Libraries, parks, and splash pads are just a few free or low-cost sensory-rich activities for kids and families!
Spring is just around the corner, and Waterloo Region offers an endless variety of free-or-almost free sensory experiences for kids, both indoors and outdoors.
Sensory experiences are important for a number of reasons. They stimulate connections in the brain, help to develop language skills, and teach important concepts. Most of all, they are a great way to have fun.
When Sara and I were full-time stay-at-home parents, we would often meet at Bonn Park (yes, that’s why we named our podcast Bonn Park!) with our young kids and chat with other parents about free-or-almost free sensory experiences our children enjoyed.
Sara’s daughters had lots of fun getting dirty and building things with sand, stones, sticks and mud, collecting and identifying leaves, and sorting sea shells on family trips to the beach. And on rainy days, I loved making crafts with my kids out of household items like empty tissue boxes, toilet paper rolls, construction paper and pipe cleaners. Thank you, Mr. Dressup!
Our Bonn Park Media partner Dr. Angela Pollak was our guest on Episode #27 of the Bonn Park Podcast back in Season One. A social scientist, and writer at heart, she has practiced her trade in media, high-tech, research, education, and tourism.
“I’m a big fan of all things adaptive, accessible and universally designed,” she says.
Her family also runs Four Corners Camping and Glamping, a business that is completely “off the grid,” powered by solar energy, and located just four kilometres from Algonquin Provincial Park, described as a birder’s paradise and a world-class destination for hiking and canoeing.
So Angela knows a thing or two about finding sensory-rich and engaging environments for kids and their families, and gave us a rundown of the Top 7 Free-or-almost-free sensory experiences for kids in Waterloo Region, and surrounding areas.
Let's discover 7 Free-or-almost free sensory experiences for kids in Waterloo Region!
Dr. Angela Pollak: Sensory is a word parents hear a lot of these days, but it’s not something most parents either intuitively know or learn about unless they have sensory-people in their lives. Sensory needs, sensory processing, sensory play, all refer to the way children (or people in general really) engage with the world through their senses of vision 👀, hearing 🔊, taste 👅, touch ✋🏽 and smell 👃🏽.
It also includes a person’s sense of balance ⚖, and awareness of their body in the space around them (proprioception) 🩰. There are many common ways of engaging with your senses, which span the human condition just like any other experience.
Every now and then, you might meet someone who has sensory needs that are different from yours. My first experience with sensory issues was with my children and meltdowns over clothing and food: refusing to wear socks, seams in the toes of leggings that drove my kids to tears, avoiding clothes with zippers, buttons, laces and ties. At the table it was all about mashed potatoes, or eating the same small selection of food items over and over again. With the third one came clumsiness.
I really didn’t understand what was going on and it was exasperating for me until I began to work with an occupational therapist to better understand my childrens’ sensory needs. For me it was like learning another language, but once I understood it, I discovered that the concepts are really quite common sense and both easy to grasp and respond to.
Some kids excel in sensory rich environments. Other kids thrive in calming situations. And no matter the child it can change from moment to moment, day to day, hour to hour and year to year, so it pays to have a range of tools in your toolbox to scale your environment up or down according to your family’s needs in any specific situation. We are really lucky in Waterloo region. By design and by chance, we have so many fabulous free and low-cost ways to engage our kids in sensory play in our public and semi-public spaces. Check these ones out!
1. Aquarium stores
Sight 👀, hearing 🔊, touch ✋🏽 and smell 👃🏽.
Aquarium stores are a great place for a unique visual and sound experience for all ages. Fish of different sizes and colours swimming alone and in schools. Reptiles in heated tanks and aquatic plants in bubbling tanks in a low light environment are fantastic sensory experiences. It’s especially great that the tanks are often at eye level for the kids, so no lifting or climbing required.
· Big Al’s
· Pet Smart
2. Parks – Old favourites and hidden gems
Sight 👀 hearing 🔊 touch ✋🏽 smell 👃🏽 balance ⚖ proprioception 🩰
Research increasingly shows that time spent outdoors does wonders for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Throughout all of the cities in our region are scattered amazing parks, forests, trails and woodland sensory experiences waiting for you to and your children to discover. Whether it’s well travelled like Huron Park or Rockway Gardens, or one of the hidden gems in your neighbourhood, we encourage you to get out and explore.
