DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — Spin a wheel and watch a rainbow of colors whirl in front of you. Try another and hear the sound of rain.

Run your fingers over a grid of oversize marbles. Rock back and forth inside a spinning wheel. Beat your hands on multicolored drums.

Look up and you’ll see tall trees, changing leaves, and maybe even a rare type of woodpecker.

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The outdoor fun at Doylestown Township’s new Sensory Trail, tucked into a wooded corner of its Central Park, might well appeal to all ages. But it’s not your typical playground.

It is the only outdoor play space in the region — perhaps in the state, officials say — designed specifically for children with special needs. It might even be viewed as trailblazing — since its developers did not have standards from which to work, said Karen Sweeney, township director of parks and recreation. “We just kind of invented it as we went,” she said.

While typical playgrounds can be overwhelming for some children with autism or other challenges, the sensory trail is specially designed to provide cognitive and physical benefits geared toward their needs. At the same time, its activities appeal to any child — or adult — so that kids with different abilities and their siblings or friends can play in the same place.

And it fills a void often felt by families with children who have special needs. Sweeney said the area has a large community of those with special needs, in part because local school districts have strong special education programs.

“When you don’t have playgrounds that meet your needs, you don’t go to playgrounds,” said Jill Schweizer, the Central Bucks School District’s special education supervisor, whom the township consulted during the trail’s development.

Now, she said, the trail provides “the kind of alternative play equipment that provides that motivation: ‘I like to play with this.'”

Kids can play at nine stations, or pods, on the wheelchair-accessible trail, each offering a different activity and type of stimulation.

They target skills that include core strength, cooperative play, motor skills, cognitive development, tactile or auditory stimulation, and communication, said Sweeney.

Sweeney said the idea has been well-received by the community since the play space opened this fall.

“This is a place in our parks system where everybody can go,” Sweeney said as she walked along the trail, which glowed with afternoon sunlight filtering through the golden leaves.

The trail is set in a protected woodland area on the edge of the 140-acre park, and every piece of its equipment has a purpose, right down to subtle grooves in the boards that offer tactile stimulation for curious hands.

The concept for the $440,000 trail was born in 2012 with an idea for a braille trail, which soon turned into a broader “sensory” trail. Although it is particularly attractive to those on the autism spectrum, it can be beneficial for any child, including those with attention-deficit disorders or physical disabilities, Schweizer said.

Some of the trail’s stations stimulate muscles or brain activity, such as cycling with hands or listening to recordings of animals. Others, such as sitting in the semi-enclosed “cozy cocoon,” soothe children. All offer opportunities for creativity.

“We’ll look at this and say, ‘This is the purpose for this,’ but the kids will look at it and find other functions and stories,” Sweeney said.

The township hopes to expand the trail over time — Sweeney has ideas for projects community service groups could do along the trail — and hopes local groups will use it as an outdoor classroom.

Officials collaborated with community members and experts to develop it and brought in equipment from three playground companies. Half of the funding came from a state grant and the other half was raised in the area, including donations from the Doylestown Lions Club, the Village Improvement Association of Doylestown and Foundations Behavioral Health, Sweeney said.

“I would love to see it replicated in other places,” Schweizer said.

Township Manager Stephanie Mason said families like the idea of the trail.

“They have that opportunity to be in nature, which is sort of the ultimate sensory experience,” she said. “It moves beyond, say, four walls.”

The trail can be accessed from New Britain Road at Central Park in Doylestown.

© 2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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