A group of kids try out the new equipment on Thursday, July 28, 2022, in the West Suburban Special Recreation Association's new sensory room in Melrose Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

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 skills and their social skills. The room is open by appointment only, and it’s not restricted to kids with disabilities. 

A child plays with one of the touch boards on Thursday, July 28, 2022, in the West Suburban Special Recreation Association’s new sensory room in Melrose Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

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’s coverage area, which 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 children 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 its first space geared toward that population. April Michalski, WSSRA’s superintendent of recreation, said 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 ice surface that cracks as kids step on it, or an area 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 the physical structures serve multiple purposes. Most notably, the cabin gives kids a place to relax if they become overwhelmed.

A child plays with one of the equipment boards on Thursday, July 28, 2022, in the West Suburban Special Recreation Association’s new sensory room in Melrose Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

“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 in park district space at 228 Madison St. Marianne Birko, WSSRA executive director, said the location was always meant to be temporary, and 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.”

The Imaginarium is currently available by appointment only. Families and local special education classrooms are able to book it for up to 45 minutes, and Birko emphasized that every surface gets cleaned between sessions. They also have a sensory toys lending library. 

Michalski estimates that over 100 families have visited the sensory room, and the numbers have been growing. She said that, while they didn’t have the exact breakdown by location, WSSRA has noticed that the original location mostly attracted Oak Parkers, while current one has more of a mix of families “from all of our communities.” 

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. 

His “almost 1-year-old” daughter, Lucy, benefitted from the physical activity aspect as well, simply because a surgery early in her life required doctors “to cut into her belly and use those muscles somewhere else,” and climbing around builds her core muscles.

Ruby Lopez, of Berwyn, has been using WSSRA services since her oldest son, the now-13-year-old Nigel, was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. Her other two sons, 6-year-old Nathan and 3-year-old Noah, have been diagnosed with autism as well when they were around the same age.  Lopez said that her kids have been using the sensory room since it originally opened in Oak Park.

“The boys love it,” she said. “It calms them down a lot and helps them with sensory [input].”

Lopez said the Imaginarium also helped them with their social skills. 

“They learned so much, especially Noah,” she said. “He was able to interact with other children. He was able to socialize.”