Sensory play is often either literally or figuratively what the doctor ordered, and we’re fortunate to live in a city and state that offers resources and support for kids who need help with developmental delays, be they physical, cognitive or linguistic. Not to brag, but NYC is home to many top-notch facilities in the five boroughs and beyond, ’cause that’s just how we roll. Here’s our roundup of sensory gyms where your child and family will find the expertise, equipment — and fun — to be thrilled and thrive. (P.S. Many of these gym play spaces host birthday parties, too.)
Sensory Gym Basics
If you feel your child is not reaching expected milestones or think he or she shows delayed development, the first thing you should do is talk to your pediatrician about your concerns. Your doctor may refer you to supportive programs such as the Early Intervention Program (EIP). EIP services for children under three years of age are generally free and available to those who are suspected of having a variety of developmental delays. Therapy services for children in need of assistance can be held at a sensory gym, at home, or both.
Sensory gyms center around specialized play equipment such as suspended swings, rolling scooters, rock climbing walls, hiding places and trampolines, that serve a wide variety of treatment activities. Trained and licensed pediatric therapists work with your child at the sensory gym — either individually or in a group, depending on your child’s needs — through play. In therapy gyms, the gym equipment is used to improve and enhance a child’s fundamental skills. (With a little bit of creativity, therapists can use the same interactive activity to address many other skill areas.)
photo: courtesy Jumping Jax
Jumping Jax is an Upper West Side multidisciplinary sensory-based gym that provides speech, physical, and occupational therapy. Therapy is provided on a one-to-one basis with an emphasis on supporting the family as well as the child through the therapy process. The Jumping Jax sensory gym provides vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile experiences utilizing swings and obstacle courses as a way to address developmental needs in a challenging yet fun environment. The duration of each treatment session is determined by your child’s individual needs; sessions can last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. Your child may attend therapy more than once a week, again, depending on his or her specific needs. Additionally, Jumping Jax also has a Westchester facility and many therapists work at both locations.
Good to know: They list helpful, sensory toys for kids of all ages on their site, and one of the many programs they offer include The Listening Program; a non-invasive, music-based auditory stimulation program that helps develop the auditory skills necessary to improve listening, learning and communication.
174 W. 76th Street, Suite 1H
Upper West Side
photo: courtesy Small Steps Big Leaps
Small Steps Big Leaps
This South Park Slope-based gym recently added Social Skills Groups and Individual sessions to their offerings, which are led by SidekicksNYC. Each therapist has specialized certifications/training within their field and seeks to give each child the ‘just right challenge’ in a caring, creative, engaging, and professional manner. The facility never has more than 3 sessions going on at one time in their approximately 1,000 square feet. “Our mission, when designing this space, and opening our doors in September 2011, was to create a calm and joyful space where each therapist will have plenty of room to think, create, and engage with their student, with minimal distractions; and families noticed this right away,” says co-founder Rosanna Lee, PT, C/NDT, who started the facility with Marta Canaan, MS, OTR/L. “Many families come in and comment on how calm our space is. They have described it as being clean, warm, welcoming, well-equipped.” Plus, the therapists work within a multi-disciplinary team, “so that we can consult with each other on clients that we share, so that we can provide a holistic approach to our treatment sessions,” adds Lee. Occupational, Physical Therapy and Speech-Language Therapy evaluations and treatment for infants through school-aged kids are offered and available at Small Steps Big Leaps.
Good to know: Co-founder Rosanna Lee is one of only a handful of NDT certified PT’s in Brooklyn; she completed the 8-week certification program in the Neuro-developmental Treatment (NDT) Approach for Children, which focuses on the assessment of children’s posture and movement patterns and facilitation of more efficient and fluid movement patterns.
Small Steps Big Leaps
159 20th St. Suite 3A
photo: Chris_Parfitt via Flickr
Watch Me Grow
A pediatric therapy center based on the Upper West Side and in the East Village, Watch Me Grow‘s owner and director Shirael Pollack explains that Watch Me Grow is designed to be an extension of your family’s home. “Helping children grow in a fun, energetic and caring environment is at the core of all our offerings,” she says. At Watch Me Grow, children receive individualized attention from the center’s physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists. Care plans are created in partnership with parents following comprehensive evaluations to help identify a child’s unique needs. Services are provided through Early Intervention (EI), The New York City Department of Education including Preschool (CPSE) and School Age (CSE), and offered privately and through some insurance companies.
Good to know: Watch Me Grow offers center-based, school-based and in-home therapy as well as group programs including social groups and camps. Social Groups are held throughout the year in both city locations, and are designed to support children’s individual differences while encouraging building relationships with their peers.
