Top 7 Free-or-almost-free Sensory Experiences for Kids in Waterloo Region

Splash pads, libraries, and markets are just a few fabulous free and low-cost ways to engage our kids in sensory play environments, right here in Waterloo Region.

Looking for free-or-almost-free sensory experiences for your family?

Despite the loneliness, isolation, and loss of identity that sometimes accompanies this choice, I consider the many years I was a stay-at-home parent to be the best job in the world.

My podcasting co-host Sara was a stay-at-home parent as well, which is how we met, spending many mornings at our neighbourhood park, Bonn Park, with our young children.

With other parents at the park, we would sometimes talk about the free-or-almost-free sensory experiences our kids enjoyed most, like making crafts with household objects. Thank you Mr. Dressup!

Sara and her daughters would paint rocks with watercolour paints, make string art, and get dirty making mud pies.

"We also did snow paint, created things with fabric, identified leaves, baking and cooking, did muffin tin sorting with snacks or outdoor objects...and though you'll need an ocean beach for shell identification, our 'book of sea shells' has almost disintegrated," says Sara.

Some of my most vivid memories of being a stay-at-home dad are early mornings in Victoria Park and Waterloo Park, as I've always loved the artistry of playgrounds designed for beauty as well as interaction.

On Episode 74 of Bonn Park, Sara and I talked with Laura Gillians, a playground designer, play consultant, and founder of All In Recreation. In our fascinating conversation with Gillians, she shared with us her passion for play and the importance of providing recreation and sensory experiences for kids of all ages and all abilities.

Dr. Angela Pollak, our Bonn Park Media partner, librarian and social scientist who studies information behaviour was a guest back on Episode 27 of Bonn Park. Angela's family owns and operates Four Corners Algonquin Camping and Glamping located just four kilometres away from Algonquin Provincial Park, described as a birder's paradise and a world-class destination for hiking and canoeing. Inspired by experiences with sensory needs in her own family, her family has crafted a sensory-rich accessible outdoor space that works for people no matter their age or ability.

Angela is highly skilled when it comes to finding free-or-almost-free sensory experiences for families, including something fun to do for every ability, for every taste and for every budget.

That's why I asked Angela to come up with a list of the Top 7 Free-or-almost-free Sensory Experiences for Kids in Waterloo Region...

So what is a sensory experience?

Dr. Angela Pollak: Sensory is a word parents hear a lot of these days, but in my experience, it’s not something most parents either intuitively know about or automatically learn about unless they have sensory people in their lives.

Sensory needs, sensory processing, and 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. Everyone learns through their senses in some fashion, and it feels so natural we don't often think about how it works.

But every now and then, you might meet someone whose sensory needs or preferences are different from yours. My first experience with sensory issues was with my children and meltdowns over clothing and food: things like refusing to wear socks or seams in the toes of leggings that drove my kids to tears, and avoiding clothes with zippers, buttons, laces, and ties. The phases seemed infinite, and lasted for what felt like forever to me sometimes.

At the table it was all about mashed potatoes, or eating the same small selection of food items over and over again. With one of the kids 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 who helped me understand what my children were trying to tell me in their moments of highest need.

For me, learning to listen 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. I also learned that I needed to make patience, flexibility, and creativity my best friends.

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 strategies 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!

Here are Angela's Top 7 Free-or-almost-free Sensory Experiences for Kids in Waterloo Region…

Aquarium stores

Sight 👀, hearing 🔊, touch ✋🏽 and smell 👃🏽.

Aquarium stores are a great place for a unique visual and sound experience for all ages. Lined up in rows in rectangular tanks tall and short, colourful fish of different sizes swim alone and in schools, sometimes responding en masse to movements of your hands in ways that make kids feel like choreographers in a beautiful performance. The indoor air temperature is different in aquarium stores as well and especially noticeable when you come out of the cold in winter seasons - warm, humid, almost tropical to accommodate curiously different aquatic plants, fish and reptiles from warmer climates. The low-light environment and the bubbling sound of the aerators and filters encourage observation in a satisfying and calming way and give you plenty of material to talk about on the ride home. 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

Parks: Old favourites and hidden gems

Sight 👀 hearing 🔊 touch ✋🏽 smell 👃🏽 balance ⚖ proprioception 🩰

Quite apart from the oxygen rich environment benefits, 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 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. As a bonus, the worse the weather forecast, the better it is - it's like it's own little climate zone in a valley sheltered by the trees. 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, or any of the townships.

Nurseries, greenhouses, and garden centres

Sight 👀, touch ✋🏽 and smell 👃🏽.

Nurseries, greenhouses, and garden centres, of course, are also abuzz with plant life of all shapes, sizes and colours. If you can't get out into the forest or are looking for a different place to experience a nature-based benefit, there is a lot of nature to look at, touch, and smell in a nursery. From flowering varieties of plants and trees, to cacti and succulents, to sensitive plants that close up when you touch them, children can experience greenery on tables at their level and let their imaginations run wild. If you visit Belgian Nursery, you might even see (or hear) their resident cockatiels. Consider bringing some edible varieties home for an extended sensory experience planting and caring for vegetables in your own garden where they can enjoy the proceeds of their loving labour on your table at meal time. Hint: this doesn't have to be elaborate - it can be done in throw-away plastic containers on your kitchen counter if your home isn't big enough for a garden.

