Appealing to kids senses 

Regionally-inspired sensory wall stimulates children's motor skills


The concerts that took place at Whistler Medals Plaza may have been the main event for adults during the Olympics but kids were more amped about an attraction just outside of the gates. Since Feb. 1, children of all ages have been eagerly clambering over the new sensory wall located at the edge of the municipality's brand-new inclusive playground.

The popular structure was designed by Jennifer Gellis, an occupational therapist and graduate of Emily Carr University of Art and Design's industrial design program. While on the surface, occupational therapy and industrial design don't seem to be directly related, Gellis has found many parallels and complementary aspects between the two fields.

"...They actually have a lot of similarities in them in terms of the way occupational therapists and designers approach problems; they approach them in the same way and they go through this sort of iterative process with a problem or a challenge."

The North Vancouver resident caught wind of Whistler's sensory wall project through a friend who lives in Whistler.

Sensory walls are small walls often found in playgrounds and public parks, designed to strengthen children's motor skills by stimulating the senses. It's also therapeutic for kids with autism.

"The nice thing about having different components in a sensory wall is that hopefully it can appeal to kids who have different abilities and who may rely on their sense of vision more than their sense of hearing, or their sense of touch more than another sense," Gellis said.

So, a child who is visually-impaired and has a heightened sense of touch or hearing will appreciate the tactile and auditory components of the wall.

"Maybe they'll really be attuned to the shape of the leaf tiles that are in the wall," Gellis suggested, "and the tiles that are round and smooth versus the ones that are angular and rough."

Gellis saw the project as a challenging opportunity to draw on the training and creativity she's gained from her two fields of study. So, she created a proposal, applied and waited. A few weeks later, at the end of August, she was notified that she had been selected for the project. It carried a $30,000 budget to cover all artist fees and expenses, including material costs, consultations with other professionals, travel, insurance and accommodation.

The wall is just one part of the new inclusive playground that the municipality has built in front of Whistler Medals Plaza.

"From what I understand, (the municipality) really wanted the playground to be quite natural and to fit in with the landscape and the theme of other artwork in Whistler," she explained.

Designed to look like mountains, representing Whistler and Blackcomb, the wall is encrusted with natural materials that are meant to be both tactile and visual, including a myriad of sensory components that might not be apparent to the adult eye.

"It's actually based on the skyline of Whistler Blackcomb, so you've got the front side and the back side of the mountain and then where the musical chimes are, that's meant to be where Musical Bumps might be," Gellis said.

There are peek-a-boo holes, a basalt column that represents Black Tusk, and on the back of one hole, "Fitzsimmons' Creek" leads to the base of a tunnel lined with golden tiles to represent the legendary secret gold mine. The sides of the structure are studded with hand-made leaf and snowflake tiles that were painted at Orkidz Art Studio by kids from the community.

But not everything went according to her original vision.

"I also really wanted to try and incorporate the sense of smell and taste, but in Whistler we can't have certain plants because of the risk for bears and that type of thing," Gellis said with a laugh.

The strawberry plants, a huge bear attractant, were quickly kiboshed.

All of the installation work was done on-site in early winter, which was a real challenge given the early snowfall Whistler experienced this season. It was also a real challenge to get a good portion of the work done in time for the Olympics; there's still more work to be done. They're getting ready to install a metal rain tumbler created by a Vancouver metalwork artist before a ribbon-cutting event on ribbon cutting on Thursday, March 11 at 2:30 p.m

Gellis said it's been particularly exciting to work on this project because it's located in one of the host towns of the Paralympic Games, where children of all abilities will have a chance to check it out.




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