Many highly sensitive children try to avoid spending time in school playgrounds, gyms and sports facilities because they are often loud, uncontrolled spaces. With the right interventions, these spaces can be made more welcoming for all students..

“{C}hildren’s recess play skills reflect their level of development of physical, cognitive, and social skills, and playground activities can lead to developing these skills.” Pellegrini & Smith, 1993
“Recess is a critical environment for children’s social participation.” Cosbey et al., 2011

According to Bronfenbrenner, our ecological environments influenced our development (Van der Wal et al., 2017).

imageThe school and play areas are part of the Mesosystem. This section’s goal is to raise awareness and provide information on how to foster inclusive learning and teaching beyond the classroom.

The Highly Sensitive Student on the Playground

Imagine the last time you stood on a playground. Think of children kicking brightly coloured balls around the yard and the noise of children screaming, crying, laughing and/or shouting. Imagine the brightly colored climbing frames and other play structures (e.g. sandpit). Groups of students stand and chat together. Perhaps the wind is blowing the leaves  from the trees, and maybe far away an ambulance’s siren can be heard. Try to empathize with what this might feel like for highly sensitive children standing in such a playground. This may help you understand why, “many highly sensitive children behave cautiously or hang around on the outskirts at the playground” (Van Mullingen, 2018).

Please, note down or just think about how you would adapt the playground of the last school you attended or worked at to create an inclusive playground regarding HSC’s needs.

“Highly sensitive children are naturally observant and because they are fully aware of the possible dangers they are cautious” (Van Mullingen, 2018). They may be more hesitant to participate in social interactions or group activities at the playground, which in return may impede their development of social and communication skills.

Playground rules can help ensure less negative stimuli. These rules can be designed with the class, the cohort or even the entire school. Adapting the theory from Wynita Harmon on designing classroom rules collaboratively with the students (2017), it might be best practice to develop the playground rules based on the students’ expectations and experiences. Rules are then created for students by students.

Extra Tip – Voice and Choice:

  1. Collect ideas from students. Have students write the following on a piece of paper:
  • What negative situations have you experienced at the playground?
  • What do you miss at the playground?
  • How would you like to be treated by others (three adjectives)?

Websites like answergarden.ch can replace the papers if internet devices are available.

  1. Group the topics and have students make rules. In lower primary the teacher can write the rules down originating from the students’ ideas and have the students read them out loud.
  2. The rules will be signed by all students. Students get a playground license as a symbolic gesture.

Example Rules:

  1. We are gentle and respect each other’s space.
  2. We make sure to adjust our voice to the situation.
  3. We take care of our equipment and use it according to instructions.
  4. We play together and look after each other.
  5. We line up quickly and quietly.
  6. Magic Rule: We treat other as we want to be treated ourselves.


This process of developing rules will give all students a voice. Their ideas will be valued, and they will have a clear understanding of classroom expectations as well as some accountability (create a contract). Students can remind each other in case of rule violation.

Time  and Practice

Amanda van Mulligen advises to give highly sensitive children, “time to observe and warm up to the idea of playing (2018)”. Hence it might help the student to plan their playtime and prevent negative over-stimulation. Many children with SPD do not react appropriately to the social cues of their classmates(Cosbey et al., 2011). They may find playtime upsetting because they don’t know how to take in social cues and/or how to express themselves clearly. In order to support all of your students, it might be beneficial for your learning support team and/or counselors to provide explicit social skills instruction and practice to students  with sensitivity issues.  Children with SPD can partake in an assortment of play exercises, including play that is more formal and more perplexing (Cosbey et al., 2011).

Planning and knowing what to expect are crucial factors for many students in terms of adapting to new situations. One idea could be to write a break planner. What would the students like to do during the break? This can be shared either through a talk with the teacher, a written sticky note or a drawing.

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) cards could be used as means of communication, too. The HSC possibly benefit from structured play situation and could practice using these strategies independently (Cosbey et al., 2011). With appropriate strategies at hand, the HSC can manage their hyper- or hypo- sensory responses in diverse social and non-social situations.

Extra Tip – Calm Corner

A Calm Corner can be as simple as a few cushions on a bench and few books on a table, but it will be a big step towards an inclusive playground.
This Calm Corner can be a safe space when students need a break from the break. At the same time, it can be a safe haven for HSC. Be aware that HSC should still be encouraged to participate and not parked in the Calm Corner.

Solutions to minimize over-stimulation outside


Tactile Visual Auditory
Sand in the shoes.

Solution: Trousers’ ends stuck inside the socks if possible.

Separate ball sport areas from areas with a no-fly-zone.


Supervisors ask the group or individual students to lower their voice by giving them a code word or hand sign.


Please, note or just think about how you would adapt the playground of the last school you attended or worked at to create a more inclusive playground regarding the needs of highly sensitive children.

  • Are there new concepts or ideas that you might want to try?
  • Which aspects would you like to do further research on?

Outdoor Activities

After focusing on a very specific area of outdoor time during the school day, the playground, this next section will explore different outdoor activities which are supporting the students’ development and are especially suitable for students with sensory processing sensitivity. Visual, auditory and tactile senses are the most used senses indoors.  The proprioception and vestibular senses are used more often outdoors.

