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Jacob Sell Hicks / Janet Gee
Young child walks along a balance beam on a trail
March 6, 2024
Bringing joy to kids: a sensory trail project

Amidst the lush landscapes of the Indian River Lakes Conservancy’s Baker Woods and Redwood Hill Preserve, a visionary project is taking shape – the creation of sensory trails designed to engage and delight all who wander through them. Encompass Recreation, in collaboration with the Conservancy, aims to provide inclusive and accessible spaces where children of all abilities can connect with nature and their senses.

Encompass Recreation is a non-profit that provides recreational opportunities for youth in northern NY, especially youth with higher support needs such as ADHD, autism, Down syndrome, anxiety, mobility needs, or communication needs.

Kylie Schell, Encompass Recreation founder and mom said, “In 2016, I embarked on a quest to find recreational opportunities for my two sons, only to realize that the north country landscape was barren. The absence of inclusive spaces weighed heavily on my heart. I yearned to fashion a sanctuary where families could venture out without the shadow of judgment looming over them. For families like ours, the specter of isolation is all too real. Accessibility transcends mere physicality; it’s about finding public spaces where our children’s differences are embraced, not shunned. My son Finley’s unabashed expressions of joy – his squeaks and armflapping – are a reminder of the unique ways in which our children communicate. This endeavor was born from a desire to infuse existing spaces with the spirit of inclusivity, starting with the two IRLC trails.

“We identified IRLC as an ideal partner in this project due to the long-standing reputation for caring about kids, but also because you had existing trails in two counties – one of our goals,” said Kylie.

The inspiration for the sensory trails stems from a desire to increase accessibility and cater to the diverse needs of children, including those with sensory processing challenges. “But these trails can be enjoyed and benefit everyone, not just those with differing support needs,” Kylie emphasizes.

Inspiration board showing possible outdoor sensory play items

Inspiration board for the Sensory Trail

Through a thoughtful selection of activities and features, the sensory trails offer a multi-sensory journey for visitors. From a sensory path with diverse surfaces to a musical corner echoing the sounds of the forest, each element invites exploration and engagement. The components were intentionally chosen for this project as they attend to various needs across a single space, highlighting the trail’s versatility in catering to different sensory experiences.

Community involvement lies at the heart of the project’s development, with well-known stewards Dick Edgar and Matt Carney spearheading the on-the-ground building effort. Under their direction, we will host community work days for prep and installation, and we will round out this project with ribbon cuttings at each trail on May 25th (Baker Woods 11am) and May 26th (Redwood Hill Preserve 1pm). This collaborative approach ensures that the trails reflect the needs and aspirations of the community they serve.

As the project progresses, its impact on children and families in the local area is anticipated to be profound. “These trail additions will promote physical activity, enhance sensory awareness and development, support cognitive development, promote social interactions, and reduce stress and anxiety,” Kylie explains. By providing free green spaces that nurture the mind, body, and spirit, the sensory trails aim to foster a sense of belonging and well-being within the community.

As the sensory trails come to life, they promise not only to transform landscapes but also to ignite imaginations and stir hearts. These sensory trails offer an opportunity for IRLC to provide a deeper connection to nature, discovery, and joy to even more people. Through the rustle of leaves, the scent of wildflowers, and the laughter of children, these trails will create tales of inclusivity, resilience, and hope. By investing in this project, we sow the seeds of a brighter future where every child can thrive, every family can find solace, and our communities can flourish. Together, let’s embrace the beauty of nature, the power of play, and the boundless possibilities that lie ahead.

Every child deserves the opportunity to experience the joy found on a nature trail and to feel a sense of belonging. Support this project indianriverlakes.org/donate-now.
Kylie Schell's Family - Husband, wife, three kids

Kylie Schell with her family