (For clients at Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley, ask your Occupational Therapist about weighted blankets created by Easterseals families that are low to no cost!)

How to Make Homemade Weighted Blankets

Because I am always a fan of saving a few bucks and getting a little crafty, I usually tell my client’s families to try making a weighted blanket on their own. If a family is up for it, I recommend buying a duvet cover and going to a craft store such as Joann Fabrics or Michaels to purchase filler material. The duvet can then be sown shut and you can place another cover on top of the filled duvet so that the outer layer can be easily washed.

Making your own also lends itself to making a blanket that would exactly fit your child’s interests. You can purchase durable, washable fabrics with your child’s favorite characters on it. There are also online instructions for how to make your own blanket, like this one from Quality Plastic Pellets. Make sure to remember the rule for the weight of the blanket… make sure it weighs at most 10% of the child’s body weight.

Aromatherapy and Weighted Blankets

For an extra calming sensory experience, you can even add aromatherapy scents to your weighted blanket. Of course, make sure that the child enjoys the scent and is not bothered by this olfactory input prior to adding it to the blanket. Scents such as lavender, vanilla, chamomile, and bergamot can have a calming effect and can help with inducing sleep. Aromatherapy oils can be purchased at your local drug store. Click here to read more about adding aromatherapy to weighted blankets.

Whether you want to buy or make your own, weighted materials can be trialed in therapy sessions to see if the child has a positive, calming response with its use. Your Occupational Therapist will collaborate with you to consider what textures your child can tolerate in fabrics, if the sound of the material inside the blanket could be irritating, and when it would be most beneficial for the child to use the blanket.

Choosing a weighted blanket can be both an art and a science; if you are interested in trialing a weighted blanket for your child, feel free to ask your child’s Occupational Therapist about it!

For more information about Occupational Therapy services at Easter Seals, visit: http://www.easterseals.com/dfv/our-programs/medical-rehabilitation/occupational-therapy.html