Watch Me Grow
162 West 72nd St.
525 East 12th Street CF
Upper West Side/Lower East Side
212-721-0208 (UWS location)
212-721-5220 (LES location)
photo: R. Sokol/courtesy PlayWorks
PlayWorks NYC, located in Rego Park, Queens, offers a safe space for children with special needs to build confidence, learn new skills and grow. The gym is set up to be an inviting space for children to explore and try new activities. The equipment and space provide movement opportunities and sensory experiences that are individualized and tailored for each child to meet—and address—their needs and goals. “I think what sets us apart is the personal level of care that our therapists take as they support each child to reach his or her goals,” says Marie Fulgham, OTR/L, who co-founded the facility with Angel Chin, MSPT. “We’re a growing company and have been able to maintain a level of personal connection throughout our growth. We appreciate that our parents and families have chosen to trust us with their children and want them to feel welcome into the space.” Adds Fulgham: “Our versatile space constantly shifts and changes throughout each session based on each child’s individual needs. We have personally built-out the space with this concept, so children can constantly evolve and grow.”
Good to know: Specialized treatments available include yoga, Sensory Integration therapy, TheraTogs, Brain Gym and more.
65-10 99th St.
Rego Park, Queens
Newly renovated, Theraplay is the only multidisciplinary sensory gym on the Upper East Side. The facility offers pediatric therapy services including Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Speech Language Pathology, Children’s Play Therapy and more. Therapists at the two-floored facility work closely with parents to ensure that the benefits of therapy continue outside of the gym. One of the many helpful classes offered includes Social Skills — led by a licensed Clinical Social Worker—in which kids can learn and practice play skills, such as positive ways to interact with peers while decreasing behaviors that interfere with appropriate social skills. Handwriting classes led by an occupational therapist that utilize the award-winning, fun, multi-sensory, Handwriting Without Tears program, are also offered to youngsters.
Good to know: Another option for families at Theraplay is a nutritionist; aside from addressing sensory issues, adults and their children can also work with a registered dietician, who can devise an individualized plan that addresses and explores a family’s past experiences with food as well as current habits and difficulties.
251 East 77th St.
Upper East Side
SPOTS (Special Programs in Occupational Therapy Services) has three locations: downtown Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights and Nyack, New York. One of the first sensory gyms in Manhattan, SPOTS specializes in helping families understand how sensory processing challenges affect a child’s emotions, behaviors and ability to adapt to the demands of childhood. By tapping into a child’s natural affinity for imaginative play, SPOTS therapists help keep kids engaged and focused on therapy. “For instance, an obstacle course with ‘monsters under the bridge’ can facilitate controlled crawling along a swing,” explains SPOTS co-founder/partner Prudence Heisler, OTR/R. “Or, spontaneous storytelling can help inspire a child to practice otherwise arduous handwriting skills.” According to Heisler, unique to SPOTS is “our therapists’ use of social interactions and carefully orchestrated group play to provide expert therapy and form successful bonds between children.” Each therapist holds a Master’s Degree or higher in their field, and makes it their mission, explains Heisler, to continually advance their knowledge beyond their professional degree requirements.
Good to know: In addition to occupational therapy services, SPOTS also provides physical therapy services, consults at many schools throughout New York City, coordinates services with community hospitals and pediatric practices and even helps to strengthen programs in other parts of the world such as the Dominican Republic and India.
611 Broadway; Suite 908
26 Court St.; Suite 513
Greenwich Village/Brooklyn Heights
photo: Arpan K. via Yelp
The Ability Center
The Ability Center is a sensory gym located in the Marine Park section of south Brooklyn that provides occupational, physical and speech therapy services. The owners—a husband and wife physical and occupational therapist team—wanted to establish a state-of-the-art, kid-friendly, spotless facility where individual attention is provided to families. The sensory space includes tunnels, swings, ball pits, ziplines and more. Last year the Center moved to a larger facility across the street from the previous location, which is better tailored in size and layout to meet clients’ needs. “In addition to providing therapy services, The Ability Center was able to open, right next door, a sensory play gym that is open to the public. It is bright and spacious, full of swings, a glider, rock climbing and monkey bars, as well as a jump deck leading to a ball pit,”says co-owner Isaac Jacobowitz. The move was inspired by therapy-seeking families asking where they could take their children for additional practice and sensory opportunities. The play gym is best suited to the under-seven set, and provides both children and their parents access to real therapy equipment in the context of social engagement and play. Throughout the week the space also hosts adult-led social groups, such as Mommy and Me classes.
Good to know: The Ability Center hosts birthday parties, too.
The Ability Center
3514 Avenue S
Marine Park, Brooklyn
photo: Smile Center
Founded by two professional occupational therapists, the 9,000-square-foot midtown east SMILE Center employs a strong, bottom-up treatment model based on three treatment approaches: Sensory Integration (SI), Neuro-Developmental Treatment (NDT), and Relationship-based work that collectively address all aspects of a child’s development. Co-founder Markus Jarrow explains that therapists focus on addressing a child’s root issues, not just top-down skill teaching. SMILE Center is home to an Early Intervention program and therapists with extensive infant/baby treatment experience.
Good to know: The facility houses multiple large gyms, smaller gyms, and individual speech treatment spaces. Rooms are never overcrowded, and there’s very little employee turnover.
171 Madison Ave.
Have you had a great experience at an NYC-area sensory gym? Share it in the comments below!
— Rachel Sokol