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How to determine whether your child could benefit from a sensory gym

Most of us think of the gym as a place to improve our physical fitness and health by running on treadmills and lifting weights. But the moment you walk into a sensory gym, you know that it's no run-of-the-mill fitness center.

The first things you'll notice are the bright colors splashed across the walls. Next, your eyes will move to all the different kid-friendly stations. From the covered swings to the ball pits to the climbing walls, it's a child's paradise!

But, in fact, a sensory gym is a structured environment that helps children with special needs develop their sensory, communication and motor skills. These gyms also improve self-esteem and social skills. Although all children can use and enjoy sensory gyms, hospitals and therapy clinics use them most often, and they're even becoming popular in therapy rooms in schools. The New York Center for Child Development, The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey, Tiny Tots Therapy in New Jersey and Permian Basin Rehabilitation Center in Texas are just a few examples of places that have tapped into the benefits of sensory gyms for children and adults.

While sensory gyms certainly provide the health and fitness benefits of regular gyms, their benefits extend much further.

Could your child benefit from a sensory gym?

Sensory gyms are fun for all kids, but they're especially valuable for children with special needs because they provide a wonderful opportunity for them to learn to process information in a fun, non-threatening way. Not only will these gyms help improve balance and body awareness, but they'll also improve fine motor skills, coordination, cause-and-effect reasoning and cognitive-behavioral social skills in a safe environment.

However, sensory gyms are especially useful because they integrate a child's sensory input, which is something children with special needs struggle with. They're either over-sensitive (i.e., they become overwhelmed with too much information) or under-sensitive (i.e., sensory information isn't properly registered). In stark contrast to a traditional learning environment, sensory gyms are fun, stress-free areas where children with special needs can process sensory information and break the classroom frustration learning cycle.

Here are four indicators that your child may benefit from a sensory gym.

1. Your child craves sensory input

If your child enjoys spinning, crashing into walls, or constantly running, climbing and jumping on couches, a symptom of hyposensitivity, a sensory gym could be beneficial to help your child process and develop his sensory skills.

2. Your child hates sensory input

If your child shies away from different textures, sounds and experiences or can't stand to be touched, a symptom of hypersensitivity, he could use a sensory gym to learn to manage sensory information.

3. Your child is lethargic

If your child is lethargic, unengaged and seems unable to absorb normal stimulation, he could benefit from a sensory gym by practicing responding to sensory information.

4. Your child needs motivation to keep moving lots of different muscles

Maybe your child lacks complete muscle control, as children with cerebral palsy do. A sensory gym will give him a safe, friendly environment that encourages him to move all of his muscles.

If your child doesn't have a sensory disorder, sensory gyms are beneficial for fine-tuning physical, motor, social and sensory skills. If your child does have a sensory disorder, a sensory gym acts as a form of physical therapy that will help alleviate the symptoms of his disorder. If you find that your child has difficulty processing information, introduce your child to a sensory gym and observe how he reacts.

The more sensory integration skills a child can master, the easier it will be for him to learn new information and grow.

Image: Andreas-photography/Flickr

Rebecca Dean is president of Tiny Tots Therapy Inc. and a partner in Therapy Nook, Kids Blvd Sensory Gym and Fun Factory Sensory Gym. She earned her degree in occupational therapy, and she's certified and trained in sensory integration, reflex integration and neurodevelopmental treatments. She believes in a holistic therapeutic approach.

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