· Gold Leaf Botanicals

· Sheridan

· Grobe

· Belgian

· John’s Nursery

· Colour Paradise


Sight 👀 hearing 🔊 taste 👅 touch ✋🏽 smell 👃🏽 balance ⚖ proprioception 🩰.

The St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market in Woolwich Township, the largest market of its kind in North America, is a sea of unique and unusual things to see, do and listen to -- from buskers and animals outside in the summertime, to the booths in the Peddlar’s Village, to the smell of baked goods like apple fritters and pies.

Check out Episode 80, Episode 85, and Episode 89 of Bonn Park's special three-part series about the St. Jacobs Farmers' Market.

At Herrle’s Country Farm Market in Waterloo, 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 in Waterloo is another great place to visit when the season calls. Experience the wintery 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.

Splash pads and wading pools

Sight 👀 hearing 🔊 touch ✋🏽 balance ⚖ proprioception 🩰

Who doesn’t like cooling down with water on a hot day? It’s not an accident that wet and wild experiences are filled with laughter and sunshine, or that they are becoming more abundant than ever at community centres near you, often preferred over swimming pools. Colourful, safe, sensory, and just utterly delightful for all ages, splash pads let kids experience their senses to the max with only a relaxing amount of effort required from dad or mom in terms of planning and supervision. Scattered around the region, these play spaces are usually easily accessible by public transit and inclusive for children with special needs. See the following list for a splash pad near you.

· New Hamburg Community Centre

· Waterloo Park

· Albert McCormick Arena

· McLennan Park

· Carl Zehr Square

· Centreville Chicopee

· Chandler Mowat

· Doon Pioneer Park

· Kingsdale

· RBJ Schlegel Park

· Victoria Park/Courtland Avenue

· The Boardwalk

· Vanier Park

· Breslau (coming soon)

· Kiwanis Park and Pool

· Bolender Park (Elmira)

· Wellesley Splash Pad

· Forbes Park (Cambridge)

· Riverside Park (Cambridge)

· Churchill Park (Cambridge)


Sight 👀 hearing 🔊 taste 👅 touch ✋🏽 smell 👃🏽 balance ⚖ proprioception 🩰

Libraries are the single best value in any Canadian community for activities for children, sensory or otherwise.

Many local library branches now offer tactile items for borrowing like sensory board books, toys and board games. Makerspaces are creative in-library options for stem learning where you can play with everything from low or no tech to high tech while also building critical thinking skills and experiencing hands-on learning (think electronics like raspberry pi, and the Makedo world of cardboard construction). If the digital world is what intrigues your kids, download books, movies and games instead.

My favourite sensory options at local libraries around the province are "discovery backpacks" filled with items that help you explore a theme, for example, rock collecting, bird watching, or night sky gazing which include tools like identification charts, books and binoculars. I've even seen backpacks with fishing rods and gear so you can take your little ones out to shore fish for an afternoon. (If your library doesn't have this, try your closest chapter of - there's a site in Cambridge and Ayr).

Every library has a different assortment of options according to their environment and budget, but don't fear if you feel a little lost enquiring at first - every library has a librarian, who is always the best resource in the building and will gladly tell you about what they offer, including wide-ranging programming (think story times, and guest visitors like exotic animals). Most libraries are also quite easily accessible by public transit. Be sure to ask for a library card for your child too - in addition to making them feel grown up, it's simply never too early to encourage kids to love independent learning!



· Waterloo Region Library

· Idea Exchange


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 by appointment and visit with cats, dogs and small animals 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 delightful sounds, temperature, 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.

· Cat Cafes

· Waterloo Park

· Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory

· Cambridge and District Humane Society

· Humane Society of Kitchener Waterloo & Stratford Perth

Check out Episode 26 of Bonn Park with guest Jacqueline Watty, vice-president of the board of directors of the Humane Society of Kitchener Waterloo & Stratford Perth and chair of their development and external engagement committee.

With a passion for sharing humane education within the community and helping not only pets, but people, Watty said the ultimate goal of the Humane Society is to build a culture where no animal is neglected or abandoned.

Whether you're a stay-at-home parent, a caregiver, or a sensory person yourself, we're sure you'll enjoy these economical sensory experiences in Waterloo Region.

The best kept secret about sensory experiences like the ones we've described here is that they're not just for sensory kids and they don't just target the "five" senses. Spending time in the company of the people you love most doing things you enjoy together will engage the heart above all, in ways that foster emotional wellbeing at any age. The memories of the specific event may fade over time, but the sense of belonging, comfort, joy, confidence and curiosity will last a lifetime.

Now it's your turn. If you have other favourite sensory experiences you'd like to share, post your pictures and stories to Facebook or Instagram and tag us! If you want to support more content like this, be sure to like this blog and share it with your friends. If you'd like to be the first to hear about all of our new local content, follow Bonn Park on your favourite social media platform and subscribe to our mailing list!


Follow: @BonnParkPodcast