Children with sensory sensitivities do not have a safe place to enjoy the outdoors and interact with peers at traditional parks or playgrounds.
Construct a sensory trail that is accessible for all abilities and inclusive for those who want to play outside.
It’s been described as a dream come true for children and adults who have disabilities.
The Schucks Road Sensory Trail, an adaptive, inclusive playground opened in Harford County, Md., in April 2018. The trail is the first of its kind in the region.
With more than 2,700 youth in the county with disabilities, the trail provides ways for these individuals to get involved with the community.
Stretching along a 1/10-mile paved path, those with disabilities of all ages can interact with 10 sensory stations outdoors. The stations include nine-foot chimes, a roller table, drums, xylophones and brightly colored panels. Each station is wheelchair accessible.
On average, 50 to 75 visitors come to the trail each day. On the weekends, the number of visitors can increase to more than 1,000.
“It is definitely a unique experience anywhere regionally,” said Kathy Burley, director of the Harford County Department of Parks and Recreation.
Traditional playgrounds are often over-stimulating for individuals with sensory sensitivity, which makes them inaccessible to children and adults with disabilities.
The equipment on Harford County’s trail is spread out to avoid overstimulation, Burley said, which provides visitors with an added bonus of more exercise by walking to different stations along the trail.
“Sensory place has so many benefits particularly for children and adults with disabilities,” said Rachel Harbin, manager of the Office of Disability Services for Harford County. “It can even help change the brain in really important ways.”
Children or adults with disabilities use seeing, hearing and touching while experiencing nature to engage their senses, Harbin said. However, the trail is made for children of all abilities, allowing kids to play together with those who are disabled, she said. This was one of the many goals of the trail.
“It is safe,” Harbin said. “It’s made for them. It allows them to play with peers without disabilities and this sensory trail impacts everybody.”
Local schools with children with disabilities regularly visit the sensory trail as a community outing.
“We’ve heard a lot of organizations, particularly schools, have benefited from it and have thanked us for creating it,” Harbin said.
Many local support groups for parents of children with disabilities also use the trail as a meeting spot because they feel included in the community since the trail was a place made specifically for them, Harbin said.
“I think that it’s important to create a culture that values citizens with disabilities,” she said.
Since the sensory trail is the first of its kind in the region, visitors from outside the county frequently come to the trail.
“It truly has taken a very nice place in our inventory of playgrounds and experiences that we have in our community,” said Burley.
The trail was completed with the help of partnerships within the community, said Amber Shrodes, director of the Harford County Department of Community Services.
Local businesses and community organizations, including nonprofits, churches and businesses, sponsored nine of the stations. The purchase and installation of the equipment cost around $140,000. This cost was split among community sponsorships, the Harford County Department of Community Services and the Department of Parks and Recreation.
“The partnership piece was unique with this particular project from incarnation to installation,” Shrodes said. “Parks and Recreation did a rock-star job of getting this in in under a year, which is almost unheard of in county governments.”
Because of these partnerships, she said, the idea for the project quickly became reality.
“Our administration is always trying to think of a new and exciting way that particularly our citizens with disabilities can be a part of the community as a whole,” Shrodes said.
Harford County is working on additional initiatives for residents with disabilities including an iCan Bike Camp to teach kids and adults with disabilities how to ride a bike and a Miracle League Ballfield with accommodations for wheelchairs, allowing baseball players of all abilities to play the game.
“I think it’s important to have that culture in general and to educate people … that everyone deserves to have the same opportunities as everyone else in the community,” Harbin said.
Harford County’s Sensory Trail was named best in category for parks and recreation in the 2019 NACo Achievement Awards.