Having served as an assistant special education teacher at Seymour Middle School, Nicola Hawkins helped children with a variety of special needs and abilities.
She also has a son with a sensory processing disorder, and he has received therapy to help him overcome a lot.
She now runs a therapeutic foster care agency that includes kids with special needs.
Putting all of that experience together, Hawkins suggested to her husband, Kyle, that they open a sensory-friendly play place that could serve all ages and abilities.
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“I know he was really skeptical at first because we just kind of jumped into it,” Nicola said. “It was a huge cost for us. We have not had any donations or any sponsorships as of now. We’ve paid for everything out of pocket, so I know he was worried about that.”
Once they started a Facebook page for SENSEational Kids and shared the news about the business venture, feedback rolled in, easing Kyle’s mind.
“The feedback has been overwhelming. It blew up,” Kyle said. “Then seeing all of these people that I know that have kids that I’ve known for a while and they are going to come, I’m just excited to see who comes and how well it goes.”
On Saturday, SENSEational Kids opens its doors in Suite 202 at Shops at Seymour on the city’s far east side.
From 10 a.m. to noon that day and every Saturday moving forward, it will be a limited attendance session, where no more than 10 kids can be in the facility at once.
“That’s where physical therapists and occupational therapists can come in with their clients and just have it as a quiet time,” Nicola said. “They actually have access to all of the equipment because some other busier times on Saturdays or Sundays, it may be overwhelming for some kids.”
Then from noon to 8 p.m. Saturdays, it will be open to anyone. The cost is $12 for one child and $8 for siblings, while it’s free for children younger than 1 with a paid sibling.
The business will be open from 1 to 6 p.m. Sundays with the same pricing. Other hours are from 6 to 8 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for open gym with a cost of $7 for one child, $5 for siblings and free for those younger than 1 with a paid sibling.
It’s always free for supervising adults, and school field trips also are an option.
From her professional and personal experience working with special needs children, Nicola saw a need in the community and filled it.
Her and Kyle’s oldest child was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, which Nicola said falls somewhere on the spectrum with autism or Asperger syndrome.
“I noticed a lot of things early on,” she said. “He had some behaviors that were just kind of uncommon and some quirky little things that he would do. The sensory stuff was the biggest thing for me.”
For instance, their son would smell everything, and he couldn’t stand loud noises.
“When we go into a bathroom and wash our hands, public places have hand dryers, and you turn those things on, and he would scream and cover his ears,” Kyle said.
When Nicola began working in the special education classroom, she noticed kids diagnosed with autism had similar behaviors and tendencies as her son.
She took him to Cornerstone Autism Center, and that’s when she learned of his diagnosis.
“For me, I just wanted a diagnosis so that I could help him,” she said.
Between therapy sessions and working with teachers at school, Nicola said her son has improved and overcome a lot. Early intervention is key, she said.
“He used to have severe meltdowns and things, and they are not so bad anymore,” she said. “I attribute it all to going to occupational therapy very early on, behavioral therapy was early on, and of course, his teachers at school have been a huge help with him. We just had conferences, and he has drastically improved just since last year with all of the help that he has been given early on.”
Besides physical or occupational therapy offices and hospitals, there aren’t any local places available with equipment to help kids with special needs.
Nicola and Kyle hope their business fills that void.
The nearly 3,000-square-foot facility includes a jungle gym, a ball pit, a sensory table, sensory activities such as blocks and puzzles, a rock-climbing wall, sensory swings, a bouncy house, gymnastics mats, a sensory wall, a magnetic wall, a teeter-totter and therapy balls.
The sensory table includes plastic tools kids can use to dig through dry rice and beans.
“Kids with sensory input are just constantly looking for something to touch that’s soothing to them,” Nicola said. “The rice and beans, they (dig through them), and it’s just kind of a calming thing to them.”
The sensory and magnetic walls also give kids with sensory input things to touch and move.
Two of the sensory swings can hold up to 400 pounds.
“Kids in wheelchairs can even be in these two swings without being injured,” Nicola said.
There also is a quiet room with a crash pad, sensory chairs, a small trampoline, a tent and calming lights.
“If a lot of kids are in (the facility) at one time, it might become too overwhelming for kids, so they would come in here,” Nicola said. “A crash pad is a very popular special needs object. Just getting that input, kids just run and jump or fall into it, and it’s just kind of a calming thing for them. Kids with sensory disorders like the calm.”
Nicola said several people have stopped by to check out the progress of the facility. One day, as people from the church next door were looking inside, Nicola had a boy come in and try out the equipment.
“He just ran in, and he was so excited, and he cried when he left and said, ‘I wish I could come here every day,'” she said. “He said, ‘I’m going to start saving all of my allowance so I can come here every single week.'”
The Hawkinses hope to get that reaction out of other kids.
“The idea is it’s a very forgiving place to come and play,” Nicola said. “Kids with autism are sometimes kept at home a lot, not taken out in the community because their parents are worried about how they are going to act or if they are going to have meltdowns.
“That’s all accepted here, and it’s going to be really cool to see kids without disabilities interacting with kids that do have disabilities and just getting to normalize those types of behaviors and things that they may not see on a regular basis,” she said.
While Kyle said there will be times for kids with special needs to have the place to themselves, there will be plenty of opportunities for them to interact with other kids.
“We never want a child without any disability to look at someone with a disability and think they are different or even be afraid of them,” Nicola said. “This will just be a place to kind of give them that exposure and be together.”
Nicola said they hope to host some special events. They have partnered with Confetti, a social venue at Shops at Seymour, for an event Nov. 10. While women attend a mom’s night out event at Confetti, their children can stay at SENSEational Kids to do a variety of projects. There is a limit of 30 kids that night.
Other equipment may be added in the future, too.
“We’re kind of limited of what else we could do here,” Nicola said. “I had so many ideas, but we kind of had to pick and choose what we wanted right off the bat. We decided we would start out small, and if everything goes well, we may move into a bigger space eventually, but this is where we are for now.”
The couple are ready to see people have a good time at SENSEational Kids.
“It is a lot of work, and we’ve had people ask us, ‘Why are you putting all of this time and money into this?'” Nicola said. “A lot of times, people start a business to make money, but I just know this is a huge need in the community, and nobody else was doing it, so we just decided we would. I just hope it takes off. I hope that people take advantage of it and realize that it’s something that’s needed in our community.”
SENSEational Kids is at 357 Tanger Blvd., Suite 202, at Shops at Seymour on the city’s far east side.
For information, call 812-498-5872, email SENSEationalKids@hotmail.com, visit senseationalkids.org or search for SENSEational Kids on Facebook.