Sometimes I just don’t want to go to soft play or the park. I know my kids love it but it’s stressful trying to watch them the whole time knowing they won’t interact the way everyone expects them to. Most places are not built with my kids in mind. My autistic 5 year old is very able in a soft play environment and has plenty of excess energy to release. However he really struggles with communication, he is non-verbal so won’t respond to another child trying to talk to him. Too often he is backed into a corner by a child that is just trying to play with him and doesn’t understand why he isn’t responding. For me it’s exhausting knowing I have to be watching every interaction and judging when I need to step in.
My eldest is a sensory seeker, he likes to roll on the floor or press himself against the wall. The only place he gets to access high quality sensory equipment is at his specialist school. However today we visited Gympanzees Easter Pop Up where there is lots of sensory fun to be had in a truly inclusive environment. My son absolutely loved it and there was no stress for me so a real win win.
What is Gympanzees?
So I first came across Gympanzees at their Summer Pop Up last year. Gympanzees is a social enterprise that plans to open the UK’s first fully inclusive leisure centre in 2021. Luckily for me the plan is for the centre to open in Bristol so right on my doorstep.
For many reasons disabled children are unable to access mainstream leisure facilities. A truly inclusive centre is a wonderful thing and I was a big fan from the day I came across their website. Check out this video showing the vision for the centre:
The Easter Pop Up
Whilst planning and fundraising is underway for the centre they are holding Pop Ups in the Easter and Summer holidays. The Easter Pop Up is being held at Kingsweston School which is a bit of a drive across Bristol for me, but it really was worth it.
Booking a session
The first flag for me that these guys really have thought about every detail was when I came to choose my session for the Pop Up. They have four different types to choose from:
- Jungle: for everyone with any ability or disability with siblings welcome
- Gorillas: for those loud and physical individuals
- Leopards: for those who like a quiet environment
- Butterflies: for more fragile individuals who need to avoid bangs and bumps.
The sessions are very reasonably priced at £7.00 for an hour and a half. You can book your slot on the Gympanzee website. The sessions are for 0-11 or 11-25 years. It is great to think my 5 year old will be able to access Gympanzees for the next 20 years!
Preparing for your visit
My son relies heavily on visual aids and we need to prepare when we visit anywhere new. The Gympanzee website really is excellent, there is so much information and I certainly had all my questions answered in the FAQ section. When we visited the Pop Up last Summer it was at a different location and I wasn’t sure if my son would even remember it.
On the website there is a ready made social story about visiting the pop up. Brilliant they have already saved me a ton of prep time. Not only do they have the social story but video walk rounds as well. So I printed out my social story and sat down with my son. He very clearly remembered it from our last visit, I think it is the soft play pirate ship that he recognised. He was straight over to his shoes ready to leave, clearly he doesn’t need much prep time for somewhere he loves.
My sat nav found the school easily, there are some roadworks nearby which held us up for about 5 minutes just before we got there. There was also plenty of parking with several spaces right next to the entrance too.
The Easter Pop Up
So we booked to come on day one and we will have another session next week, which I am now really looking forward to as we will take both boys that time and I will bring my husband along too. There are nine areas at the pop up:
- Trampoline room
- Active sensory room
- Outdoor play area
- Soft play room
- Music room
- Indoor playground
- Calm sensory room
The staff were all friendly and very happy to show you the equipment and make adjustments for anyone needs. I cannot stress how much effort has gone into making this a truly inclusive experience. Every area has a wide range of activities / equipment, I think anyone attending would find something they love.
Our Favourite bits
The outdoor playground
I think my son could have spent all day in this large playground, he couldn’t contain his excitement running round all the great things to choose from.
My son became very attached to the very impressive water wall and he really was in his element pumping out the water and watching where it went.
He was also very fond of the outdoor trampolines:
The Active Sensory Room
So we are big messy play fans and the sandpit in here was fantastic. There is a projector above the sand which brings the projected landscape to life.
The other winner in this room is the interactive projector systems. I first saw one of these at The Autism Show and thought it was amazing. I remember actually looking into how much they costs and I certainly can’t afford one! This is why Gympanzees is so great, they have all the specialist equipment that is perfect for our kids. My son had a great time splatting berries all over the floor.
Again this room gave us an opportunity to try out some sensory equipment. My son’s school had recently told me about using a hammock swing and how much my boy enjoyed it. I got to see how much he enjoys it in person thanks to Gympanzees. He also particularly enjoyed being strapped on a special board and rolled down the slide. We also had fun exploring a piece of equipment that is essentially rollers for him to squeeze between, this is the perfect kind of sensory feedback he is often looking for.
Looking forward to next week
I really recommend the Gympanzee Easter Pop Up for any young person with disabilities or additional needs. It is wonderful to go somewhere you feel truly welcome and not a burden or the odd one out.
The sessions are planned so it doesn’t get too busy and there was a good number today. We had moments when we had rooms to ourselves and only one room was busy over the whole session.
All the children I saw today were happy and enjoying themselves alongside relaxed parents. The families that I spoke to were all very impressed. I am already looking forward to our session next week.
The Easter pop up at Kingsweston School in Bristol runs from 8th – 19th April so book your slot while you still can and experience the magic of Gympanzees for yourself.