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Supporting children with special needs through play and sensory stimulation

Technologically advanced spaces are able to boost kids’ imagination and nurture their creativity



Play is incredibly valuable for all children, but having special needs could create unexpected barriers. We caught up with Alex Ford, founder of PODS – the world’s first interchangeable sensory play spaces – to find out how the pop-up tents could redefine play through technology and innovation.

The needs of little ones vary a lot. When it comes to play, however, pediatricians have crucially highlighted the importance of free play time.

According to a clinical report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children.

Not only does it help children gain healthy emotional development but it also promotes healthy brain development, strengthening many neuronal connections that would otherwise disappear or weaken if not used.

Additionally, experts have suggested that play areas with special, calming places can help children with autism and sensory integration disorders find comfort, relax, and re-focus when they need breaks.

“The longer a child can play for the better,” says Alex Ford, founder and creative director of PODS, the pop-up, themed sensory tents for children.

He started to understand the importance of play early in his life when he was partnered with a younger autistic boy at school.

“I’ve always seen how restless children can get especially when they don’t have their own space to relax and calm themselves in,” Ford remembers.

“I used to spend quite a bit of time with my autistic friend and I noticed when he had a meltdown, he would go underneath the table to relax and shut himself off. This got me thinking about a ‘calming safe space’ where a child can be themselves, have their own place and feel like being in another world.

“Fast forward a few years I then became a designer and specialised in structured design and my creative curiosity and experience with children with sensory needs led me to design PODS.”

The themed inflatable play spaces create a 360° immersive environment great for children living with special sensory needs and physical disabilities. Each PODS product can be inflated and deflated within 40 seconds and has a range of interchangeable themes with corresponding audiobooks – think dinosaurs, igloos, astronauts and submarines.

“Imaginative play is huge and it is the reason behind the product,” says Ford. “With our interchangeability, children can be getting off into outer space one minute, and then they can change the theme, the app, the sound effects and walk with dinosaurs the next minute.

“We, as adults, don’t see how children see things. But for them, PODS is almost real life and that’s what makes it so magical. If we can prolong that magical experience, then I think we’re doing a good thing.”

The advanced technology behind the product is what makes it something that complements other toys, enhances play, and focuses the mind for learning.

This is one of the reasons why PODS are also used around the world in specialist schools, hospitals, creches, respite centres and hotels, as well as in the home. Their portability makes them ideal for such places, says the founder.

“You can just pop it up from a backpack or walk it from room to room in seconds. It’s really easy. You can put it in the boot of a car or on a passenger seat and that makes it a key piece of equipment to most child caregivers, but particularly to those with learning and physical disabilities.

“We have quite a few parents with physically disabled children. So, when they’re not in their wheelchair, they use our PODS whilst laying on their back, gazing up and seeing all the colours changing.

“They’re incredibly fun and they are hours and hours of playtime. The immersive experience that you get is quite literally unique and there’s nothing else like it. We say it’s out of this world because we provide themes that children would possibly never get the chance to experience.”

After successful demonstrations with the original PODS, the company has developed the Therapy PODS as safe, relaxation spaces for the elderly or those suffering from dementia.

“Because colour therapy is quite a big thing, we came up with the idea of PODS for adults,” says Ford. “Being surrounded by a small environment, immersed in a changing of colours can really affect your state of mind, even as an adult.

“Now, we’re working on something whereby we can create the landscape of a train station or forest that could evoke the senses through providing an immersive experience and help people calm and relax.”

To find out more about PODS, visit podsplay.com.