Sensory Play for All: Sight

Wind spinners, birdhouses, sensory paths, colorful perennials, fairy gardens, gnome statues…what do all these things have in common? They’re a feast for the eyes!

There are so many ways to boost the visual interest of your play area, and so many ways to do it inexpensively. Want to take visual engagement to the next level? Think of as many ways to bring in colors, shapes, sizes, textures, and, of course, contrast to your yard or play area.

Why is important to have a play area, aka your yard, interesting for your kids to look at? Here are a three compelling reasons:

1. Catch their eye, and the rest will follow.

Excuse me while I have a random En Vogue moment (Free your MIIIINNNNDDDD!). This is my way of saying if something grabs your attention (in a positive way) you go to it. Think about a time when you were walking down the sidewalk and a window display caught your eye (never mind if it was a boutique clothing or a kitchen shop). Perhaps the colors, the patterns, the arrangement attracted you. You betcha you’re going to walk through that shop door to take a closer look!

First and foremost, your mission is to catch their attention. The best place to do that is at the “entry” of the space. The garden I’m building had a logical area to make an entry statement. I emphasized it by building a low garden fence and highlighted the entry posts with painted post caps and finials. If there’s an opportunity to create an entry statement or “gateway” it communicates, visually, that they are entering into a special place that’s just for them. In your yard, if there isn’t an opportunity to build an entry, then highlight the space with a landmark, for example a garden arbor or a series of painted garden posts (a great DIY project or see below for a fun Etsy site). A feature like this still suggests a portal from the same-as-it-ever-was yard to THEIR nature play area with something new to discover each and every day.

2. Anyone for Candyland??

One of my favorite childhood board games, Candyland, takes you on a journey through a series of sugar-filled destinations toward the Candyland castle (or the Ginger Bread house, depending on your vintage). What if you thought of your yard or play area like this board game? What if you used visual statements to highlight activity areas of your space? Here are some ideas for instant effect:

Can you accessorize your raised garden beds? Colorful watering cans, child-sized wheelbarrows (My twins each have this one…), colorful tomato cages, and maybe even adding painted tiles to the outside of the beds themselves (what kid doesn’t love a painting project, too?).

The sand play area can host a wind spinner or DIY painted garden posts. Visual interest can be dynamic, like a spinner, windsock, or mobile. Or, it can be static, like the painted garden posts or a fun sculpture of some sort.

I have my eye on one of these globe-like wind spinners from Plow & Hearth.
It will be mine. Oh yes. It will be mine.

How about tucking garden statuary in the planting areas around your yard. What captures your kids’ imaginations? Animals? Butterflies and bugs? Fairies and gnomes? Mirror globes? As they play and explore, these little treasures will become a part of their imaginative scenarios. Or, if you’re working with your little one to build communication skills a butterfly statue with mosaic wings offers a ton of things to talk about, to ask questions about, all while strengthening your connection with one another.

3. Strive for Variety in Degrees.

Visual variety is only limited by your imagination. Hop on the Pinterest train and get some ideas. Scroll down to the bottom of this post for ideas. Visual variety depends on:

Scale/size . Orientation (Vertical, horizontal, angled) . Color

Pattern . Texture . Contrast

Now that you have variety on the brain, let’s talk about degrees.

Do you have a friend that has a statement wall in every room of their house? No matter where you go, whatever room you’re in, you get blasted? An eyeful in every room is overwhelming, right? Your eye can’t discern because everything is demanding its attention. While bold statements are good, they need to be used strategically, especially for kiddos with sensory processing challenges and sensitivities. The answer is in the throw pillows. A room can be designed with simple color palettes, textures, and shapes. A few beautiful throw pillows may be all you need to make a statement. The same concept can be applied to play areas. Providing degrees of visual interest means having features that range from bold (larger scale, brightly colored, highly patterned, dynamic/motion-oriented) to subtle (smaller scale, textures and finishes, muted colors, simple patterns, static). Add things over time to see what works for the size of your space…perhaps it’s one bold visual statement, several moderate features, and as many subtle features as you manage. Have fun experimenting with what works for your kids in your space.

What if your kids have vision sensitivities and/or processing challenges?

Depending on whether your kiddo is visually hypersensitive or hyposensitive you will need to evaluate how you curate the visual experience for them. You know your child’s interests; you know what they love and hate…use these things outside in whatever ways and whatever degrees you can.

Hypersensitive kids may notice everything in their environment at once (it’s likened to having 100 TV channels on all at the same time), or they may focus in on the tiniest details of their environment and the whole scene doesn’t register. Maybe they need to use their peripheral vision to examine things. They get too much information at once, and it’s overwhelming as heck. Sometimes i’s so overwhelming they go into meltdown.

It’s ok if your child is the most colorful thing in the garden.
Just be sure to maximize visual interest with a variety of textures, patterns, and scale/sizes!

If your little one is visually hypersensitive, natural environments may actually be more soothing for them. Research indicates it’s easier for us to achieve sensory balance in a green environment. Additionally, nature-based outdoor environments help counteract the stresses of artificial indoor environments. Perhaps a predominantly green garden-like space, where the visual interest resides predominately in its varying textures, is something to aim for.

Visual hyposensitivity is almost like a visual impairment. Some kids may only see the outlines of things, or disregard people or objects like they’re not even there at all. Here, bright colors and bold patterns may be useful. For people with low vision, warm colors (red, orange, yellow) are easier to read as they “advance” in the landscape. Cool color (blues and purple) tend to “recede”. This is important to understand as you consider your color palette.

Kids will seek out what they need to bring them closer to sensory balance. If there’s visual variety in degrees, they won’t have to go far to find it. Mom, Dad, give yourselves a big high-5!

IDEAS for visual stimulation and sensory balance.

You know your kid better than anyone, and what he or she needs in terms of sensory stimulation and balance. You can install features in your yard permanently for everyone in the family to enjoy long-term. You can also have tools on-hand which can be taken out to the garden for various play and learning activities. Get creative! I hope these images inspire you to add some visual interest at home in your own play area.

Painted garden posts, available on Etsy
With this magnifying station from Natural Playgrounds, they can inspect bugs, stones, flowers, and anything else that tickles their curiosity.
Another cool find from Natural Playgrounds. This mirror ball is durable enough to roll around with on the lawn, or find a beautiful pedestal to put it on.
Allium is one of those statement plants, and they’re low-maintenance. LOVELOVELOVE!
Photo credit:
Binoculars make everything more interesting, especially when they’re upside down and backwards! Oh, my sweet Etta.

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