top of page
  • Writer's pictureAutumn Yates

Sensory Activities in Northern Virginia: Supporting Sensory Processing Challenges With Local Tips

Did you know that as many as 16.5% of the general public experience sensory processing challenges? Impacted individuals are affected by the way their bodies process stimuli from any or all of the eight senses. Yes, you read that correctly. In addition to the five commonly known external senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, there are three “hidden” sensory systems that each present their own set of stimuli. They are as follows:


  • Vestibular - balance and motion relating to the inner ear

  • Proprioception - spatial awareness and movement relating to muscles and joints 

  • Interoception - emotions and bodily functions relating to internal organs


While sensory processing challenges can manifest in a variety of ways, the two most common examples involve sensory avoidance and sensory seeking behaviors. People experiencing sensory avoidance are overstimulated by the input they receive from their senses and may have negative reactions to particular sounds, lighting, smells, tastes, tactile experiences, or internal sensations. People exhibiting sensory seeking behaviors are underresponsive to the stimuli around them and search for more intensive opportunities to experience the various senses.


In both cases, professionals like occupational therapists can provide support for processing sensory stimuli in safe, healthy, and comfortable ways. In fact, our practice is so aware of the invaluable nature of this sensory-related support that we recently underwent training with an occupational therapist to learn how to integrate these regulation strategies into our therapy sessions. 

 

In addition to practicing the techniques learned during these sessions at home, parents and guardians can help children by finding sensory experiences that suit their individual needs. Continue reading for suggested sensory-related activities here in Northern Virginia and beyond.


Supportive Tips for Sensory Seekers


Visit Sensory-rich Playgrounds:

A child going down a slide made of rolling cylenders
A sensory-stimulating slide at Hal and Berni Hanson Regional Park

Clemyjontri Park and Chessie’s Big Backyard are specifically designed as accessible playgrounds for all abilities, including children with sensory needs. Other stimulating playgrounds include Algonkian Regional Park, Rollins Ford Park, or Hal and Berni Hanson Regional Park. Older children and adults may enjoy the public challenge course at Monticello Park, which is designed for ages 13 and up. 


Explore Virginia State Parks: 

Sweet Run State Park offers a nature playscape that encourages building, digging, balancing, and more. Sky Meadows State Park boasts the award-winning Sensory Explorer’s Trail, which allows visitors to experience nature through their senses. For waterside sensory experiences, consider traversing the boardwalks at Mason Neck State Park or playing in the sand at Leesylvania State Park (just remember that swimming is not permitted in either location).


Try Adventure Recreation:

Adventure-based recreational activities can offer exciting sensory-seeking opportunities when performed in a safe, responsible, and expertly supervised manner. Here in Northern Virginia, Go Ape and Empower Adventures both offer thrilling ropes courses and zipline attractions. Harpers Ferry Adventure Center features both aerial and water-based adventure activities. Indoor sensory adventures include climbing gyms like Vertical Rock or Sportrock and indoor skydiving at iFly.


Enjoy Hands-on Museums

Establishments with hands-on exhibits are a great option for children seeing touch-friendly sensory experiences. Museums featuring thoughtful interactive components include the Children’s Science Center, the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum, and the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum. Additional hands-on exhibits and experiences can be found at local nature centers, which are typically free to visit and adjacent to family-friendly nature trails.




Supportive Tips for Sensory Avoidance


Find a movie theater that offers sensory-friendly showings:

In an effort to be more sensory accessible, many movie theaters have begun offering a few showings per month where the lights are dimmed but not turned off and the sound is played at a much softer volume. Regal Virginia Gateway in Gainesville, Alamo Drafthouse in One Loudoun and Woodbridge, and AMC in Tysons Corner are just a few of the local movie theaters with sensory-friendly programming.


Visit popular spots at off-peak times to avoid crowd-related overstimulation:

If possible, consider exploring National Park Service properties like Great Falls on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning, when parks tend to be at their quietest. Since places like Frying Pan Farm Park host a lot of school field trips during the week and attract many families on the weekend, try aiming your visit for a weekday afternoon between the end of the school day

and the park’s 5:00 pm closing time.


Explore the Guest Services resources offered by amusement parks:

Guest Services personnel at places like Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens can provide visitors with sensory-friendly information, including the location of quiet, climate-controlled places throughout the park where you can take a sensory break, or a list of rides that may be overstimulating. In some cases, amusement parks may offer alternative line-waiting options for visitors with specific and/or diagnosed sensory needs. 


Search for sensory-friendly versions of popular events and activities:

A person climbs a 40 foot rock wall
Sportrock offers monthly sensory-friendly climbing events.

Sometimes local businesses or Parks and Recreation offices host activities that feature reduced light and noise stimulation and/or limited admission to keep crowds low. Examples include Sportrock’s monthly sensory-friendly rock-climbing events and Fairfax County Park Authority’s limited-admission versions of holiday celebrations and waterpark visits.


***

Remember that even if you can’t find a sensory-friendly version of a preferred activity, it does not hurt to reach out to relevant service providers and ask about their programming. Your inquiry just might be the encouragement they need to join the growing list of organizations striving to make the region a more sensory-inclusive place for everyone.


Comments


bottom of page