Alexander Lopiccolo has been modifying his environment since he was a toddler, creating obstacle courses and forts both inside and outside his family’s home in Michigan, where he grew up.
The fact that he now creates similar — though more specialized — home environments for new generations of children to explore and adventure in does not surprise him at all.
Lopiccolo, 30, is the owner of SensoryDigest.com, a company that specializes in creating home sensory gyms for children with sensory processing disorder (SPD), though he adds that anyone can benefit from the environments he creates.
“It’s like a custom designed indoor play gym for therapeutic use,” Lopiccolo said. “I think any person can benefit from these (gyms).”
Lopiccolo — who is also a certified occupational therapy assistant at Harbor Children’s Therapy in Gig Harbor — first started building home sensory gyms for clients when he was living in Denver.
IT’S LIKE A CUSTOM DESIGNED INDOOR PLAY GYM FOR THERAPEUTIC USE. I THINK ANY PERSON CAN BENEFIT FROM THESE (GYMS).
Alexander Lopiccolo, owner of SensoryDigest.com
The gyms are fully customizable and construction costs start at around $800, designed to fit around the budget of most families.
With the help of a contractor, Stan Riddle, Lopiccolo works to utilize the available space to meet the sensory needs of his clients, providing options such as swings, scooter boards, ball pits, rock walls and more — all without requiring drastic home renovations.
“I use what people have in their house and I modify their environment with sensory equipment to make it the most universally satisfying experience,” Lopiccolo said. “I never want it to be boring.”
These gyms can either be used for periods of high intensity movement — to help regulate sensory systems and prevent fidgeting during school — or for a place to relax and decompress with specially designed hideouts.
“With a lot of the gyms I do, the kids are either lethargic or hyperactive. They’re not in that middle ground,” Lopiccolo said. “A lot of the kids I see are on the verge of a meltdown.”
In addition to helping children with SPD, these gyms can help children on the autism spectrum or with ADD/ADHD learn to self-regulate by modulating their nervous systems through the different movements and uses of the equipment.
WITH A LOT OF THE GYMS I DO, THE KIDS ARE EITHER LETHARGIC OR HYPERACTIVE. THEY’RE NOT IN THAT MIDDLE GROUND. A LOT OF THE KIDS I SEE ARE ON THE VERGE OF A MELTDOWN.
Judy Pagni, a client of Lopiccolo’s, has seen the benefit a home sensory gym has had not only on her own children, but also on their friends.
“There’s been a big improvement in (them) being able to relax, sleep better at night, focus,” Pagni said. “I compare it to myself when I need to go to the gym and get a run in to get my head focused.”
Pagni and her husband had a home gym constructed for their children — Annie, 6, and Alex, 4 — to provide a healthy outlook for the natural energy and exuberance her children possess.
“I have really energetic, active kids — like their parents — and I wanted a way for them to get their activity in,” she said. “Kids need to get wiggles out.”
She added that after Lopiccolo finished the gym, her daughter was more likely to sit still and be able to focus on reading and other activities.
“I think that’s the beauty of a sensory gym; it looks like a big indoor play area, but it’s so beneficial,” Pagni said. “There’s a lot of things we can do to make (our children’s) experience at school or at home more successful.”
I THINK THAT’S THE BEAUTY OF A SENSORY GYM, IT LOOKS LIKE A BIG INDOOR PLAY AREA, BUT IT’S SO BENEFICIAL. THERE’S A LOT OF THINGS WE CAN DO TO MAKE (OUR CHILDREN’S) EXPERIENCE AT SCHOOL OR AT HOME MORE SUCCESSFUL.
Judi Pagni, client
Anyone can benefit from these kind of sensory stimulating environments and that the need for movement and “tummy time” is not limited to children, Lopiccolo said.
Along with the home sensory gyms, Lopiccolo also creates multi-sensory environments in nursing homes and assisted living facilities to help provide similar stimulation to older adults. The benefit of such environments can include a decrease in inflammation, relaxation of the nervous system and an improvement in overall mood.
“You’re bringing them back to a more positive memory,” Lopiccolo said, adding that he uses the client’s favorite music, color and wall projections to calm and decrease tension.
For those adults looking for some sensory-beneficial movements, Lopiccolo recommends activities that are commonly categorized as tumbling — somersaults, crawling and log rolling — or spending a designated time in a relaxing space to unwind. Other beneficial activities include sleeping with a weighted or heavy blanket, chewing two pieces of gum to stimulate the TMJ regulator in the jaw or to engage in an activity that puts the head parallel to the ground, a different plane of gravity than is typical for most adults.
“A child’s occupation is play,” Lopiccolo said. “I take what they do naturally and make it more powerful.”
He added that he engages in similar activities with his children — Sawyer, 3, and Sage, 1 — and has tried all the activities first himself. Lopiccolo and his wife, Brittany, moved their family to Gig Harbor less than two months ago, seeking a more family friendly and welcoming environment.
“I want to encourage movement as a way of therapy so (children) can have a better quality of life,” he said. “I see a lot of kids that have low self esteem … I try to coach them to be more confident in their abilities.”