There are many outdoor activities that highly sensitive children can enjoy, and which allow for less likelihood of over-arousal. Outdoor activities can even begin in the classroom and can then be transitioned to the outdoor area. Taken the example of a barefoot trail in the classroom. The students can safely explore without being brought to their limits. Starting with a positive indoor experience can make an immense difference in contrast to students being immediately exposed to different ground materials outdoors. The experiences of diverse surfaces and pressures are vital for developing the motion coordination (proprioception and vestibular senses) (Price-Robinson et al., n.d.). It builds different muscle  groups and supports the development of body balance. Just as walking barefoot creates an effect called “Earthing,  Taking the proper precautions, a class trip or excursion can include such an activity and can even be interdisciplinary (e.g., Science and PE).

There seems to be a trend of a whole generation spending quantitatively more time inside, (Walden, 2018). For students with sensory processing sensitivity, time spent outdoors brings a “peaceful escape from the sensory over-stimulation that can occur inside the confines of four walls.” (Gaspari, 2018). Hence the time spent outdoors allows children to move freely in their own space, which leads to clearing and resetting  the mind. At the same time “leaving behind the distractions of technology and getting outdoors allows children to be present.” (Gaspari, 2018). Children are physically more active outside, which increases the production of endorphins. Spending time outside can boost their mood and energize them (Gaspari, 2018).

One particularly satisfying outdoor activity is gardening. Gardening helps students to develop skills like patience. It provides many sensory experiences. At the same time the students can create a sense of responsibility and ultimately a sense of pride and achievement when harvesting, i.e. herbs from a herb garden (Van Mulligen, 2020)

Highly sensitive children might require special gear like gloves, shovels and other tools before using their hands. In case of outdoor time not being safe and/or in case schools don’t have gardens, indoor hydroponics is a great alternative. Find more information on the website from ITEPS students. While planning and conducting outdoor experiences “{t}he key is not to force the{..} children but to advance their tactile skills and tolerance of textures.” (Hamid, 2018)

The Highly Sensitive Student in Physical Education (PE):

This last part will focus on the time spend in the lessons focusing on physical education. PE lessons and activities are as important as other subjects in order to provide an appropriate surrounding for HSC with their sensory sensitive manner. Stating from the Personal, social and physical education scope and sequence (PYP), phase one challenges students to “explore the body’s capacity for movement, including creative movement, through participating in a range of physical activities. Learners recognize the need for safe participation when interacting in a range of physical contexts.” (2009).

To cohere this to the HSC in the PE class, first step for inclusion would be to plan activities in the style of stations. Stations are a wonderful way of planning activities which foster inclusion: Students can choose activities which they feel most comfortable with and are physically active. They could throw bean bags into hoops, create a parkour out of objects with different heights, play the Twister game etc. In close consultancy with an occupational therapist HSC could have weights on their legs and arms to get more response on their proprioception sense. During noisy and fidgety games, the HSC should be allowed to choose whether or not they are going to participate. They might like to watch or be the point counter in order to avoid any overstimulation through noise and sight.

Mindfulness has made its way into education and it can be implemented in the PE lessons, too. The leading researcher in the field of sensory processing sensitivity, Elaine N. Aron, suggests practicing meditation in order to reduce and recover from over-stimulation (2019, 2019).
Meditation practices can be built into the PE lesson either to calm the students after an active lesson or before any lesson to let students and HSC empty their buckets by focusing on their body and their movements. Find some appropriate and engaging meditation videos for children from the age 3-9 years at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLW8o3_GFoCBNxXveDbD1xSQFBCGrHmYPC

Find another meditation in the second section of this paper.

Extra Tip – Essential Oils:

During meditations essential oils can be used additionally. But be aware not to overdose with the oils as a child’s smell sensory process might allow for a stronger reaction. The essential oils (e.g. lavender) can be mixed with water and be used as a “magic spray” at the beginning of a meditation session.

Establishing a yoga routine during PE classes can benefit all students including the HSC. Yoga practices strengthen the children’s abilities to calm down and rewind, especially when they find themselves in highly stimulating environments (Van Mulligen, 2015).Find some inspiration in this video.

Figure 20: Highly Sensitive Children Outdoors (Dartenne, 2020)



The authors recommend and wish the reader to share their knowledge on high sensitivity with other professionals, friends and family. This research field is still in a process of growth and needs everyone to spread the word and make others sensitive to the needs of highly sensitive people.

Additional Resources and Readings:

Short sensory profile by Pearson:

This prezi slide show helps to evaluate whether the test is helpful for professionals to plan intervention with caregivers. The profile benefits different abilities as autism, development delay, down syndrome, sensory integration disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity, learning difficulties etc.


  • Sensory perceptual issues in autism and Asperger syndrome: Different sensory experiences – different perceptual worlds. Author: Olga Bogdashina
  • Living Sensationally, Understanding your Senses. Author: Winnie Dunn

Children Books:

  • Anna and her Rainbow-Colored Yoga Mats. Written by Giselle Shardlow and illustrated by Paul Wrangles
    “Anna finds happiness practicing yoga at recess. She imagines traveling the world and exploring new places. Will her new classmates accept her and join the fun?”
  • All too much for Oliver. Written by Leila Boukarim and illustrated by Barbara Moxham
    “Oliver is a quiet little boy. He avoids going to places that might be too noisy or crowded like the playground, the pool, or even birthday parties. In fact, Oliver’s favorite thing to do is play by himself in his own quiet room. But things start to change when Odile moves in next door. One day, Odile asks Oliver to go to the playground with her. Oliver really wants to play with Odile, but he is worried… Will Oliver go with Odile to the playground, even though it might be very crowded and much too noisy? “All Too Much for Oliver” was written and illustrated for highly sensitive children.”


  1. (adapted from Ashgrove Primary, n.d.)


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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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