Sensory play—any activity that stimulates any one or all of a child’s five senses—is a crucial part of development. And for children who have difficulties processing all the different sensations that they receive from their senses, sensory stimulation can be even more valuable.
Enter the Watchung Reservation Sensory Trail in Mountainside. The first of its kind in Union County, the trail, located in Union County's largest park, is designed to provide sensory stimulation and interaction for all kids, with an emphasis on special needs children and their families. According to Union County park officials, it is the most extensive sensory trail in the U.S.
On a recent visit with my 5-year-old, we set out to determine if this sensory-friendly trail would stimulate all five of our senses. Read on to find out what we saw, heard, smelled, touched, and yes, maybe tasted, too.
Check out our Fall Fun Guide to find more easy trails along with other seasonal fun.
Start out at the trail's welcoming entrance.
Open since August, the Watchung Reservation Sensory Trail is located behind the Reservation's Trailside Nature and Science Center in Mountainside. Parking is plentiful in the adjacent parking lot, which puts you within a few feet of the foot of the trail. The center also provides a convenient place for bathroom breaks should you need one, like we did.
A tall wooden sign and talking kiosk welcomes visitors to the trail. My daughter spun the wheel to play a brief recorded message about the history of the Watchung Reservation and the Lenape Indians, who once occupied the Reservation.
The 0.3-mile loop winds right through the woods, with towering trees on both sides, colorful leaves overhead, and a smooth terrain that is very wheelchair- and stroller-friendly.
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Learn about the types of trees, birds, and animals inhabit the area.
Multiple signposts along the way prompted us to stop and read to learn about the types of trees, birds, and animals inhabit the area—everything from box turtles to chipmunks, butterflies, and Nuthatch birds. Guide ropes along the trail help the seeing-impaired to navigate the path, and the interpretive signage are dual-language, written in both English and Braille.
Sit or jump in the sweet acorn chairs.
We encountered an outdoor classroom with adorable acorn-shaped seats facing a long wood table. Another classroom at the other end of the trail features log-shaped benches circling a stone fire pit. These areas play host to a wide range of recreational programs and events through the Union County Office of People with Special Needs.
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Spin the giant color wheel sandwiched between a series of gears and marbles.
The gazebo at the center of the loop beckoned my daughter with the promise of play. To work out the wiggles, the sensory fun zone has a crawl-through log, mushroom steppers, and a balance beam that resembles a tree branch. A trio of drums and an extra-wide xylophone provide some terrific tunes. You can't miss the giant color wheel sandwiched between a series of gears and marbles; my daughter enjoyed touching and turning to make them move.
Three raised garden beds rest on the border of the gazebo. Just like the signs along the trail, the boxes sit low, making them equally accessible for little ones as well as the wheelchair-bound. Labeled Sight, Smell, and Touch, the inviting gardens entice with brightly colored flowers to see, fragrant herbs to sniff (and taste, if you dare!), and fuzzy purple celosia plants just waiting to be touched.
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Test your balance on the wooden beam.
A huge bonus to the sensory trail is that it's within eye-shot of the Reservation's popular Loop Playground. So once our senses were fully stimulated, we took a short walk across the field to the playground. There’s a large big-kid area, as well as a smaller spot better suited for younger kids, so it’s a good option if you’re visiting with kids of varying ages. The playground structure includes rocks for climbing, slides of varying heights, plenty of swings, and connecting tunnels that can be crawled through or slid down. Picnic tables are located right outside the playground, providing a nice area to enjoy a snack or meal, as well as some shade on hot days.
Plan to spend about 45 minutes to an hour navigating the sensory trail from start to finish. Combine it with a visit to the Trailside Nature & Science Center and the playground, and you could easily make a day trip of it.
The trail is open seven days a week from dawn to dusk.
Photos by the author