Our family favourite is the forest in Beechwood… meandering trails through a hardwood forest wind along a little creek. It’s peaceful and lovely at all times of the day and evening, and no matter the weather. Our kids love to climb the fallen logs, hop in and out of the creek, and discover snails and other forest creatures as we spend time in the woods together. It’s even better in the rain because the sound of raindrops in the forest is remarkably musical and satisfying.
For a list of parks in your area, visit the web page for the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph, or any of the townships.
3. Greenhouses and nurseries
Sight 👀, touch ✋🏽 and smell 👃🏽.
Nurseries and greenhouses, of course, are also abuzz with plant life of all shapes, sizes and colours. There is a lot to look at, touch and smell in these sensory-rich environments. From cacti to sensitive plans, children experience plants on tables at their level.
· Gold Leaf Botanicals · Colour Paradise · Sheridan · Grobe · Belgian · John’s
Sight 👀 hearing 🔊 taste 👅 touch ✋🏽 smell 👃🏽 balance ⚖ proprioception 🩰.
The St. Jacobs Farmers' Market is a sea of unique and unusual things to see, do and listen to. From buskers and animals outside in the summer, to the booths in the Peddlar’s Village, to the smell of baked goods like apple fritters and pies.
At Herrle’s Market, if the smell and visuals of the colourful food for sale inside doesn’t catch your kids’ attention, they can exercise their proprioceptive and balance senses outside on the old wagon and among the pumpkins in the Fall.
Benjamin Tree Farm is another great place to visit when the season calls. Experience the smell of freshly cut pine trees, the taste of apple cider or hot chocolate, and climb their hay bales for a one-of-a-kind way to spend a sensory hour or afternoon.
5. Splash pads and wading pools
Sight 👀 hearing 🔊 touch ✋🏽 balance ⚖ proprioception 🩰
Who doesn’t like being wet on a hot day? Splash pads are a wonderful place to spend a few hours relaxing with the kids while they experience their senses to the fullest. It’s not an accident that these experiences are filled with laughter and sunshine. Scattered around the region, these play spaces are often easily accessible by public transit. See the following list for a splash pad near you!
· New Hamburg
· Community Centre · Waterloo Park · Albert McCormick Arena · McLennan Park · Carl Zehr Squar · Centreville Chicopee · Chandler Mowat · Doon Pioneer Park · Kingsdale · RBJ Schlegel Park · Victoria Park/Courtland Avenue · The Boardwalk · Vanier Park · A new one planned for Breslau · Kiwanis Park and Pool · Cowan Park (Ayr) · Bolender Park (Elmira) · Wellesley Splash Pad · Forbes Park (Cambridge) · Riverside Park (Cambridge) · Churchill Park (Cambridge) · Norm Jerry Park (Guelph) · South End Community Park (Guelph) · Northview Park (Guelph) · Hanlon Creek Park (Guelph) · Waverley Park (Guelph) · Jubilee Park (Guelph) · Exhibition Park · Sunny Acres Park
Sight 👀 hearing 🔊 taste 👅 touch ✋🏽 smell 👃🏽 balance ⚖ proprioception 🩰
Libraries are the single best value in any Canadian community for activities for children, sensory or otherwise. Through your local library you can access tactile items like sensory board books and toys, board games, wide-ranging programming (ranging from story time to making to guest visitors like exotic animals on occasion). If the digital world is what intrigues your kids, download books, movies and games instead. Most libraries are also quite easily accessible by public transit. Get your card today!
· Waterloo Region Library
· Idea Exchange
· Guelph Public Library
Sight 👀 hearing 🔊 touch ✋🏽 smell 👃🏽 proprioception 🩰
Exposure to animals is a wonderful way to introduce your child to visual, sound and tactile sensory experiences. As a bonus, time spent with animals has been shown to have a calming effect on blood pressure and mood. Often humane societies allow visitors to come in and visit with cats, dogs and small animals by appointment in the hopes that you’ll strike up a lifetime friendship with one of the animals needing a forever home.
Anyone who has had the privilege of visiting the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory will attest to the sounds, textures and colours in their unique space. Waterloo Park is an old family favourite for the animals that call the park home, ranging from rabbits to peacocks to llamas. And if you’ve never tried a cat café before, all I can say is, you really don’t know what you’re missing.
o My Kitty Café (Guelph)
o Alley Cat Café (Stratford)
· Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory
· Waterloo Park
· Humane Societies
o Kitchener Waterloo Humane Society
o The Cambridge and District Humane Society
o Guelph Humane Society