A child plays with one of the touch boards on Thursday, July 28, in the West Suburban Special Recreation Association's new sensory room in Melrose Park. | Alex Rogals

At first glance, a room tucked away in the south end of Melrose Park’s George A. Leoni Complex, 8000 N. 18th Ave., might look like a regular children’s indoor play space, with a slide, a trampoline, a “cabin” kids can climb onto and hide inside, and plenty of toys. But it doesn’t take long to realize there is more to it than that.

The lights are dimmer and the room is quieter than most children’s play spaces. There is emphasis on patterns and sensations, with interactive panels on the wall and the floor responding to touch and movement. The staff can pipe in soft music and fill the room with gentle scents.

The Imaginarium Sensory Room is geared toward kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other disabilities that make it harder for them to process sensory input. Most playgrounds are simply too overwhelming for them, but facilities like this provide a calming alternative that also helps them improve their motor and social skills. The room is open by appointment only and it’s not restricted to kids with disabilities.

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The Imaginarium is operated by the West Suburban Special Recreation Association (WSSRA), a collaborative of 13 park districts and municipalities created to provide recreational programs for residents with disabilities. In the Growing Community Media coverage area, that includes Forest Park, Melrose Park, Northlake, North Riverside, Oak Park, River Forest and Riverside. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder that causes problems with social interactions and leads to restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. The way it manifests varies, with some individuals needing little to no support and some needing a great deal of support.

Haviva Siegel, an Oak Park pediatric physical therapist, previously told this newspaper that kids with developmental disabilities such as autism or anxiety “have a tendency to go into fight or flight” when faced with the sensory overload of an average playground. They may run off, or chase after a ball someone else is playing with, or they may want to find a spot where they can play alone.

While WSSRA has multiple programs for kids with autism, the Imaginarium was their first space geared toward that population. April Michalski, WSSRA’s superintendent of recreation, said that the staff visited other sensory rooms and drew on online resources. For example, some of the “sensory toys” geared toward kids with sensory issues came from “good old Etsy.”

The sensory room includes two projection-based play features: the “sparkle wall” of lights that move in response to touch and the Gesturetek Cube, which projects environments such as an ice surface that cracks as kids step on it or a ground full of leaves that move when kids touch them. According to Gesturetek’s website, the latter helps users “experience marked improvement in their physical and cognitive abilities.”

Michalski said that the physical structures serve multiple purposes. Most notably, the cabin gives kids a place to relax if they become overwhelmed.

“It’s a very calming space for our participants,” she said. “The little ones like to calm and relax inside.”

The Imaginarium Sensory Room originally opened in Oak Park at 228 Madison St. WSSRA executive director Marianne Birko said that the location was always meant to be temporary. They moved it to the current Melrose Park space in November 2021, because it was a more central location. While the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted their momentum, once the restrictions started to relax, they were able to allow families in.

“[The sensory room] really provides realization and decreases anxiety,” Michalski said. “In addition, it also helps with coordination and motor development.”

Phil Regan, of Oak Park, was at the Imaginarium with his two kids. He said that three-year-old Gabriel, who has autism, benefited from the physical activity, as well as the “sensory stuff” in the room. 

“I think it’s perfect for him,” Regan said.

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Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...