Festivals and amusement parks can be so much fun and something all children should get to experience. They are
places for creating memories, being carefree, and feeling a rush of excitement and joy at all of the sights and sounds.
SO, what do you do if you have a sensory sensitive child who dislikes new places, loud sounds, crowded environments, and unfamiliar movements (i.e. rides) but you still want them to experience the joy that amusement parks and fairs often bring?
Many parents have to ask themselves that question, especially if the sensory sensitive child has siblings or friends who don’t want to miss out. With a little prep work using these tips below, you can make going to an amusement park a pleasant experience for your sensory sensitive child!
Tip #1- Use a social story prior to going
A social story is like a “game plan” for children who have anxiety about new situations or places. It is simply a visual or verbal description of what is expected to happen during the new situation or location. Typically, the most effective social stories include pictures, videos, or words describing what will happen at the new situation the child will be entering into.
For example, if you are going to a new amusement park, get pictures or videos of the park online (include the rides, shops, restaurants, map layout) and show them to your child. Discuss how people typically behave, dress, and interact at the amusement park as well to give your child an idea of what is socially acceptable. Also, tell your child when you plan to go as well as how long you plan to stay and who you will be going with.
Answer any additional questions your child may have about the amusement park or fair as well. Giving your sensory sensitive child these visual and verbal ideas ahead of time will give your child some time to process and prepare for the experience.
Tip #2- Calm down before you go
Your child’s sensory system is going to be working in overdrive at the amusement park to process through all of the new visual stimulation, sounds, smells, movement, and unfamiliar people. Help your child’s body handle all of the new stress by getting into a calm, organized state before you go.
Start by engaging them in some heavy work movements (i.e. jumping jacks, hopping, running, bike riding, wall push-ups, squats, wheel barrow races, yoga, weight lifting, jumping on a trampoline etc..), then follow with a calming activity. A simple calming activity such as this calming cookie dough idea or these breathing games are the great ways to get your child’s body to relax before tackling a new adventure such as going to an amusement park.
Tip #3- Pack some proprioception
Doesn’t it always seem like the parents are lugging around heavy gear at amusement parks like strollers, backpacks, purses, and diaper bags? Have your child do some of the lugging around to give the child extra proprioceptive input. Research has shown that proprioceptive input (deep pressure to the body) can help the body to relax and organize itself. Have the child wear a backpack filled with practical items needed for the day (i.e. full water bottles, towels, snacks, books, etc..) to give them the proprioceptive input in a discrete way.
Tip #4- Be smart about the food
Would you fill up a race car with a tank of sugar and expect it to run well in a race? The same principle applies to your child’s sensory system. Unfortunately, amusement park and fair food is notoriously unhealthy. All of that refined sugar, preservatives, and food coloring/dyes in the soda, cotton candy, kettle corn, and ice cream isn’t going to give your child’s sensory system anything beneficial to help it process all the stimuli from the amusement park.
In fact, there is clinical information showing that artificial colors are actually causing an increase in symptoms such as aggression, hyperactivity, and behavioral and mood changes (as well as other health related problems from asthma, and allergies to cancer). So, eat a nutritious meal before you go to the amusement park and pack your own snacks to eat while you are there! Give your child’s sensory system a fighting chance to handle all the changes by properly fueling their tank up before you go.
Tip#5- Pick the best time to go
Busy, overcrowded and hot amusement parks will only further stress your child’s sensitive sensory system. Do your research ahead of time and pick times that are less crowded (usually earlier in the day). Also, don’t go during your child’s nap time or stay too late into their bedtime hours as missing out on sleep will hinder your child’s sensory system from processing all of the sensory information.
Make sure they have had enough sleep prior to going as well. Missing a nap or getting a poor night’s rest the previous night only weakens your child’s ability to process all the new stimuli from the amusement park.
Tip #6- Calm down on the go
Even given the best preparation, adequate sleep and proper nutrition before hand, your child still may feel overwhelmed, anxious, and uncomfortable at an amusement park or fair. You need to create a “toolbox” of sorts with some calming strategies that may work best for your child. Some common “tools” that parents can throw in their tool box to help keep their kids calm at amusement parks, fairs, (or really anywhere else they go) include:
- Headphones or cotton balls for your child’s ears (to drown out the loud noises)
- Give lots of hugs and squeezes to your child to provide them with deep pressure and proprioceptive input (both of which are calming actions)
- Do joint compressions (this is a calming activity that you can virtually do anywhere)
- Use essential oils like lavender to help with calming (make sure you are using those of good quality, not lavender scented fragrance which contains no real lavender at all, like the one shown below)
- Use an oral fidget like the ones below if you child likes to chew on things when they feel nervous or anxious
Suzy @ Passport to FUNction says
Great read with valuable and practical information Amy! Definitely a great resource for families looking to share a best day ever together 🙂 FUN to see another therapist and blog with a sensory focus too!
Amy Smith says
Thanks so much Suzy! Yes, all kiddos deserve a fun day out!!
As a sensory sensitive person, I want to say… look for the quiet areas. They’re there. At every fair, look around the animal areas. The animal areas usually are less full of people, more quiet, and kept that way for the animals. At places like 6-flags, there’s performances (dark, air conditioned, and you can focus on the music) and other things like the one I grew up with had a boat race and you’d put your boat down and watch it skim along the water to the end, it was relaxing. The koi feeding area at another park I remember as a child. At Epcot Center, spaceship earth is so wonderful (though beware of the smells, it can be overwhelming if you aren’t ready.) At Disneyland and Fantasyland, the Hall of the Presidents serves a purpose, but also rides like the Haunted Mansion or Country Bear Jamboree were good (Haunted Mansion is dark, air conditioned, gives space from others, and ends looking at stars. To contrast, the Pirates of the Caribbean have a few jumps, a lot of smells, yelling and shooting, and you’re in a boat with a lot of people.) At our local zoo, there was a quiet forgotten corner that was perfect for a picnic in the shade.
There’s always a quiet area where you can make the world small for a while, and refresh yourself. And be gentle with them on the way home. I can’t tell you how many times everyone would lose their patience because by the time we headed home, I was so overdone that I couldn’t handle anything else and a fight or meltdown would happen. Just plan on it. Have a calming toy in the car ready for the ride home, cold rehydrating drinks, music that is calming or better yet a story-CD, and don’t be surprised if they want to cover themselves up with a blanket to cut out the sensory and just zone out (headphones may work for some kids, I hated them on my ears.)
Amy Smith says
Great ideas Emily! Thanks for adding into the discussion! 🙂